Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why Didn't This Stuff Happen Before Finals?

First, A Northwestern University student is refusing to perform a song based on works of Walt Whitman because Whitman was a racist. The choral work does not contain evidence of Whitman's racism.

Whitman was a racist; he was also gay. Oh by the way, he was the best American poet of the 19th Century, and he cared for wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

It would have interesting to ask the young'uns if we should not read "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," "O My Captain!, My Captain!," or "I Hear America Singing" because Whitman was racist or gay or both. It would also have been fun to extend the conversation to ask them if people should not buy Ford products because Henry Ford was an anti-Semite.

This Francis Beckworth sentiment matches mine on this issue:

You do yourself no good by not seeing the greatness even in people who have held disreputable ideas. To look at Walt Whitman and just see a racist is precisely what makes racism wrong: you don’t see the entire person–in all his complexities, virtues, and foibles–you just see the race. By doing this, you artificially flatten the person, and thus you literally lie to yourself, for you intentionally deny the truth that a great man can have within him both grandeur and vice. If you want to be better than Whitman, rid yourself of the habits of mind that in him resulted in the beliefs that you now find offensive. The ability to separate the wheat from the chaff is a sign of intellectual maturity. Thus, discarding the wheat because you can’t bear the chaff does not punish Mr. Whitman; it punishes you.
This post was published before finals, but I missed it until today. It also ties to my belief that literature is essential. From this Jag Bhalla Scientific American post:
It is in our nature to need stories. They are our earliest sciences, a kind of people-physics. Their logic is how we naturally think. They configure our biology, and how we feel, in ways long essential for our survival. . . .
Any story we tell of our species, any science of human nature, that leaves out much of what and how we feel is false. Nature shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot. We are adapted to physiologically interact with stories. They are a key way in which our ruly culture configures our nature.


David Newquist said...

The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses, the

block swags underneath on its tied-over chain,

The negro that drives the long dray of the stone-yard,

steady and tall he stands pois’d on one leg on the


His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and

loosens over his hip-band,

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 mustache, falls on the

black of his polish’d and perfect limbs. (Whitman 74)

To dismiss Whitman as a racist, one needs to measure passages such as this one against some of his political journalism, which reflects the racial attitudes of the time. Whitman, like Jefferson, struggled with contending attitudes within himself. But the irony is that he inspired many black poets, was a motive force in the Harlem Renaissance in the way he inspired black artists to assert their own culture and creativity. He tussled with the contending ideas of his time, but his art never reflected any tendency toward repression and exclusion. Quite the opposite, there are many passages, such as the one above, which transcend human prejudices and call for full equality,

Kal Lis said...

I agree that that Whitman's views were complicated, and that he was a product of his era.

I read this article and one other before I wrote the post.

I think the conversation with students would have been useful. They love situations to fit into neat boxes. Whitman obviously does not.

If nothing else, Whitman serves as a reminder that all humans have blind spots. His love of democracy and his embrace of egalitarianism doesn't square with his attitudes about race which, as you say, were products of his time.