Presenting the Individual, Dynamic Black Body
Introduction: Black Humanism and the Black Body Through the Lense of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman is one of America’s most prolific writers. His writings helped build and fortify the foundations of the American humanist, transcendentalist, and realist writing traditions. The focus of my project will be on Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass, in which Whitman celebrates individualism and appreciates the aesthetics of the individual body. A common thread that runs through these writings, and many of his writings not included in this collection, is creating the definition of the American spirit. In an effort to go about this task, Walt Whitman confronted issues of race during and after the Civil War quite frequently in his writings.
The presence of Black bodies and Blackness in Walt Whitman’s writings is interesting to put in conjunction with the very American values he writes about, specifically individualism and humanism, because often Whitman deprives the Black characters of their individuality.
Furthermore, in section 51 of Songs of Myself, Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes)”. A significant part of the philosophy of individualism and humanism is recognizing and celebrating the dynamic nature of a person. Whitman fails to give the Black individual dynamicity, furthermore he presents the body as a spectacle for a static, political purpose.
I will begin my research by looking into the Walt Whitman archives to see the edits he’s made to conversations about Blackness in his writings. I will also look into materials from Walt Whitman’s time as a news writer and editor. Whitman served as the editor for The New Orleans Crescent when he lived in New Orleans. During his time as the editor, he saw the condition of slavery in the deep American South. After his time as the editor for The New Orleans Crescent, Whitman returned back to New York and founded the free soil publication, Brooklyn Freedom. I aim to integrate these writings of Whitman and portions of Song of Myself, I sing the Body Electric, with Robin Coste Lewis’ Inhabitants and Visitors, a writing about the the free Blacks who created the community around the Walden pond that Henry David Thoreau writes about in Walden. I also hope to include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to speak to the erasure of Black individuality.
Goals and Methodologies
I will present my project through film because so much of Walt Whitman’s writings are about celebrating the physical. My film will be an art house style film that reimagines Whitman’s work as one that celebrates individuality and dynamicity. I aim to re-humanizes the Black bodies in Whitman’s work as objects that are more than mere spectacle.
Whitman uses the word “electric” several times in his writings so I plan to incorporate the energy that Whitman portrays through this word in the same way in this film. If possible, I would also love to integrate visual themes from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, as I believe this film speaks greatly to the topic of Black individuality and coming into the Black body.
Belasco, S. & Price, K. M. & Folsom, E. & Belasco, S. & Price, K. M. & Folsom, E..Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Project MUSE,
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York :Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Peeples, Ken, Jr. “The Paradox of the ‘Good Gray Poet’ (Walt Whitman on Slavery and the Black Man).” Phylon 35 (1974): 22-32.
Price, Kenneth. “Whitman’s Solutions to ‘The Problem of the Blacks.'” Resources for American Literary Study 15 (1985): 205-208.
Sill, Geoffrey. “Whitman on ‘The Black Question’: A New Manuscript.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 8 (1990): 69-75.
Wilson, I..Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. Project MUSE,