Walt Whitman

How would Whitman respond to the tolerance at World Pride?

Walt Whitman wasn’t perfect. Even in a book that proclaims Whitman as America’s “Better Angel,” Roy Morris argues that traces of a particularly New York-form of racism (where slavery was sanctioned until 1828) could be found in the Old Grey Poet. Morris quotes from a 1858 editorial by Whitman: “is not America for the Whites? And is it not better so?” Later, Morris records an incident in which Whitman decried, “I don’t care for the niggers in comparison with all this suffering and the dismemberment of the Union.” The suffering that most saddened Whitman was that of his adored, white, and “noble young men.”

Despite all this, one cannot help but imagine that Whitman recognized—at least in some deep part of his consciousness—the irony in his complaints: here was a man with an unsanctioned attraction to men complaining because those men were dying to sanction the slaves’ freedom. There is no way that Whitman could relate to the plight of the slaves, but he certainly knew what it was like to be denied freedom. Otherwise, he would never have buried “Live Oak with Moss“—a sequence of gay love poems—within the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass in order to hide its overt homosexuality.

It was natural, then, to think of Whitman as I wandered through this year’s World Pride festivities, and to imagine that he would’ve been overcome with joy. The guy loved crowds in general (“For you they call, the swaying mass”) and while prone to bigoted outbursts, he was, for his time, a great advocate of diversity (at least in his poems). He praised the “roughs,” most often workers of Irish and German descent who were considered at the time a primary threat to WASP America. And he held up “Mannahatta,” with its “numberless crowded streets” and “immigrants arriving” as if it were the Good God of Human Abundance.

I think Whitman’s ghost would dig Toronto. Its towers, its throngs, its babel of languages, its celebration of global spectacles (like the crowds packed into tiny bars to watch World Cup coverage). I try to remember this every time the bus comes by so packed with commuters that I need to wait for the next one. I try to remember this as I concede that even Rob Ford represents a part of the city’s diversity, both as a white man, and as the hero of a diverse mix of those left out of Toronto’s prosperity. Nothing is left out of the cultural kaleidoscope.

Walt Whitman - World pride 2014 Toronto

World Pride celebration in Toronto 2014

So just as Whitman’s vision contains some dark elements (including a love of America’s Manifest Destiny), Toronto’s multitudes contain both thriving and struggling groups. Seventy percent of its population, according Edward Keenan’s Some Great Idea, lives in inner-ring suburbs, where poverty often collides with non-livable spaces and a lack of essential resources.

Still, Keenan paints Toronto as a city with great opportunity, despite its frustrating obstacles. Rollo Romig, who writes about the Detroit neighbourhood where I grew up, claims that “all the happy places feed off the blood of the doomed.” To see evidence of this claim, you might look at the split between Jane Jacobs‘s beloved, mixed-use Old City of Toronto, and its poorer, isolated neighbours. Or you might have optimism that what makes the Old City so wonderfully livable might still spread outward.

I’m biased, and I’m lucky. I live in Little Italy and can walk everywhere I need to go. When friends visit, I send them a list of at least 10 ethnicities and say, “What country’s food would you like to sample—or what part of what country’s food?” It’s a privilege, as is the tolerance so blatantly on display at World Pride. But I think Old Walt would agree: if you’re going to have privileges, you should make them good ones.

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