A SLAVE'S NARRATIVE
The representation of African Americans in Leaves of Grass is unlike anything Whitman--or anyone, for that matter--had ever written. Published in 1855 in the wake of public ferment over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Anthony Burns case, Leaves of Grass portrays African Americans as equal partners with whites in a democratic future and as beautiful and dignified people, the paradigms of a fully realized humanity. In addition, African Americans are seen as essential to the speaker's--and the readers'--own humanity; Whitman repeatedly shows his white readers that to be a whole and fully realized human being in mid-nineteenth-centuryAmerica is to participate in the experience of, and even identify with, black people.
Moreover, African Americans play a crucial role in the major themes and turning points of what are generally considered the three most important poems of the 1855 edition--poems that were later titled, "Song of Myself," "I Sing the Body Electric," and "The Sleepers." Whitman himself emphasized the transforming influence of slavery on his work. In the "Preface" to the 1855 edition, as Whitman concludes a catalogue of what the American poet needs to absorb into his poetry his last entry makes clear the immediate impact of slavery on the poet's work:
[To him enter the essences of real things] . . . slavery and the
tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposi-
tion to it which shall never cease till it ceases or the speaking of
tongues and the moving of lips cease. For such the expression