In a June 2 response to mass protests across the country calling for social justice, Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, posted on Facebook an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, part of which I quote here:
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown.”
Whitman’s preface is fine advice for living authentically and purposefully, but like all his work, it also advances a powerful democratic manifesto calling for radical and reciprocal comity among people and communities. We need to hear that message now, and act upon it. As individuals and institutions, we have been too comfortable with injustice, specifically with the sacrifice of the marginalized and vulnerable people in our society at the hands of power. The unrest in our streets occasioned by the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and untold others reminds us to find that sacrifice appalling and unacceptable. I feel ashamed that I need that reminder, but I do.
Some years ago, Joy Harjo accepted my invitation to speak at the university where I then taught. Through a scheduling mishap, the event ended up being held in a somewhat decrepit basement auditorium on the edge of campus. As she spoke, I noticed that Harjo increasingly seemed uncomfortable as she looked around the room. Her words became halting, and after a few minutes she abruptly stopped, excused herself, and left the stage. Concerned of course, I asked her later what had happened, and she told me that the auditorium, with its harsh florescent lights, restroom green walls, and high, barred windows had suddenly brought back the traumatizing memory of the many years she had spent in “away school,” the prison-like government boarding schools where Indian children were separated from their families, denied their culture and language, and forced to assimilate to a false American sameness that really offered them no home. It is not fully a coincidence that a university space had mimicked a site of oppression, I am sad to say.
You see, Harjo knew that seven years after the publication of Leaves of Grass, with the nation set on fire by civil war, Walt Whitman had worked as a volunteer nurse in a Union military hospital in Washington D.C., caring for the wounded in what we now know was a tragically incomplete struggle to establish freedom and equality. Today, we must listen for the truth in the stories of the wounded, the abused, the murdered. The callous voice of negligence and hostility blaring from the bullhorns of power tries to drown out these stories, but we must still listen. These are not just stories that describe abstractions—justice, equality, diversity–they are the stories of lives.
I sometimes call the liberal arts “an experience and an environment.” Today the righteous protests in our streets are part of that environment. So is the memory of that dingy university auditorium. So is Whitman’s hospital ward. The fact is that we must heal ourselves as a whole people, and here, I think, is how we do that.
Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar of race and society, author of the 2017 Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, offers us a valuable and disruptive way to understand racism in America. According to Kendi, progressive Americans have been taught to believe that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas that then lead to racist policies and institutions. Kendi argues that it is the other way around. He maintains that selfishness and self-interest drive racist policies and that racist ideologies grow to justify those policies. Kendi tells us that to take on racism in a meaningful way, we must identify the public policies that create and maintain inequalities. We need to find the inequitable corruption and inadvertency in six areas of public policy, Kendi says–criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment, and politics.
This is the work of the liberal arts. We know how to do it, and we have no excuse for not doing it. In the weeks and months ahead, the College of Liberal Arts will sponsor or co-sponsor a number of events addressing today’s intermingled challenges associated with social justice and the pandemic. Please join us.
We welcome your thoughts and/or comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.