When Mariam Jalloh first comes into focus in “Verse 17” of filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s documentary series Whitman, Alabama, we find her seated in a bustling classroom in Birmingham, struggling to recite lines from a poem she’s just been shown. “These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,” she haltingly begins, “they are not original with me.” The thoughts may be universal, but the phrasing is Walt Whitman’s, from his American epic, “Song of Myself.” Jalloh fumbles the next line through a gap-toothed grin, but by the next cut, her self-consciousness has evened into a calm certainty, and she speaks the remaining lines as if they were her own. In fact, she makes them her own, translating into her native Fulani, “If they are not just as close as they are distant, they are nothing.” Her interaction with the text collapses the chasm between writer and reader, and in watching it, we too are brought into the fold (“for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”). We become the makers of the poem’s meaning.
Jalloh, a 14-year-old Muslim immigrant from Guinea, may seem like a surprising conduit for the writing of Whitman, a long-dead queer socialist poet from Brooklyn, but such incongruity is the active agent in Whitman, Alabama’s therapeutic salve. The project is journalistic at heart, presenting a pointillistic portrait of the expansive American identity through 52 short videos of Alabama residents reading the 52 verses of “Song of Myself.” Crandall will release a new video every Friday, one for every week of 2017. Through them, we’re offered a nuanced profile of an oft-stereotyped state, a gentle tug on the connective tissue of our heartstrings, and a comforting respite amid the chaos of our current political climate.
A serious realist might gripe that “Song of Myself” is too cheery for our dangerous times; that America, the whole world even, is coming apart at the seams, and that we shouldn’t be celebrating anything right now, especially ourselves. (And the series’ soft-focus slow-mos and scoring of what the subtitles call “soft acoustic guitars” and “light piano” may come off as mawkish to more cynical viewers.) But we shouldn’t dismiss Whitman’s incessant optimism as an “indiscriminate hurrahing for the universe,” as the philosopher William James critiqued; rather, we should connect with it as a source of inspiration during grim junctures like these.
It’s worth noting that things seemed similarly bleak on July 4, 1855, the day Whitman first published Leaves of Grass, the book in which “Song of Myself” appears. Then, like now, the nation seemed to be spiraling toward a civil war, splintering over who would receive the unalienable rights guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence. Surely the poem’s holiday release was no coincidence. “Song of Myself” is Whitman’s declaration of interdependence. It’s a reminder that, even as our political institutions fail us, Americans are defined neither by territory nor time, but by our imaginative empathy. Whitman, Alabama enlivens these abstractions, showing not what America is or ever was, but what it should always hope to be: experimental and egalitarian.
Despite Whitman’s adamant optimism, he understood that the American people are and will always be beset by divisive narratives. In “Verse 34,” we hear of “what [the poet] knew in Texas in [his] early youth,” of 412 countrymen killed in cold blood by foreign soldiers after surrendering. This story is relayed in Whitman, Alabama by Beth Spivey, a steely-eyed woman with a sugary drawl and a shotgun in her trunk. “Better be ready to run and get your gun,” she warns us with a laugh before reciting the verse. What enemies (besides the mailbox vandal she mentions) threaten her in the tiny town of Tyler? Perhaps bogeymen conjured in personalized national traumas, in one-sided retellings of the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, September 11th, or any of the myriad other episodes that encourage the stockpiling of weapons and the building of walls. These narratives outline our national identity, defining who we are in opposition to our Others.
Of course, one of the great dividers of humankind has always been religion, and history would have it that the United States is a Christian country by tradition, if not by law. But in “Verse 43,“ Whitman, that aspirational American, claims “the greatest of faiths,” one that encompasses “worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern,” that accepts the Gospels and the Qur’an alike. This verse in Whitman, Alabama is recited by a spectrum of speakers the documentarians found driving down Route 43. Billy Wayne Corkerin, a large white-haired man with a nasal cannula assisting his breathing, agreed to take part — to the surprise of his wife and despite his disagreeing with the phrase “honoring the gods,” plural. The willingness of Corkerin (and all the project’s participants) to read from a text seemingly at odds with their beliefs speaks to an unexpected openness in the residents of Alabama, a place often maligned as one of America’s most backward states.
“The proof of a poet,” Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” In Whitman, Alabama, Crandall has created a proof of concept for the all-encompassing American identity evoked in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Consider, for a model, Donnie Goodin, who delivers “Verse 51” in his computerized voice while selling candy and gum from his wheelchair outside a supermarket in Birmingham. Though he’s both immobile and mute, Goodin embodies the infinite possibility of Whitman’s poetry. Through a combination of Whitman’s words and his own optimistic attitude despite his disabilities, he challenges us to do more and better: “Who wishes to walk with me? / Will you speak before I am gone? / Will you prove already too late?”
We can’t merely let these messages wash over us. The idyll is impossible unless we collectively participate in its making. Like the part-time poets of Whitman, Alabama, we must take hope into our lungs as sustenance and shout it out into existence.
Whitman, Alabama is currently available online.