Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-whit and turban’d head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?
(‘Tis while our army lines Carolina’s sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia com’st to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)
Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.
No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban’d head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,
And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.
Why is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red, and green?
Are things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen? (451-452)
This poem, from the “Drum-Taps” portion of the 1891-1892 Leaves of Grass, immediately caught my eye because of previous research I conducted on the role of African Americans in the Civil War. While the Emancipation Proclamation was a ground-breaking document that would begin an impetus of change, it came into existence, at least somewhat, for political purposes. Lincoln, with the help of a politcally active Frederick Douglass, realized that the slaves could be an enormous asset on the front lines. Freeing all slaves in the North would both ignite the patriotic passion in some Northern slaves and possibly motivate Southern slaves to make the move to the North. Douglass knew that this fact would motivate Lincoln and, ultimately, achieve something much greater: freedom for the slaves. Douglass, during this time, urged African Americans to fight in the bloody battle, and fight they did. Much more was on the line for them – not just their “country” – but their freedom, their inclusion in America’s tenets of “Democracy.”
Indeed, slavery was perhaps the catalyst to the Civil War, but not the overriding cause. The overriding cause was questions over state rights. Still, abolitionists made the issue of slavery a major issue of the war that has since dominated history textbooks and undoubtedly changed the course of American history.
Obviously, Whitman noticed the centrality of this issue (How could he not?) based on this poem. This, however, is merely what drew me to the poem. The content, admittedly, is a little unclear – his message a little muddled – at least at first glance.
His descriptions of the woman are interesting – she is so “ancient” that she is hardly human with hair a woolly-white, a turban’d head, bare and bony feet. Might this be a symbol for the “ancient” practice of slavery that ought to be abolished?
The moment of the woman’s greeting of the colors is crucial, as Sherman’s army is marching through Carolina, one of the places that increased the Union Army’s control, undermining the Confederacy. We would expect her to be saluting the Union Army fighting for her freedom. As she emerges from her hovel, she says only three lines explaining her capture by the “cruel slaver” – saying it has been a hundred years since she was torn from her parents.
She says no more – but lingers, perhaps a constant reminder, a motivator for the soldiers?
In the final stanza the “fateful” woman become “blear” or dim, indistinct, as though as Sherman’s men undermine the Confederacy’s power slavery fades away. The final question: “Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?” is a little perplexing. He ends with a question, opening up this scene to his reader, but I’m not entirely certain where he’s taking us with it.
On a somewhat random note, I wonder to what extent “hardly human” is meant ironically. If the woman is meant to be a symbol of slavery, she is of course “hardly human” or entirely inhumane – since the act of slavery is inhumane. Whitman means that she is “hardly human” because she is “ancient” and fading away. Would his readers have read “hardly human” as “second-class” citizen – an accepted and driving catergorization of African slaves at the time? He seems to be playing and reordering the “typical” way of thinking – and turning it on its head.
So I guess where I end this – is that this turban’d woman, with her turban in Ethiopia’s colors, is not a single woman, but an image of slavery – an “ancient”, hundred-year-old practice in America saluting the colors of the Union Army who will, finally, end the ancient practice.
A final note on the placement of this piece in the “Drum-Taps” section – I find it fascinating that this poem is squished in the middle of these poems. It is as though Whitman wanted to remind his reader, in the midst of the war, that the cause – and the effects of victory – were very great indeed.
I love this poem. A gem.
Whitman Poetry and Prose, Library of America
image source: http://cleanwaterforlife.xanga.com/