Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is a powerful elegy for Abraham Lincoln—a personal remembrance that also serves as a national memorial, uniting a deeply divided nation in a communal song of praise and mourning. As much as I love this poem, however, I am troubled by it. In sections 5 & 6, Whitman pans out to give us a vast panorama of the U.S., describing the land, cities, lanes, woods, fields, orchards, and streets through which Lincoln’s coffin passed. In Section 5, he catalogs the features of the natural world (grass, wheat, and apple trees), and in Section 6, he depicts the human landscape:
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads
Why doesn’t Whitman include any African American laborers the fertile fields of section 5, or mention any African American faces or “unbared [brown] heads” in lines of mourning in section 6? Of course, you can argue (and probably will) that Whitman’s depiction of nature includes no people, that he is attempting to create a vision of natural bounty, in which nature’s plenty can nourish and replenish the war-torn land. And you can argue (and probably will) that his portrayal of the American people is not race specific because he wants to project an image of national unity, in which “the thousand voices rising strong and solemn” sing together in unison. I won’t disagree with you on these points, yet I still think the absence of explicit racial signifiers is remarkable in a poem dedicated to the president who had just put an end to slavery. This absence is especially striking, given the symbolic presence of the “great cloud darkening the land.” There is darkness haunting the poem, and it is a darkness worth scrutinizing.
Toni Morrison’s essay “Black Matters” helps explain how the repressed presence of African Americans returns in the form of a dark cloud that haunts the poem—what she would call an “Africanist presence.” Morrison rejects the assumption “that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed by, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of first Africans and then African Americans in the United States” (31). Rather, she insists, an Africanist presence is crucial to the formation of American literature, although it often surfaces in oblique, coded ways. She introduces us to this troubling idea gently, writing:
I have begun to wonder whether the major, much celebrated themes of American literature—individualism, masculinity, the conflict between social engagement and historical isolation, an acute and ambiguous moral problematic, the juxtaposition of innocence with figures representing death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding Africanist presence. …A real or fabricated Africanist presence has been crucial to the writers’ sense of their Americanness. And it shows: through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, and the way their work is peopled with the signs and bodies of this presence. (310)
African Americans are a “significant…omission” in Whitman’s elegy, but the poem is nevertheless “peopled with the signs and bodies of this presence.” The repressed African American people return in the symbolic form of the “Dark Mother always gliding near with soft feet” (line 143). This shadowy figure of death serves as the necessary darkness against which Whitman can recognize own vitality and affirm the continuity of a nation in crisis. The poem represses the race issues that divide the nation, only to resurrect them in a unifying symbolic figure of the Dark Mother. Perhaps we can appreciate the full power of Whitman’s great elegy only when we acknowledge the symbolic power of Africanism in his poetic restoration of American national identity.