Whitman and America to Come: Reconceptualizing a Multiracial Democracy
My research into the ten years Whitman lived in Washington, DC (1863-1873) led to my argument in Whitman in Washington: Becoming the National Poet in the Federal City that his experience with the federal government – its bureaucracy, its hospitals, its soldiers, its efforts to realize the proposition that all men are created equal – transformed him. His identity as an American poet was of course formed while living in Brooklyn and writing. Blades of grass (1855), but what often seemed to many to be a loss of his early political and poetic radicalism after the war is best understood as his own effort to reconceptualize a multiracial democracy. Its failures and successes parallel those of the federal government and the Union itself.
As an example, consider his “Ethiopia Saluting Colors,” a poem first published in 1871 and slightly revised a decade later to take its final form:
WHO are you dark woman, so old barely human,
With your woolly white head and your turban, and your bare bony feet?
Why go up to the side of the road here, do you salute the colors?
(It’s while our army borders the sands and pines of Carolina,
From the door of your slum you come to me in Ethiopia,
As under the valiant Sherman, I walk towards the sea.)
Me master a hundred years ago since my parents separated,
A little child, they caught me like the wild beast is caught,
Then here, across the sea, the cruel slaveholder brought me.
She said no more, but lingering all day,
She shakes her well-born turban head, and rolls her darkling
And courtesies to the regiments, to the scrolling handlebars.
What is the fateful woman, so gloomy, barely human?
Why nod your head with a tied, yellow, red, and green turban?
Are things so strange and wonderful that you are seeing or have seen?
Like most of Whitman’s poetic reflections on the Civil War, it is remarkable that it does not directly address slavery, emancipation or civil rights, or even the sacrifices of black soldiers that Whitman attended to in hospitals in Washington. He in no way expresses the poet’s sympathy for fugitives or slaves in any way, as he had done in 1855.
However, Whitman speaks in the poem as a black woman, a device reminiscent of her very powerful 1855 claim to represent the silenced:
Through me many long silent voices,
Voices of endless generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and deformed people,
Voices of the sick and desperate, of thieves and dwarves,
Voices of preparation and accretion cycles,
And threads that connect the stars – and matrices, and fatherly matter,
And of their rights the others are cut down,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of manure.
Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of the sexes and lusts. . . . veiled voices, and I remove the veil,
Indecent voices by me clarified and transfigured.
To do this, he uses the black dialect, which white writers often used as a comic or satirical device. Indeed, one of the standard tropes of the war was the old slave woman often caricatured in a headscarf, who watches from the porch of a large plantation in the south the march of the Union troops, their arrival promising her, she also, a new mobility. Whitman’s imagination of the interaction between an African American woman and Sherman’s army was almost certainly shaped by such portrayals in the popular press.
But his poem is both less politically programmatic and less racist than Harper’s Weekly cartoons. The White Soldier bluntly states what most European Americans believed: Africans, like the elderly woman he observes, were “hardly human.” But the woman herself contradicts this, and could even be described as more than human. That is to say, she has a venerable antiquity, not only in her appearance, but in her poetic diction (internal rhymes, heroic chiasmic comparison, inversions like “barely human”). Ethiopia was considered the ancient cradle of African civilization, and that woman is Ethiopia. She therefore survived despite the savagery of the Middle Passage, still proudly wearing the colors of her African past. If her slum sounds pejorative to modern ears, to Whitman’s peers he speaks of poverty of course, but also of a sort of peasant independence – she’s not a worker on someone else’s plantation. , but has its own place.
Locating this place on the sands of Carolina directly points to the question mark hanging over Ethiopia’s future. General Sherman’s famous campaign order of January 16, 1865 granted African Americans “possession rights” to a coastal strip stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to northern Florida. At the time Whitman wrote, he knew that the promise of land (land confiscated from fleeing whites) had been rescinded, and his Ethiopia saluted the “colors” of the Sherman’s army knowing full well that his way forward would be on. quicksand. As she gazes at the handlebars – a medieval-flavored word for a military company’s pennants – the question of whether and how its colors, loyalties, weapons, will advance with them, if they will share the same road, is left uncertain. She has no doubt seen the strange and the marvelous; Will fate allow the United States, too, to be wonderfully transfigured, to undergo a radical change?
Whitman’s work as a clerk in the Home Office and later in the Attorney General’s office exposed him to the rise of paramilitary groups. He wrote down at least thirty letters dealing with the Ku Klux Klan when he was clerk copying letters in the latter’s office. He saw both the federal government’s efforts to expand American citizenship in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and its failure to rebuild society on non-segregated and uneven ground. His correspondence even suggests that he actually accepted this result; in his 1871 prose book, Democratic vistas, he failed to refute Thomas Carlyle’s cynical claim that the United States was doomed to try to create a multiracial rather than ethnically homogeneous nation. But deliberately, in his poetry, inserting “Ethiopia” in Blades of grass in 1871 and since then Whitman kept alive the idea that on the sands of Carolina, within the American republic, the colors of all nations could salute each other proudly and courteously. Perhaps this is why Langston Hughes called this poem “one of the finest poems in our language concerning a Negro subject”. If Whitman’s self-proclaimed claim to be the poet of democracy has any merit, it lies in his ability to evoke more optimistic perspectives, or as Hughes nostalgically put it,
Oh, let America be America again—
The land that has never been yet—
And yet must be the land where all man is free.
Featured Image: Portret van de dichter Walt Whitman. Via Wikimedia Commons