From Whitman To Walmart
for Timothy McNair
and for The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
The first time I heard a white gay man say Nigger I never felt safe again. I was naïve believing that white gay men were uniformly against racism and misogyny. I was a poor, white working class gay teen in the 1980s wanting to escape rural American racism and homophobia by looking for shelter in Philadelphia’s gay and lesbian community. The shame of being gay that people wanted me to feel back where I grew up was nothing compared to the shame I felt when discovering gay racists. “Queer,” I said when people asked if I was gay because queer was being reclaimed at the time by ACT UP. Queer denotes radical and uncompromising politics opposed to all forms of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and classism, honoring the many people who have had their heads SPLIT OPEN defending this word while making space for everyone. I learned early from other queers that the best road to liberation is to liberate everyone along with us at once. LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND we would say as Audre Lorde reminded us, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Just when I was learning to confront the fictions we find ourselves walking inside, someone showed me Walt Whitman’s prose where he referred to newly freed slaves as baboons who should not be allowed to vote. He also believed much as Hitler did through his odious translations of Darwin that people of color were inferior and that their genes would be selected to vanish from the planet. Even when close to the end of his life Whitman said to his biographer Horace Traubel, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not.” I continue to question if Whitman was using his poems to hide his true self or if his poems represented the person he wanted to be? The Walt Whitman who confessed his ill-conceived if not deliberate misunderstandings of science to Traubel seemed breathtakingly different from the author of “I Sing the Body Electric” where he writes, “O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women….” His fear and hatred of people of color used science to mask the genocide he accepted and endorsed.
Meanwhile Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” was in plain view as one of the most racist documents against Native Americans ever written. It starts with asking the pioneers to “get your weapons ready; / Have you your pistols? have you your sharp edged axes?” Published in 1865, a year after the Sand Creek massacre where the Colorado Territory Militia annihilated Cheyenne and Arapahoe villagers, killing mostly women and children and in many cases mutilating their bodies. The campaign for western expansion was an extermination program, and Whitman was all for this ethnic cleansing, extolling the virtues of white gun owners killing and plundering their way to the Pacific. “Colorado men are we, / From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus….” He was not merely an apologist for empire; he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for it. Imagine an American poet of 2015 writing romantic verse about the carnage and suffering our military has recently brought to the millions of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Iraq. I say, “recently brought” but mean actually to say “continue to bring.” Continue to bring to people of color is the point as the shockwaves of the original premise of America’s Manifest Destiny continue to pulse across the globe, take, take, take, and kill everyone standing in our way. In 2015 the United States and the European Union have sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine is terrible, inexcusable, but no one brings sanctions against the United States for invading Arab nations because unlike Ukraine, their peoples are not white enough to care about. The racist double standard is so blatant it is almost impossible to see, like Whitman’s anti-Native poem rhapsodizing the killing fields of the American West.
This short essay is dedicated to Timothy McNair, a brave young man who took a stand a couple of years ago against Whitman at Northwestern University. McNair was in a chorale class studying voice. They were to perform Whitman’s poems but when McNair refused to sing the music on the grounds that Whitman was a self-documented racist he was given an F for the class. He was told to sing or fail. Even when he objected in the dean’s office he was told to sing or never return to class. An attack against Whitman is too much for many white liberals to bear. I know first-hand as it was horrifying and difficult for me being a queer kid who felt safe and at home in Gay Grandpa’s poems. “Song of Myself,” “Song of the Open Road,” and of course “Calamus” which comes the closest to reveling and revealing an openly gay sensuality and love, these were important if not urgent markers to me as a youngster and I believed that with his poems I could find the strength to be okay with who I was in the world when aunts and uncles told me I was going to burn in Hell for eternity.
Soon after my Whitman awakening I saw a large poster of him in the library. I got close to it to study his eyes, looking to see where I had gotten lost in my younger illusions of this man who was once my hero. Like others, I had cozy warm naps in his beard as if there is actually a place in American history we can all turn to together and feel okay about our nation. Like, “HEY, but there was this one moment!” Then I woke to the stench of shit and bad breath and looked into his eyes and said, “I see you much clearer now old man, and you are just like the other white supremacists where I grew up. Fuck your poems!” It was like a library I loved had burned down and I poked around the charred wreckage but soon realized I was going to be just fine without it.
Currently I am working on a long poem titled “From Whitman To Walmart,” a poem that started on Whitman’s doorstep in Camden, New Jersey. Camden is one of the most abandoned American cities, abandoned by both state and federal governments with staggering poverty and unemployment statistics. At the edge of the city Whitman’s house stands well maintained and funded by the offices of the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, complete with a fresh coat of paint, tour guides and a rack of nostalgic postcards for sale. Across the street is a high-rise county prison and you can often see from Whitman’s front door young African American mothers with children standing on the sidewalk near barbed wire fences using homemade sign language to speak to the men behind the narrow prison windows. Dark-skinned men who are hidden deep inside the penal system like they were hidden in creepy Uncle Walt’s poems more than a century earlier.
