Poetry News

Northwestern Student Protests Whitman

By Harriet Staff


The Chicago Reader posted a piece about a Northwestern music student's protest to performing a Walt Whitman poem:

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.

According to the article, McNair seems more well-versed in some of Whitman's prose than many professors:

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.

Unfortunately, McNair failed the course but started a much-needed conversation:

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."

And McNair doesn't seem unable to see all sides:

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."

Read the full article here.

Originally Published: October 15th, 2013