These days mark milestone anniversaries for three important events in our history, interrelated for perhaps less than obvious reasons. First is the 200th anniversary of the birth of America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman, on May 31, 1819. Second is the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1944, the Allies’ decisive assault against genocidal Naziism that brought an end to 30 years of the slaughter of the world’s most developed cultures. The third is the 50th anniversary of the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, on June 27, 1969, when an uprising at a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, unlocked an energy that is still fueling an unfolding new world social consciousness.
Walt Whitman, D-Day, Stonewall. Huge interrelated inflection points in the progress of our United States of America, our democracy.
Whitman’s legacy traces to the earliest days of the young republic, to the first publication of his “Leaves of Grass” poetic masterpiece, a controversial work to be sure, but whose first edition was cherished by Abraham Lincoln, a man whose keenly lamented death Whitman included, “O Captain, My Captain,” in later expansions of his work. Whitman volunteered as a nurse at Washington, D.C. area hospitals and on battlefields of the Civil War, and wrote ever so poignantly about the painful slaughter of young human souls in war.
Little did he know, dying himself in 1892, that his words would resonate following his passing so profoundly with the outbreak of two world wars that would dwarf in their carnage, agony and death even the U.S. Civil War with its 600,000 fatalities.
Hear his heartfelt compassion, pain and love, words of love that were unfamiliar and not welcomed addressed to persons of his own gender before his time, but which we now dedicate to the memory of the soldiers lost in all wars, and in the great sacrifice of D-Day, that momentous civilization-saving assault to end the scourge of fascism, launched 75 years ago this week only four months after my own birth.
From “Ashes of Soldiers” in “Leaves of Grass,” by Walt Whitman:
“I chant this chant of my silent soul in the name of the dead soldiers
Faces so pale with wondrous eyes, very dear, gather closer yet, Draw close, but speak not.
“Phantoms of countless lost, Invisible to the rest henceforth become my companions, Follow me ever – desert me not while I live.
“Sweet are the blooming cheeks of the living – sweet are the musical voices sounding. But sweet, ah sweet, are the dead with their silent eyes.
“Dearest comrades, all is over and long gone, But love is not over — and what love, O comrades!
“Perfume from battle-fields rising, up from the foetor arising. Perfume therefore my chant, O love, immortal love, Give me to bathe the memories of all dead soldiers,
“Shroud them, embalm them, cover them all over with tender pride. Perfume all — make all wholesome, Make these ashes to nourish and blossom.
“O love, solve all, fructify all with the last chemistry. Give me exhaustless, make me a fountain, That I exhale love from me wherever I go like a moist perennial dew, For the ashes of all dead soldiers South or North.”
Winning the wars for human freedom, the extension of civil rights to the lives of all Americans in post-World War II America, during these moments of my life, has nonetheless not been achieved without great further struggle to this very day.
But the civil rights movement, the movement for equality under the law for all persons regardless of color, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation, exploded under the leadership of Dr. King in the 1960s, making its fullest extension inevitable. So it broke out at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago this month, arisen from the shoulders of so many inspired by Whitman before them.
I wasn’t at Stonewall, except in spirit as a young gay activist in San Francisco, at 25 freshly burst from my closet only three months before, eager and destined to play my part in this great ongoing progression of the human spirit.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]