Please begin by reading selections from the 1855 and 1892 versions of "Song of Myself," where Whitman depicted several African Americans. Some critics have read these passages as admirable moments of democratic sympathy. Martin Klammer, for instance, has argued that "Leaves of Grass portrays African Americans as equal partners with whites in a democratic future and as beautiful and dignified people." Others disagree. Stephen Black finds Whitman's sympathetic literary gestures undercut by "that the rolling-eyed, gawky stereotype he transmits."

One way to engage the question of the politics of Whitman's representations of enslaved, fugitive, and free African Americans is to compare the passages from "Song of Myself" to contemporaneous depictions of African Americans: