Post from Chair Janet Dhillon - June 2019
In 1844, when the United States was still a new project in progress, essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson publicly called for America to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country's virtues and vices, intellect and instincts.
That clarion call was heard by a young Long Islander named Walt Whitman, who had already been thinking along the same lines. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering," he wrote. "Emerson brought me to a boil."
Whitman, who was born 200 years ago, simmered and boiled and cooked up the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems that were honest, human - and very, very American.
Some of them made it clear that, besides being ingenious, Walt was also gay. He didn't make that his central focus, but he didn't keep himself or his poems in any closets either. Contemporary critics - especially those in strait-laced Boston and the rest of New England - criticized him for his supposed immorality, and pressured his publisher to censor subsequent editions, which turned out to be numerous and lifelong.
Whitman refused. His publisher gave in to the pressure and released him. The poet found another publisher and kept going.
Walt added to Leaves of Grass all his life, enriching his youthful exuberance with more seasoning of pain, perspective, war and peace, mortality and immortality. Whitman was also a fierce, uncompromising voice for equality and justice. Just a few examples:
"Of Equality-As if it harm'd me, giving others the
same chances and rights as myself-As if it
were not indispensable to my own rights that
others possess the same;
Of Justice-As if Justice could be anything but the
same ample law, expounded by natural judges
and saviors." -Thoughts.
"These States are the amplest poem,
Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations …
Here the flowing trains-here the crowds, equality, diversity, the Soul loves."
-Poem of Many In One.
I would like to believe that, were he writing today, Whitman would not be released by his publisher because of his sexual orientation. We have learned that there's nothing contradictory or paradoxical about being great and gay. After all, Walt wrote the most American set of poems there ever was; held his head high against his critics; defied censorship and kept on writing. Walt Whitman inspired millions of hearts forever - including my father's; he was one of my dad's favorites.
What's more American than all that?
June is LGBT Pride Month as well as Whitman's bicentennial, and both occasions are fitting opportunities to remember, with pride, the EEOC's role in defending everyone's rights to be treated fairly at work, no matter who they are - as long as "who they are" is a qualified worker who can do the job right.