This site invites users to consider Whitman's treatment of race and slavery in "Song of Myself" and focuses in particular on two fugitive slave passages. Whitman was more enthusiastic about supporting the freedom of enslaved African Americans before the war than he was about granting full citizenship to liberated African Americans after the war. Yet even in a poem such as "Song of Myself," published as the first untitled poem in Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman's attitudes reflect the deep-seated prejudices of his culture despite his powerful if uneven efforts to rise above them.
An early reviewer of Leaves of Grass likened Whitman to Shakespeare's Caliban, the half-human slave of Prospero, son of the witch Sycorax and a devil and symbol of base and lustful urges. Whitman invited the criticism, as it were, through his repeated identifications of himself with the downcast and downtrodden, with savages, with runaway slaves. The speaker put his own humanity in question-as numerous reviewers seriously believed-by identifying with those commonly understood to be, at best, on the bottom rung of the ladder of humanity.
Significantly, he first broke into the free verse in lines that seek to bind opposed categories, to link black and white, to join master and slave:
The audacity of that final line remains striking. While others were striving to understand the position of abolitionists or slaveholders, Whitman's extreme political despair led him to replace what he saw now as the "scum" of American politics and its widespread corruption in the 1850s with his own persona, a shaman, a culture-healer, the gargantuan "I" of Leaves of Grass. What becomes critical is that others understand this "I."
Of course not everyone has admired this "I," and some have in fact deeply resented the poet for arrogance, for sympathy gone haywire, for an attempt to speak through or for another in a way becomes an appropriation of another's identity. (See Robert Levine's discussion of this point in his introduction to a site on the African American poet James M. Whitfield.) A full study of Whitman's complex response to African Americans would need to take into account the subtle modulations of his poetic voice and his wide-ranging commentary in journalism, correspondence, private manuscript jottings, recorded conversation, and much more. Yet there is no more important place to begin that broader inquiry than "Song of Myself," his signature poem.
This site offers several texts so that students can compare Whitman's imaginative account of a runaway slave to contemporary accounts by other authors, including several African American fugitives themselves. Critical positions samples the broad ranging and intense debate over Whitman's depiction of African Americans. Teaching approaches is meant to provide entry ways into class discussions. The bibliography offers citations for the works discussed and provides avenues for further research.