Every Atom | No. 128


Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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What guidance was that, I wonder now? When I was a young queer poet growing up in a hostile, homophobic Christian community in rural Pennsylvania, it was in part Whitman who gave me strength and courage to keep living, despite the daily persecutions at school. When I ran away to Philadelphia, new friends introduced me to Whitman's prose in which he espoused white blood and white genes as being superior. It was shocking to someone who had found comfort and power to keep living in his poems, to discover that the real man was somewhere else inside his writing.


My essay for the Poetry Foundation, From Whitman To Walmart (2015), angered some people, but as discussed in David S. Reynolds's Walt Whitman in America (1995), Whitman wrote that newly freed slaves could not be trusted to vote in presidential elections because they had "as much intellect and caliber (in the mass) as so many baboons." In Horace Traubel's biography, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906), Whitman explained his take on Darwin's theory of evolution: "The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not." Whitman believed in the superiority of the white race and the authority of such a race to parent over other, darker-skinned races of people.


Many people wrote to me wanting to discuss how surprised they were to find this out about Whitman's beliefs, considering how off the rails they are from his hopeful expressions of humanity in poems like "Song of Myself." Others wrote hateful letters to my publisher and me, saying that I am a disgrace to poetry and should not be published. These people shared a common, dismissive idea that I did not understand the late 19th-century American mindset. My question to them was that, if we take this to mean the majority of people share an opinion, then we must allow Whitman the benefit of the doubt? If that is so, then how about the fact that Whitman's beliefs in the superiority of white bodies and white genes are shared only a handful of decades after his death, when Nazi Germany constructed the death camps in Poland to ensure the elimination of "inferior" races? Adolf Hitler was voted into office by way of an anti-Semitic campaign promise to be fulfilled. Who would excuse the Holocaust because of an early 20th-century mindset?


What other poet was a better advertisement for Manifest Destiny than Walt Whitman? His famous poem "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" (1865) valorized the genocide of Native Americans and the white expansion to California, deeming both necessary for American ideas of "progress" in the way of export and trade. "Colorado men are we, / From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus...." He writes and publishes this poem after the Sand Creek massacre where the Colorado Territory Militia annihilated Cheyenne and Arapahoe villagers, killing mostly women and children, mutilating their bodies. As he writes, "get your weapons ready; / Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?" Beyond my youthful readings, Whitman represents the most horrible violence, and war upon the land and the original people of America, and the enslaved people kidnapped from Africa brought to be tortured and to work for free, this is what I think about on the 200th birthday of the poet.


CAConrad received a 2019 Creative Capital grant and has also received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, as well as The Believer Book Award and The Gil Ott Book Award. The author of 9 books of poetry and essays, their While Standing in Line for Death (Wave Books) won the 2018 Lambda Book Award. They teach at Columbia University in NYC and Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam and is online at http://bit.ly/88CAConrad


Cover art by Reece Thompson


Photo by Eve Ariza