For Whitman, the Civil War was fought for the vital goal to preserve the Union, and, while the first three editions of Leaves of Grass portrayed slaves sympathetically and showed empathetic concern for African Americans, he in fact had little to say about emancipated slaves or the Emancipation Proclamation itself. His one recorded comment on the Emancipation Proclamation is a manuscript note that appears to be the beginning of an intended newspaper piece; in it, he notes “the phlegmatic coolness all through Washington, under the new emancipation document,” and he hears “little allusion made to it in the public places of the city.” Whitman is complicit in this cool silence: the issues of slavery and emancipation never enter his Civil War poems, Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, nor are they mentioned in his Memoranda During the War. The Civil War was a vital, defining event for Whitman, but there is little evidence in his writing during or after the war that he considered race or slavery a key element in the war’s importance. We saw in our examination of “Reconciliation” that race and slavery may have a kind of hidden presence in the poem, but it was only after the war that he decided to amend Drum-Taps by adding a poem that specifically addresses the issue of race and slavery.
“Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” has always been a puzzling poem to confront. Often read as betraying Whitman’s racism, the poem has nonetheless been revered by many African American writers over the past century. Langston Hughes called it “the greatest poem in our language concerning a Negro subject,” and the great African American composer H. T. Burleigh set it to music; it was often sung at Harlem Renaissance gatherings. It has always seemed that African American writers and critics see and hear something in the poem that most white readers do not.
It is another poem that Whitman writes based on his notes of what soldiers told him. Whitman writes this poem from the perspective of a white Union soldier who is marching with General Sherman across Georgia and into the Carolinas in 1864, a march that resulted in the liberation of many slaves, who often—to the irritation of the Northern army—tried to latch onto the soldiers for protection and guidance. In Whitman’s poem, a hundred-plus-year-old slave woman, dismissively named “Ethiopia” by the soldier-narrator, comes out of her hovel and salutes the American flag, to the consternation of the white soldier, who wonders who this “dusky woman, so ancient hardly human” is, and why she should care about the American colors. The old slave woman, who was torn from her parents in Africa by slavers a century before and has experienced the brutal middle passage, has witnessed the American Revolution, the founding of the country, and its development as a slave republic, is now experiencing something she could not have imagined: white soldiers liberating her and her people. The white soldier/narrator, however, can’t see it from her perspective and can only ask, dismissively, “Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?” But, of course, the things she has seen are indeed strange and marvelous, none more so than what she is seeing at that moment, when the nation’s flag, for the first time, seems suddenly to symbolize something positive and is even beginning to include this ancient and “fateful” woman. (At the end of the Civil War, when abolitionists came to Charleston harbor to raise the Union flag over Fort Sumter, a ship in the harbor was filled with celebrating African Americans—many with their children along. They heard a white officer say, as the flag was raised, “Now for the first time it is the black man’s as well as the white man’s flag.”)
The old slave woman is given voice in this poem, but only briefly. And what is perhaps most striking about her words is that she literally cannot speak an “I”: her voice is all object instead of subject—“Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d”—and her self is defined by its being acted upon rather than acting. Her grammar—restricted to a passive voice—echoes a long lifetime that has been out of her control. In this poem, as she approaches the soldier, she is perhaps taking her first step into active identity, after a lifetime of being sundered, caught, brought, and bought. Ethiopia now looks to the confused soldier-narrator as the next person to guide her out of her object-hood and into her selfhood.
On election night in 2008, Barak Obama stood before 250,000 people in Chicago’s Grant Park and spoke to the nation of its history and how its citizens were now experiencing the nation do something, respond to something, that they could barely begin to register. Obama evoked a hundred-plus-year-old black woman to guide us through the moment. This woman was 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper who cast her ballot that day in Atlanta. It’s one of “many stories that will be told for generations” about this election, Obama said, and it’s the “one that’s on my mind tonight”: “She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” Obama then took us through our history, from the “time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed,” to the “despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land,” to the bombs falling “on our harbor and tyranny threatening the world,” to “the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We Shall Overcome,’” to a man touching down on the moon, a wall coming down in Berlin, to a moment when Ann Nixon Cooper “touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.” It was during that catalog of the past century’s history that Obama began to intone his campaign chant, but somberly now and with quiet conviction: “Yes we can.”
