An Addendum to “Let’s Get Some Things Clear”

A little over six months ago I wrote a post about Whitman and his exposure to slavery and how it affected his writing. I ran across some new information about Whitman that I thought was pertinent to that discussion:

The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.

The problem in this is not so much that Whitman thinks races as we know them will disappear (although his language is harsh), but that he places value judgments on the races. The idea that some races are minor is scary.

Let’s Get Some Things Clear: Whitman, Slavery, and White Privilege

I observed a HS English class today. The students were learning about Walt Whitman and were using a biography from poets.com. It had this passage in it:

It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

Let’s get something straight: Whitman could not experience “first hand” slavery. Because he was not a slave. He may have “seen” it or known slaves. But he could not experience it.

Now this may just be poor writing and bad wording. But we don’t question this kind of thinking. If I go live in a low-income neighborhood, no one will question me if I say I “experienced” poverty first hand. That’s part of my privilege. Likewise, no one questions the fact that the wonderful poet Whitman had first had experience with slavery. Because he was white and well-off.

Not all of the literature we teach in schools has to be about race. But let’s not make Leaves of Grass into a treatise for racial equality. It wasn’t.

Langston Huges says it best when he responds to Whitman’s “I hear America singing”:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.