Whoever Degrades Another Degrades Me

Thomas Eakins, "Portrait of Walt Whitman"

Thomas Eakins, “Portrait of Walt Whitman”

I’ve been rereading “Song of Myself” in preparation for teaching our 18th-19th century English Language Literature survey (it will be my first time teaching Whitman) and have been struck by how relevant it is to many of our current issues, such as those dealing with immigration, GLBT rights, and the vulnerability of young black men. The poem was radical for its time and still packs a punch today.

Above all, “Song of Myself” is a powerful celebration of otherness and a strong argument for American diversity. As he writes in his 1855 introduction to Leaves of Grass,

The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. . . Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes. . .

I had President Obama’s Friday musings on race rolling around in my head as I read the poem and so was jolted by the following passage. It was written at a time when the draconian Dred Scott law for returning slaves to their masters was in effect. Note how Whitman imagines not only welcoming the runaway slave but ministering to him. Also note how, unlike George Zimmerman, he doesn’t pick up his gun but rather leaves it leaning in the corner:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,

I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy
and weak,

And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured

And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and
bruis’d feet,

And gave him a room that enter’d from my own, and gave
him some coarse clean clothes,

And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,

And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and

He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and
pass’d north,

I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.

When Obama said that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he was voicing the kind of identification that is central to “Song of Myself.” Here, for instance, is Whitman identifying with “the hounded slave” who has been shot:

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,

The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on,

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence,
 blowing, cover’d with sweat,

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the
 murderous buckshot and the bullets,

All these I feel or am. 

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the
 ooze of my skin,

I fall on the weeds and stones,

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,

Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself
 become the wounded person,

My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

In his poem, Whitman expresses a sentiment that captures how all of us, white as well as black, are impacted by the Martin case:

Whoever degrades another degrades me….and whatever is done or said returns at last to me,
And whatever I do or say I also return.

Whitman tells us he will accept nothing less than a democracy where all are treated equally:

I speak the password primeval….I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

Whitman’s inclusiveness is such that there is a place for Zimmerman in it as well as Trayvon, killer as well as victim. Whitman does not approve of the oppressor, but he sees a part of himself even in him. As he famously puts it,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. . . . I contradict myself;
I am large. . . . I contain multitudes.

The president, in his remarks, challenged us to move beyond our narrow limits and imagine life as experienced by young black men. If we can do so, we become part of the great American tradition that Whitman sings. America when it is being big, not small.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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