Since I began this long poem the reactions have been varied. I was asked once, “Don’t you think the fact that Whitman was a poet was radical in itself?” I said, “No.” Someone else said, “Calling Whitman a racist is just a form of name-calling.” I said, “You mean like Whitman calling African Americans monkeys?” Then another person said, “Things are much different now, you can’t compare the times!” I said, “Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow if you are serious about knowing some of the truth.” Another person said I was distancing myself from the present by focusing on Whitman. I responded that he is currently one of the most taught poets in the United States public education system. Poets in the mainstream as well as in the avant-garde champion his poems, and he is regarded as a forerunner to what we call modern poetry. If there is even one library in the nation without a copy of Leaves of Grass on the shelf it is probably because someone has it checked out. The fact that his egregious racist prose is so upsetting is because he is anything but obscure in America today. The lies we call his poems continue to tickle and warm unaware hearts. He is required reading and as we found out he is also required singing at Northwestern University. You will swallow every drop Uncle Walt has put into your mouth OR ELSE! His poems are NOT magical to me any longer. He is the underside of the rock that America has so beautifully constructed to fool the world. The structures his poems create for us to wander and dream inside are Potempkin. And in case you are wondering, ALL of the people who have so far protested this new poem I am writing, yes, are white.
The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.
--Michelle Alexander, from The New Jim Crow
Since starting “From Whitman To Walmart” I have driven across the United States more than once working on it, challenging myself to find the ways Manifest Destiny continues to claw open the veins of our planet and harm our fellow citizens. At night I sleep in my car in Walmart parking lots. When I was a young child in 1970 my mother and I lived in a car for a time. I keep asking myself if it was easier then or now and my conclusion is that it’s a little of both for both. In 1970 my job was to take care of the can opener, which was a valuable tool back then but not so much for my life today. Restrooms are much nicer today of course. In 1970 gas station bathrooms had a kind of abrasive, toxic powdered soap that came out of a dispenser and I remember needing a lot of water to remove the oily film it left on my skin. There were far less cars in 1970 and my mother likes to point out that it was much easier to shoplift back then.
Walmart is the perfect example of the true results of Manifest Destiny with well over 4,000 locations nationwide and as many as 142,000 items on shelves for purchase. A little more than a century ago the last of the Native people were being forced onto reservations while small towns were growing by rail tracks and soon along highways. Walmart stores in the past couple decades have ravaged small town economies, the big capitalists destroying the small capitalists. I hope by now we have all heard about the conditions of low pay and long work hours for Walmart employees without the protection of unions. But there are even worse working conditions for the many people making Walmart products in Mexico and China. When you sleep in their parking lots across America you will meet homeless people, and sometimes you will meet homeless families with children piled into cars too small as though the burden of homelessness is not enough. WE NEED DIAPERS a sign advertised in one car window in Montana. We need to help one another and it is not always easy to imagine how we can do it.
When I recently gave a performance with Dawn Lundy Martin in Michigan, students were asking me about writing this poem and Dawn said she would not feel comfortable sleeping in Walmart parking lots as a woman of color. It feels like just the very beginning of other invaluable conversations about race and America today. Instead of reading Leaves of Grass consider reading the poems in Life In A Box Is A Pretty Life. It is by far a much better book for our lives!
When hearing me talk about writing this poem some people say they want to try sleeping in Walmart parking lots because hotels are too expensive.
SOME OF MY TIPS FOR SLEEPING AT WALMART:
80% of Walmarts allow parking to sleep, but make sure you are parking in one of the 80% that allows this.
Just ask at the customer service desk inside.
Always sleep in the driver’s seat no matter how much more comfortable the back seat looks and feels.
Always have the windows all the way up no matter how hot it is.
Always have keys in the ignition READY to go.
Please ALWAYS park so that you have a straight shot out of there, and please do not EVER park so that you need to back out to leave.
I made the mistake of parking at a Walmart among the 20% that does not allow parking to sleep and I woke to find a group of men (I don’t know if it was five or six of them) around my car looking in the window at me at 3 in the morning.
The one at my driver’s side window called out, “IT’S A DUDE NOT A CHICK!”
“A FAGGOT?” someone yelled-asked.
One of them either had a baseball bat or a 2X4.
But in just a second I pulled myself forward with the steering wheel, turned the ignition and floored the gas to get out of there, ADRENALINE COARSING THROUGH ME!
In my rearview mirror I could see they were running to their cars to pursue me but I headed to the highway and kept driving for many miles long after the sun came up, grateful to be alive.
Close calls are part of living on the road and should be expected.
Please consider my advice because you never know…
Also it is important to have conversations with the other people parking to sleep because most tend to want to talk, especially the homeless.
The retired folks parking their campers and RVs seem less interested in talking, but the homeless, especially the homeless families want to talk because they share information with one another about how to survive out there.
My sincere wishes for us still inside the nightmare of empire.
Don’t take any shit,
Poet CAConrad grew up in Pennsylvania, where he helped to support his single mother during his difficult youth. Influenced by Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Alice Notley, and Emily Dickinson, he writes poems in which stark images of sex, violence, and defiance build a bridge between fable and confession. In a 2010...