Friday Feminist Fuck Yeah: Student refuses to sing Whitman’s “Song for Democracy”

Ok so I actually don’t know if this person is a feminist or not. But standing by one’s anti-racist values like this, despite the cost is a little feministy.

Timothy L. McNair is an aspiring opera singer and graduate student studying at Northwestern University. Walt Whitman was an American poet who is revered for his contributions to American literature and prose. Here is what many folks took for granted about each of them. Whitman was racist bigot who equated black folks to primates, stood by the position that American wasn’t the place for blacks, and believed that we should be eliminated. As for McNair, he is willing to risk his graduate degree to resist that racism.

So what do Whitman and McNair have to do with one another? Well, McNair was required to sing Whitman’s “Song for Democracy” an ironic title coming from a man with such strong opinions about fellow Americans, as one of the requirements for his degree. Taking offense, for obvious reason, McNair refused and was failed by his professor Donald Nally.

I’m of the opinion that simply assigning another song to sing would have sufficiently averted the issue and not have had to cost Mcair a degree. This of course reflects my bias as a Women’s & Gender studies major and someone who left the science field, not only because I sucked at it, but because I realized that I performed better when I was an active participant in knowledge building as opposed to just accepting information. Obviously, other people, Nally included, think students should just do the work given to them.


Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

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  • Penny White

    Holy shit! I had NO IDEA Whitman was such a despicable racist! You now who else I recently found out was a racist creep? Ralph Waldo Emerson! New Agers are always quoting him, but the guy was AWFUL. It sickens me how racism can infect a person like a disease and diminish their humanity. That student should be PROUD of himself for resisting. He should be allowed to graduate WITH HONORS!!!

  • Sam

    As a classical musician who also studies gender studies, I can see both sides of this argument. Because this article gives the feminist side, I’d also like to add that the song in question is actually a hefty arrangement for choir and orchestra, and was advertised and selling tickets on Northwestern’s website since April, making it difficult to impossible to reassign. The song by Pulizer Prize-winning Howard Hanson is also a staple in the repertoire and the poem, in my opinion, contains nothing explicitly racist. It puzzles me as to why Mr. McNair, an opera singer, is challenging this song when the are many many more examples of much more explicitly racist operas such as, say Aida, Madame Butterfly, etc.

    I do agree that classical music is still lacking a good honest critique in terms of race and gender. On that note, a very interesting book, “Blackness in Opera” was released last year, that acknowledges the complex relationship that race has to classical music.

  • Dan

    Was the song title available in the course syllabus? Did McNair had the information he needed to drop the class early enough to do so?

    Or is it simply enough to say that the personal opinions of the author do not extend to every work they produce, and “Song for Democracy” does not contain Whitman’s biography within its meaning?

    What is McNair’s intended graduate degree, anyway?

  • bmyles

    While I understand his refusal to sing this song, I am piqued by the choice. If one were to make a stand about racist sources/racist material, classical music has much more problematic content than Whitman’s poem. Someone already mentioned the orientalism in Madama Butterfly and Aida. There is also the Ring Cycle, Othello, Carmen, and many more examples of racist content or racist composers/librettists. Song for Democracy is pretty innocuous and not be a racist apologist here, but even Whitman’s views of blacks were pretty standard for his time. There would be very little content left if we just stopped performing, reading, seeing things created by racists.