He ended his amazing address by saying, just as the old slave woman of “Ethiopia” had indicated, “America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.” Another 100-plus-year-old black woman had looked at what America had become and was, like Whitman’s slave woman a hundred and fifty years earlier, shaking her head at what she had seen. Many white Americans, like the befuddled Union soldier in Whitman’s poem, were wondering what was so “strange and marvelous” about what Ann Nixon Cooper had seen. But Obama helped the nation see what those Harlem Renaissance writers had found in Whitman’s poem, how they had felt that “fateful” ancient slave woman’s wonderment at what the American flag could come to mean, had felt how its shape-shifting symbolism actually could change, had felt how far the nation had come, and, because of that, of how far it might still go.
WHO are you, dusky woman, so ancient, hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?
Why, rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?
(’Tis while our army lines Carolina’s sand and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door, thou, Ethiopia, com’st to me,
As, under doughty Sherman, I march toward the sea.)
Me, master, years a hundred, since from my parents sunder’d,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught;
Then hither me, across the sea, the cruel slaver brought.
No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban’d head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,
And curtseys to the regiments, the guidons moving by.
What is it, fateful woman—so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head, with turban bound—yellow, red and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous, you see or have seen?
Not long after the events of 9/11, on a panel discussion about the challenges facing policy-makers in the war on terror, a security expert lamented the inability of her colleagues in the intelligence community to foresee what havoc men armed only with box-cutters might wreak. This represented in her view a failure of imagination, the analysts having proved themselves unable or unwilling to synthesize various strands of information collected about Al Qaeda and imagine the unimaginable. A useful list of credible threats must include the most outlandish plots—which prompted me to suggest that it might be wise to call on writers adept at the art of connecting disparate images and ideas, people and places. They think outside the box, dreaming up storylines, creating characters whose motives must be discerned. Insofar as they find points of correspondence in incidents that may be far removed from their experience they provide ways of understanding what may otherwise be incomprehensible. An encounter with a work of art can provide insights unavailable to logical thought processes. How else shall we prepare ourselves for the surprises that define our lives?
The old slave woman in Whitman’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” was surely surprised to find herself freed near the end of a long life spent in chains, literal and figurative. She speaks only three lines, at the center of the poem, and yet her words haunt us still: “Me, master, years a hundred, since from my parents sunder’d,/ A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught; /Then thither me, across the sea, the cruel slaver brought.” Note how the blues-like internal rhymes in the first line—hundred/ sunder’d—are balanced by perfect end rhymes in the two lines that close the stanza—caught/ brought. Whitman’s virtue in this poem is to reproduce a snatch of music from the slave songs that gave rise to the blues and jazz: the signal American contribution to music.
Left unsung in this poem is the trail of destruction blazed by troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman—houses, and barns, and cities burned to the ground during his 1864 march to the sea, undertaken not only to defeat the Confederate forces but to demoralize the citizens backing the insurrection. The Union soldier narrating this poem marvels at what the “fateful woman” curtseying to the passing regiments must have seen in her life, including, perhaps, the destruction of Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, in February 1865. On April 26, 1865, twelve days after Lincoln’s assassination, nearly 90,000 men from the Army of the South surrendered to Sherman at a farmhouse near Durham, North Carolina, bringing the war to an end. Now the difficult task of reconciliation between those divided by geography, culture, politics, class, and race would begin, helped or hurt by writers connecting the dots, for good or ill.
“Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” is in part a study in the failure of empathy, the failure of the Union soldier to understand the implications of his own actions for an old freed slave woman whom he thinks of as only “half-human.” Think of how many times in your own life you have failed to make the effort to empathize, to understand how your own actions might be conceived of by someone much older than you or much different from you in terms of class, race, gender. Explore one of those moments, and write about how things might have been different if you had seen the incident through the eyes of the other.
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