Of all dangers to a Nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account. —Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871
Special Collections’ bicentennial birthday exhibition, “Encompassing Mulitudes: The Song of Walt Whitman,” will come down after July 27, so there is still time to come to the main gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library and feast your eyes on the great poet’s printed and handwritten words. Time also to feast your ears on some contemporary American voices from the multitudes Whitman set out to encompass with verse that sounds a good deal more like speech.
At the center of the exhibition, behind displays of Whitman writings, is a series of video clips from a continuing project, Whitman, Alabama, by filmmaker, journalist, and artist Jennifer Chang Crandall, in which she asks people from all walks of life in Alabama to read verses from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” for the camera. Essentially, Crandall is taking Whitman’s poetry to the common people as the poet himself intended, to those he called “roughs” and identified with, and wrote so eloquently about.
Crandall, who was born in Ethiopia to a white father from Colorado and a Chinese mother, and who was raised in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Haiti, has often deflected the question “Where are you from?” by answering “Washington, D.C.” or “I’m not really from anywhere.” Now she believes a better answer is “I’m a little bit from a lot of places.” At age 16 she was drawn to Whitman’s poetry; and at 37 she concluded that pairing “lives lived today in a Southern state with old 19th century text written by a Yankee seemed like a great way to get at ideas of connection and American identity.”
When asked in an interview if someone without her experience of mediating between cultures could have made this project, Crandall replied, “Walt Whitman did!” … in ‘Song of Myself’ he produced a highly empathetic work and he was a white dude from New York. He had something that compelled him to connect or understand that no matter how we see ourselves, we are inextricably linked to others.”
Before the exhibition closes in July, please come to the main gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library and find your own connection with Whitman and America’s still emerging identity. Look beyond the printed and written words for the voice behind the writing, and realize that Whitman’s song, like any other song, is not meant to be silently read, but to be heard and heeded.