150 Years After "Leaves of Grass"
A Look at Whitman and the African Diaspora
By Kim Roberts
Special to SeeingBlack.com
Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass 150 years ago, an event that would forever change the course of American letters. African American poets Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Calvin Forbes, Michael Harper, Yusef Komunyakaa and June Jordan all cite Whitman as an influence.
Langston Hughes was particularly fervent about Whitman; he took Leaves of Grass with him when he traveled in the early 1920s to Africa, and edited a collection of Whitman's work in 1946. Hughes praised how Whitman's "...all embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs and free men, beaming democracy to all."
Whitman could not always live up to his high ideals, however. He believed strongly in the abolition of slavery, and wrote numerous newspaper articles that argued against the spread of slavery to the new western territories of the United States. But Whitman could not bring himself to join the Abolitionist movement. More significantly, he struggled with the idea of the extension of full equality and the right to vote for African Americans once slavery ended. Although his views were more radical than most white Americans of his time, the limits of his morality on civil rights issues ultimately dissapoint.
But Langston Hughes tried to put Whitman's limits in perspective. Hughes wrote, "Whitman sometimes contradicted his ideals--just as Thomas Jefferson did by owning slaves yet writing about their liberty--it is the best of him that we choose to keep and cherish, not his worst." Hughes did not expect the writers he most admired to have "always been great men and women in their every day thoughts, speech, or ways of living. But they have left, at their flaming best, a great light for others, burning even brighter perhaps from the embers of their own personal failing."
One of Whitman's greatest poetic innovations was the incorporation of high and low modes of discourse. He used the high vocabulary of oratory and religion alongside slang and the language of the streets. In this way, the speech patterns of the African diaspora were incorporated into and strengthened American poetry. Whitman wrote in the Preface to Leaves of Grass that American expression "is brawny enough and limber and full enough." He continued, "It is the powerful language of resistance...it is the dialect of common sense. It is the speech of the proud and melancholy races and of all who aspire."
Is Whitman just another white man appropriating the language and experience and vibrancy of African American culture? Perhaps. That argument has certainly been made about the poems in which he envisioned himself a slave, and wrote from the slave's point of view. But we know from his notebooks that Whitman had a political agenda in doing so: he intended his poems to promote a radical egalitarianism, valuing all human life equally, with poems about slaves, women, prostitutes, and working class people intermixed with more traditional (and accepted) poetic subjects of his time. He wanted his poems to work to erase boundaries among people. This is part of Whitman's expansive and optimistic persona, and part of his legacy.
Seven excerpts from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:
"What is the grass?...
...I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same."
"The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next to me at table...my firelock leaned in the corner."
"The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses....the block swags underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the huge dray of the stoneyard...steady and tall he stands poised on one leg on the stringpiece,
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hipband,
His glance is calm and commanding....he tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and moustache....falls on the black of his polish'd and perfect limbs.
I behold the picturesque giant and love him...and I do not stop there,
I go with the team also."
I am of old and young, of the foolish a much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations--the smallest the same and the largest the same...
...Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia....a wandering savage,
A farmer, mechanic, or artist....a gentleman, sailor, lover or quaker,
A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest."
"Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars..."
"The hounded slave that flags in the race and leans by the fence, blowing and covered with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck,
The murderous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.
I am the hounded slave....I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me....crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence....my gore dribs thinned with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses and haul close,
They taunt my dizzy ears....they beat me violently over the head with their whip-stocks."
"A slave at auction!...
...Gentlemen look on this curious creature,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for him,
For him the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For him the revolving cycles truly and steadily rolled.
In that head the allbaffling brain,
In it and below it the making of the attribute of heroes...
...Within there runs his blood....the same old blood...the same red running blood;
There swells and jets his heart....There all passions and desires...all reachings and aspirations:
Do you think they are not there because they are not expressed in parlors and lecture-rooms?"
Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, which this year has sponsored a Walt Whitman Festival in the Washington, DC area. She is the author of a book of poetry, The Wishbone Galaxy, the author of four plays and a contributor to numerous anthologies.
— June 1, 2005
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