"I, too, sing America," writes the twentieth-century African American poet Langston Hughes in his well known poem "I, Too." And he concludes the poem: "I, too, am America." Clearly, Hughes in "I, Too" is responding to Whitman’s presentation of himself in "Song of Myself" and many other poems as the incarnation of "America." Can a white man of the 19th-century represent all of America? Arguably, it is a mark of Whitman’s poetical genius that he can seem to subsume all of America into Leaves of Grass, that he can claim such representativeness. In fact, in "Song of Myself" he not only declares his sympathy for the fugitive slave, he also claims to be the fugitive slave: "I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs" (stanza 33). Is Whitman being presumptuous here in proclaiming himself the slave? Has he merely appropriated the slave, or should we take his declaration of slave identity as a magisterial act of sympathy and empathy? (For fuller backgrounds and considerations of this issue, see the related site Whitman and Slavery). By implicitly reminding readers of the material facts of Whitman’s whiteness and Hughes’ blackness, Hughes' "I, Too" seems to suggest that Hughes resents Whitman’s claims of representativeness.
But there is another way of thinking about Hughes' response to Whitman in "I, Too." Rather than harboring a specific anger at Whitman, whose poetry in fact had a major influence on Hughes’ own poetry, the poem can be read as expressing an anger at the ways in which the canonization of a Whitmanian tradition of the "American" poet risks leaving African American poets and perspectives out of the larger tapestry of American literature. But let us imagine that well before Hughes began writing his poems of America, that right around the time Whitman wrote the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), there was also an African American writer working on his own epic presentation of America and American poetry. What might such a poetic volume look like? What sorts of challenges would the existence of such a volume pose to our "consensus" thinking about what it means to be a poet of America? To our thinking about American poetic traditions? How might "America" be presented in such a volume? What sort of poetical persona would such a poet adopt? What sorts of poetical tropes and practices?
These are of course hypothetical questions with an infinitude of hypothetical answers. But the surprising fact is that there was such a volume of poems published just two years before Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass: James Monroe Whitfield’s America and Other Poems (1853), which includes the long, "epic" poem "America." Authored by a relatively poor and unknown African American barber and political activist, the volume has been out of print since its initial publication in 1853. This site presents the first annotated edition of Whitfield’s neglected poetic volume, and thus, in the spirit of Hughes' "I, Too," allows us to reconsider the American poetical epic from an African American perspective and thus to look at Whitman’s achievement (and possible blindnesses) with a fresh critical eye.
Because Whitfield is relatively obscure, the large goal of this site is to make available materials relevant to a consideration of Whitfield’s artistic achievement. Users of this site will find a biographical overview of Whitfield, samplings from the relatively few critical responses to his poetry (along with a bibliography), and background materials that allow for a fuller contextualization of Whitfield’s poetry in relation to his emerging commitment to black emigrationism. But in the spirit of Hughes’ "I, Too," the site, by its placement within a larger teaching site on Whitman, encourages a comparative reading of Whitfield’s America and Whitman’s Leaves, with the hope that such comparative reading will bring new insights into both Whitfield’s and Whitman’s efforts to "sing" America.
My thanks to Geoffrey Schramm for his invaluable assistance in setting up this site initially, and to Lara Vetter for the site redesign. Please send your questions, comments, and suggestions to Robert S. Levine. The image of the map appearing on the front page of this website is taken from Henry Mayer's All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).