Walt Whitman, in his most notable and acclaimed works, explores the dynamics of a multi-faceted identity, wades through the complexities of crisis and recovery, and strolls through the beauty of the American frontier while indulging himself in transcendence. He seeks not to convey the world, but become it—which is what distinguishes Walt Whitman from others. According to author and critic Mark Bauerlein, “Whitman diffuses his identity into various poses or characters, creating both distancing perspectives on himself…and new identities that contrast with the poet.” Some critics like Gayle L. Smith would argue that these inconsistencies cloud our ability to “reconcile Whitman’s dedication to aesthetics of clarity and simplicity,” while others would assert that his attempt to transcend alienates at times, and invades at others. In order for Whitman to maintain his multi-faceted persona as a transnational, transcendent poet one may assume that committing not only negates his ideal found in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass that “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” but also that it restricts and refutes the core concept of transcending which is to “go beyond the range or limits of (something abstract, typically a conceptual field or division).” One cannot attempt to ignore racial, cultural, economic or national barriers and remain intimately dedicated to ideas associated with these same boundaries. Langston Hughes, on the other hand, considers these newly found boundaries within a context that is most important to him, making use of Whitman’s cataloging strategies and “everyman” persona to allow his poetry to be just as powerful and stimulating as Whitman’s.
Although Hughes sings his songs in similar form to that of Whitman, “the subject matter and the emotional thrust are distinctively Hughes’s” (Berry 24). The use of Whitman’s strategy only demonstrates his recognition of Whitman’s poetic techniques as successful tactics for overcoming certain barriers, not his attempt to replicate Whitman’s ideas or intentions (if any). Hughes becomes a voice for a particular type of American—the African American. In his not so popular poem “Negro”, Hughes satirically takes advantage of Whitman’s “I am the…” approach and draws it back to the more specific experience of African Americans. Like Whitman in his “Song of Myself”, Hughes becomes “the slave”, “a worker”, “a singer” and “a victim”, but he remains committed, taking the universality of the “I am…” attitude and placing it on a more microscopic level. For instance, in becoming “the worker” he references the history of blacks building the pyramids and making “mortar for the Woolworth building” (ln 7-9). In becoming “the victim”, he remembers the African whose hands were cut off by Belgians in the Congo, or the black lynched in Texas (ln 14-16). Hughes, by interconnecting his exploration and embodiment of the historical and cultural evolution of African Americans and Whitman’s artful craft of poetic transcendentalism, actually broadens the connectivity of the universal approach, permitting the connection to mean more than the connections that we share we each other despite barriers, but also the connections people have to these barriers as well.