THE WHITMAN THING
Afaa Michael Weaver
June 8, 2010
Memorial Day on www.democracynow. org was celebrated with the posting of a video of a speech Noam Chomsky gave several weeks earlier on the subject of the need to revitalize radical reform energies in this country, and he made a comment that crystalized a few things I often toss around. For the last few years I have been working on a scholarly article about cultural intersections in the blues poetry of Marilyn Chin, and so I have been focusing on the latter nineteenth century, a fascinating and important time in American history. Chomsky said the deliberate criminalization of African Americans at that time was central to the rise in the American industrial revolution.
Leaves of Grass appeared in its first edition in 1855, and ninety-nine years later, the Supreme Court issued the Brown decision, the most far-reaching and effective civil rights legislation in a history of the same going back into the nineteenth century. Slavery was the law when Whitman self-published the first edition of his classic, and when he passed away in 1892, it was just four years before the Supreme Court decision supporting racial segregation in Plessy vs. Ferguson, approaching the close of a century of outrageously violent and systematic assaults on the lives of African Americans.
This time in American history that produced the works of Whitman and Emily Dickinson, whose works I deeply admire and appreciate, was not a time when black Americans had the freedom and resources to broadly pursue lives as poets. Frances Harper wrote and Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote his way into the twentieth century, but with plantation poetry, which was not his choice.
It is the mid-twentieth century, the time of the 1950's and 60's Civil Rights Movement that breaks open the literary gates and creates the space for a broad production of works by African American poets. In his introduction to the Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, Arnold Rampersad wrote:
"Despite the popularity of black novelists, as the new century (21st) began black American poetry had perhaps a broader base than ever before, and a more settled sense of achievement."
It is as if there is a space, both chronological and psychic, between the histories of African American and American poetry that is approximately one hundred years long, noting now the distance in the times in which Ann Bradstreet and Phyllis Wheatley lived and wrote, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Langston Hughes. There is no simple comparison to be made, but there is a need, I think, to look critically at a paradigm of literary production that may very well be related to the paradigm and paradox of the history of enslaved Africans in the world's great democracy. I think the need for this critical view is supported by such things as the disparity in wealth between blacks and whites that has deepened despite the Civil Rights Movement, a fact made very real by such things as the lack of access to inherited wealth among black Americans.
The accomplishments of poets like Whitman and Dickinson with respect to American culture were not possible for African Americans until the 1950's Civil Rights Movement, which is roughly one hundred years after Whitman began his career as a journalist, fiction writer, and poet and when he and Dickinson set the foundation of modern American poetry, mostly for mainstream America.
The paradigm and paradox of America's history of slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and other complex realities is of critical importance in looking at the history of African American poetry. Whites and blacks both live with and apart from one another, bound and separated by the denial of black humanity, and I believe that denial also defines the larger whole. This mechanism of denial and definition extends to the indigenous peoples who lived here when Europeans arrived and later brought Africans as slaves as well as those who came later, both white and non-white.
The genuine character of America's democracy depends on black people asserting their claims to fuller realization of humanity, and I maintain that the deeper establishment of American poetry is fulfilled only as African American poetry is given the space to be. That emergence extends to the other so-called marginalized communities of poets.
Whitman and Dickinson began a process that continues. They held open the doors for hopefulness that Hughes stepped into as an Emersonian visionary of things to come. Though sympathetic perhaps to what blacks endured, Whitman and Dickinson had no way of knowing the angst of black people issuing from the all too real threats to their lives that they had to endure in a time in America when the blues were born.
Justin Kaplan opens his biography of Whitman with a look at the end of the poet's life. He bought his first house in 1884, just eight years before he passed away. It was on Mickle Street, a short walk from my office at Rutgers University in Camden, and in the days when I served on the board of the Walt Whitman Association, I looked around inside the house there and thought how quaint it was, although I could only imagine him sitting in a chair poking around in the huge piles of papers with his walking cane, unmindful of the rough floors in the log cabin of my great grandparents, who were sharecroppers, a lifestyle they bequeathed to my father's father and to my father.
In developing as a young poet, my love went first to the black poets I knew and whom I knew could have known me and from there to the rest of the world of poetry, in a manner that follows my sense of how the community of my birth and upbringing is the vessel I use in order that I might come to know all communities. I believe each of these communities and worlds of ours has its own complex and singular interior, which we would do well to respect. From there we can approach a deeper and more genuine compassion.
In closing, I hold out hope that the deepening of the genuine character of democracy will follow the brave accomplishments of African American poets, most of whom write without the luxury of wealth-based privilege. however relative that wealth may be.