Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Walt Whitman, black Brooklyn, Wounded Knee and me

May 28, 2019 Ron Howell
Walt Whitman, Brooklyn's most famous poet. Overlay: AP Photo Background: AP Photo/Tony Camerano

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth on May 31, Brooklynites should be proud of the attention his poetry drew to their home borough. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” he paid poetic tribute to the working Brooklynites of his era and those to come “a hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence,” traveling to their workplaces and then their homes, feeding families and dreaming American dreams.

Whitman seemed to possess a love for the humanistic determination that, for many, defined Brooklyn.

His attitudes toward another defining element of Brooklyn — the multitudes of people of color and immigrants — need more scrutiny if we’re to be honest about the poet’s legacy.

To assess what Whitman means to Brooklyn today, one has to be aware that Brooklyn, even from its post-native beginnings, has been defined by its blackness, its African roots — first via slaves, and then through the free men and women from around the nation and the Western Hemisphere.

What does the literary icon Walt Whitman mean to them? That’s an apt question, because to know where we are, we must know where we have been.

[Ed. note: This piece contains a quote from Whitman that includes racial slurs. We have left the quote unedited and uncensored, as its contents are suggestive of Whitman’s viewpoints.] 

Walt Whitman and the newspapers he worked for — most notably, the original Brooklyn Daily Eagle — were staunch Democrats. In those days, that meant that they wanted to forge alliances with the slaveholders of the American South. They were not friends of black people.

Give Whitman credit where it’s due. In some of his writing, he denounced the ugliness of the slave trade. He was even fired as editor of the Eagle for his support of the Wilmot Proviso, which would ban slavery in territories acquired during the Mexican-American War.

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Whitman also seemed to show the impulses of a missionary. He traveled to Washington, D.C., during the Civil War to give drenching days and nights to the nursing of wounded soldiers. (Note: It was equally important to him to soothe not just the Union soldiers, but the pro-slavery Confederate ones who wound up in the hospital tents.)

Still, Whitman did not show a passion for fair treatment of black Americans in the run-up to the Civil War, despite his post-mortem image as a fighter for American justice.

Back in Brooklyn, Walt Whitman did not trust Henry Ward Beecher, the fiercely abolitionist white minister who was militant in his opposition to slavery — so militant that “Beecher’s Bibles” became synonymous with the weapons used in fighting slaveholders.

Whitman and many of the city’s newspapers were suspicious of New York abolitionists; the wariness was widespread. Downtown Brooklyn was a center of the Underground Railroad, those secret routes that white anti-slavery activists used to help black people escaping slavery in the years before the Civil War.

The truth of the matter is that Whitman was a brilliant writer — but also a man of his times. He was also an example of how awkward it can be for a writer steeped in the common politics of his day to take meaningful public positions on key issues of the day.

There’s an interesting section in “Leaves of Grass” in which Whitman writes that “a runaway slave came to my house.” He saw the man as “limpsy and weak” and wrote that the man stayed “with me a week before he was recuperated” and continued traveling north to the freedom that hopefully awaited.

Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. It’s poetry. Plus, Whitman was a complicated man. The biographer who interviewed him in the years just before Whitman’s death indicated Whitman was pessimistic about the ability of blacks to survive in post-slavery America. “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not,” Whitman is quoted by Horace Traubel as saying.

I tell you this: I’d be inclined to take on Whitman as a departed hero if I were a gay activist. Whitman was open about his attraction to other men, and a former colleague of mine, Gary Schmidgall, wrote a book about Whitman’s boldness regarding his sexuality, “Walt Whitman: A Gay Life”.

For me, the most meaningful connection I feel with Whitman is in our shared experiences of Brooklyn.

I often tell people that the most profound fact of my life is that I was born in Brooklyn. My mother was also, in 1925, as was her mother, in 1901, and my father, in 1923; and that my great grandparents immigrated here from the Caribbean in the late 1890s, living in the very Downtown neighborhood that Whitman had called home.

Whitman was born in the town of Huntington on Long Island, and the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn when Walt was a child. His carpenter father, Walter, built and sold wooden homes in an environment being remarkably transformed, as immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe flowed in. If Whitman’s above-quoted disparaging remarks about black people make some uncomfortable, so might his many references to the new Irish residents as foul-mouthed drunkards.

But as the writer Noel Ignatiev has noted, the Irish eventually became white, with all the benefits implied. The Italians and Jews of Eastern Europe, likewise maligned and marginalized ethnic groups, also became white under American jurisprudence.

And so there’s something unique about the crisis of blacks in Brooklyn and the United States.

I, for one, would like to have seen insights into that crisis in a relationship between Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass. The two men, poetically, lived their lives over the same span of time (1819-1892, Whitman, and 1818-1895, Douglass). What’s more, Douglass, an escaped slave who lived in Rochester, New York, and Washington, D.C., spent considerable time in Brooklyn.

But sadly Whitman seems to have had little interaction with Douglass other than to have seen him at anti-slavery events Whitman attended as a journalist.

In my reflections on the life of Whitman, I was touched most sincerely as I walked the streets of the neighborhood of Brooklyn where the author once lived.

Related: Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn home is still not a landmark

I stared for a long stint at the wood frame house at 99 Ryerson St. where he lived 160 years ago. Blacks are still dominant on the block, mostly as renters. I spoke with a number of them, and they all expressed intense concerns that blacks would soon be forced from the area, as victims of rising rents and property values.

In this counter-intuitive sense, I want to keep Whitman around for a long time; maybe forever. I spent my early childhood in the Fort Greene public houses, now called the Whitman Houses. Near there is the Whitman Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Several blocks west is the Whitman Park.

Yes, things change. This is what America is; and, as a fine book by Ralph Foster Weld told us 70 years ago, at the time of my birth, “Brooklyn is America”. The ferries that inspired Whitman in his epic poem lost out over the decades – to the eponymous Brooklyn Bridge and to subway cars. We concede that cities live in cycles.

But preservation is a good thing, especially when its opposite is the ugly over-building and outsize power wielded by greedy developers and politicians who take their money. It’s about standing up for what’s right, about preserving beauty and the concomitant presence of blacks in Brooklyn. That will take a commitment to fighting for economic and racial justice.

A reckoning will come. Blacks in America will show that they do not disappear, as Whitman said the Native Americans did. Throughout his life as a writer and public speaker, Frederick Douglass said this also, that the Native Americans have been pushed from the face of America, finally massacred by U.S. soldiers at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, two years before Whitman’s death.

I believe we have much to learn from the American Natives. They fiercely stood their ground many times. Brooklyn will always be a black borough, but it will take resistance and fighting. And there’s a chance Whitman’s spirit is agreeing with what I write. Time is fluid. It shifts and recedes and advances, like the East River of old. No, Walt, blacks will not vanish from this American earth.

Walt Whitman was a beautiful writer, I acknowledge, but fighting for racial and economic justice was not a legacy he left. That is up to those who know they must fight.

And, as for me, when the final moment comes, just take my remaining parts and bury them at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Ron Howell is the author of “Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker” (Fordham University Press, 2018). Ron is an Associate Professor in the Journalism Program of the English Department at Brooklyn College.

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