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Pondering Whitman’s Spiritual Democracy and the contradiction in his attitudes toward race

Toward being a more effective anti-racist ally

One afternoon in spring, I found myself transported on one of those delicious, if not addictive “cyber wends”—a Google search run wonderfully amok.

Spiritual Democracy is where I landed, captivated by one bold statement:

“Spiritual Democracy puts the idea of democracy back where it belongs, as a shining example of the human spirit at work in the evolution of human culture and social architecture.”

Our tumultuous times scream out for some kind of lifeline for sanity of society, its systems, we its people. Bring it on! Bring on Spiritual Democracy!

Among the early American visionaries who spoke of the need for a “spiritual synthesis”, harkening back to our nation’s forefathers idea of unity, e pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one’, was Walt Whitman. Most interesting, is that the supreme authority for the Constitution’s framers is not the Bible, or any other religious volume, but the God of Nature as the author of our individuality. James Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution fought courageously to prohibit the emergence of a “national religion” by insisting on the “full and legal rights of conscience,” which he believed should not be infringed upon by any judicial or governing body.

Spiritual Democracy is the simple recognition of God in each person’s nature—a truly democratic notion. As we all come from nature, we are all carriers of divinity. Whitman’s belief was that Spiritual Democracy is the science of a God that must by necessity begin and end with nature—and this means our inner nature as well as our outer nature. Whitman’s brilliantly inquisitive mind was able to treat the creeds or various schools of religion all as manifestations of God. It is said that in response to the question: What religion is the most universal? Whitman answered: all are equal. In his famous poem, “Song of Myself”, Whitman expressed this concept succinctly: In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass.

What Walt Whitman envisioned through Spiritual Democracy was nothing less than political, economic and religious equality for all, a raising of collective and individual unitary consciousness… “a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shinning eternal. This is the thought of identity—yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me.” Democratic Vistas, Whitman.

Walt Whitman’s edited and re-edited opus, Leaves of Grass brilliantly encompasses all the aspects of life, casting a wide net enfolding gender, sexuality, race. He choose a new style of poetry writing that few people had seen before, a poetry that doesn’t rhyme, isn’t comprised of short or fix metered lines. A bold open vehicle to expound on the nature of the spirituality of global democracy— to speak a truth beyond the times, the era in which Whitman wrote:

Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come!

Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,

But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater that before known,

Arouse! For you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,

I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look            

And then averts his face,

Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.

The liberal, visionary, Whitman was amazingly effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry. While his poetry pointed towards his hopes for America’s democratic future, Whitman the journalist, was a most conservative public figure, bogged down by the racist stereotypes of his contemporary society. Whitman was a descendent of a slave-owning family, and had, since childhood, been conditioned to look upon blacks as an inferior and subordinate race… There is evidence to suggest his inherently bigoted perspective on race, would linger in his ideas until the end. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is a mirror reflection of both the poet and the public persona amalgamated into one long verse, which declare:

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.

Interestingly, I found myself taken aback when confronted with this apparent duality, contradiction in Whitman. Pondering the paradox, led into a prayerful discernment about my authenticity regarding others of different color or creed. What really are my prejudices? Where are my ‘growing edges’?

Inserted into this personal introspection was news of a local tragic event, still unresolved: the violent maiming of two young men of color, shot by an Olympia police officer.

In response to this particular violent action, the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation invited “people of good will (especially white folk)” to participate in a workshop, facilitated by Sammy Harvell, the intention being that individuals can learn to become better anti-racist allies.

I listened deeply, and left the workshop with additional wisdom voices to learn from as well: Tim Wise, You Tube—“White Like Me” and “White Privilege”; and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Also, Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation’s August 2015 program is entitled “Racial Justice Insights for White Folks,” and is available on their website

I find a beautiful similarity in the poetic vision of Walt Whitman and the crisp, clarity of Lila Watson’s wisdom:

If you have come here to help me, then you’re wasting your time…. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

I am grateful for the willingness to open to new learning, deeper understanding of my historical ‘whiteness’, constructive ways to engage in being a more effective anti-racist ally, and a rich appreciation for the God of nature within each of us.

Selena Kilmoyer is a member of the Interfaith Works Board.


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