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Was Walt Whitman racist? 

Northwestern voice student Timothy McNair took a stand in protest—and failed a class.

Timothy McNair - AMANDA AREIAS
  • Timothy McNair
  • Amanda Areias

Last spring quarter, Northwestern University music student Timothy McNair, a master's candidate in voice, had a problem with an assignment in Professor Donald Nally's chorale class. Among the pieces the class was required to learn and perform in concert was "Song of Democracy," which sets 19th-century poetry by Walt Whitman to mid-20th-century music by Howard Hanson.

McNair, who's a bass, a scholarship student at Northwestern's Bienen School of Music, and an African-American, isn't fond of Whitman. In the course of researching him as an undergrad, he'd learned that the poet so widely admired as the soul of democracy was also a racist.

What?

The author of the great, pioneering, humanitarian, free-verse epic Song of Myself? Ecstatic lover of every man, woman, and creature that ever lived? Besotted with every single thing—animate or not—in creation? That guy?

Yes, McNair says. Whitman considered blacks to be less evolved than whites, opposed voting rights for them, and didn't think they'd survive as a race to have a future in the great American democracy.

He points to passages in Whitman's essays such as this one: "As if we had not strained the voting and digestive caliber of American Democracy to the utmost for the last fifty years with the millions of ignorant foreigners, we have now infused a powerful percentage of blacks, with about as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons."

"When we got the assignment," McNair says, "I went to my apartment and had a conversation with myself. And I said, I cannot not acknowledge that I have a problem with this piece about democracy, when we have written evidence that Walt Whitman's idea of democracy included the Negro being eliminated. I decided, OK, I'm going to discuss this situation, and say why this is offensive."

In an e-mail sent with a copy to music school dean Toni-Marie Montgomery, McNair told Nally, "I refuse to perform this piece under any circumstances. Walt Whitman was a self-documented racist who is known for having called freed Blacks 'baboons' and his writings that saw them as a threat to White Democracy. As such, the idea of a song of democracy with his poem as the foundation is a contradiction."

Nally replied that he could either sing the song or stop coming to class and fail the course.

That didn't sound good to McNair, who had only a single B on a transcript that was otherwise all A's. He says he showed up for the next class, but was pulled out immediately for a meeting in the dean's office, where he reiterated his objections and was shown the door. He didn't try to return to the class after that.

Instead he contacted George Mitchell, head of the Evanston branch of the NAACP, who wrote letters to NU president Morton Schapiro and to Montgomery (who's black), asking that the situation be resolved. McNair still got an F for the course.

Is he right about Whitman? Was the randy egalitarian, who "look'd for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands," a racist?

According to Whitman expert (and onetime NU prof) David S. Reynolds—now City University of New York distinguished professor and author of the cultural biography Walt Whitman's America—the answer is "yes, but."

"Whitman was a racist, but so was virtually every other white person then alive in America," Reynolds says. "Lincoln often said racist things, and yet he was the Great Emancipator."

"It was very difficult, if you lived back then, not to participate in the general racism of that era," Reynolds adds. "For his era, in his poetry, Whitman's progressive. After the Civil War and late in life, mostly privately, you encounter a certain amount of racism."

So "I can understand the student's perspective," Reynolds says. "At the same time I think the student should be aware that among white poets of his era, Whitman's the one who comes the closest to affirming human equality. His poetry creates this ideal space where people of all religions and all races and all nationalities respect each other."

Northwestern University professor Jay Grossman puts it this way: "Was Walt Whitman a racist? Absolutely. Was every single person in the 19th century a racist, compared with what we try to be in the 21st century? Absolutely. But what's interesting about Whitman, in his poetry, he's working incredibly hard to establish African-American humanity, at a time when that is the rare position.

"In the first couple editions of Leaves of Grass, there is a progressive, even radical, political edge. He's writing a kind of poetry that few people had seen before, a poetry that doesn't rhyme, isn't short lines, isn't fixed meter, is about topics you can't believe he's writing about. He's casting a wide net. Gender, sexuality, and race are all part of that."

What comes to mind for Grossman are the blood-brother lines from the slave-mart section of Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric": "Within there runs blood / The same old blood! the same red-running blood!"

Nally says he can't comment, and NU spokesman Alan Cubbage says the law prevents the university from "public discussion of disciplinary actions in regard to individual students." However, he adds, "the university's expectation of all students is that they complete work assigned by their professors."

From McNair's perspective, the point is this: "We know about Richard Wagner and his anti-Semitism. That's a well-known, documented situation. I find it disrespectful that the same consideration is not given to my people, who, in this country, are the most oppressed."

McNair now says he'd be "OK with performing [the Whitman song], if we have an honest discussion about the relevance. But [without that] I'm not going to sing these songs about America, knowing that his idea of a democracy did not include people like me."

He's back on campus for the concluding year of his master's program, and is appealing the failing grade.

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