Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1871)
Author:
Earhart, Amy E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Originally written and accepted for publication (but never published) by the Galaxy magazine in 1867 as "Ethiopia Commenting," Whitman first placed this poem in Leaves of Grass in 1871 and revised it in the 1876 edition with the subtitle "A Reminiscence of 1864." It was placed in the "Drum-Taps" cluster in 1881.

In its final form, the poem recounts an old black woman's watching General Sherman's troops march through her Carolina town on their way to the sea. The woman wears a turban of African colors—yellow, red, and green—as she rises to greet the colors of the army. As Betsy Erkkila notes, the woman's exoticism and exclusion from the dominant American culture is stressed as well as the racial hierarchy accepted by nineteenth-century society.

The speaker contemplates the "hardly human" woman as the colors go by and questions what "strange and marvelous" things she has experienced. The notation of the woman as "hardly human" suggests that the exotic woman remains for Whitman as the Other, the feared. In a brief stanza we are given a glance at what the speaker believes she is thinking; in Whitman's awkward attempt at dialect, she remembers her capture from Africa and the middle passage. The horrors of the middle passage and slavery's abuses are understated as the strangeness of her experiences are emphasized.

By placing the poem in "Drum-Taps" in 1881, Whitman secures the connection between slavery and the Civil War which he first alludes to in the initial poem. The conventional form which Whitman uses—the standard three line stanzas, internal and terminal rhyme, and alliteration—indicates the difficulty of coming to terms with the black body and suggests a desire for containment.

As one of the few comments on black liberation, the poem offers insight into Whitman's perception of blacks in the United States, suggesting that Whitman had not come to terms with a free black population.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Klammer, Martin. Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of "Leaves of Grass." University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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