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'Stop SB 48' Doesn't Want California Students to Know About Walt Whitman?

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Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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click to enlarge Walt Whitman
  • Walt Whitman
​​In the history of the world, gays and lesbians have made invaluable contributions to many different societies. One such person is Walt Whitman, one of the most important poets in the history of the United States.

"Whitman's greatest legacy is his invention of a truly American free verse," the Academy of American Poets writes. "His groundbreaking, open, inclusive, and optimistic poems are written in long, sprawling lines and span an astonishing variety of subject matter and points of view -- embodying the democratic spirit of his new America."

In California, a group called "Stop SB 48" wants to repeal a state law that allows students to learn about Whitman and other important people in history who were gay.

Born in 1819, Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist, who would publish his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, in 1855 with his own money.

At the time, the collection of poems was seen as obscene because of its overt sexuality, but it became widely acclaimed for its humanity and use of free verse, which influenced generations of writers and poets.

"I Hear America Singing" is one of his most beloved and important poems from Leaves of Grass.

"I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;

Those of mechanics -- each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;

The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat -- the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench -- the hatter singing as he stands;

The wood-cutter's song -- the ploughboy's, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;

The delicious singing of the mother -- or of the young wife at work -- or of the girl sewing or washing -- Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;

The day what belongs to the day -- At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs."

Influential literary critic Harold Bloom wrote about Whitman:

"If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse.

"You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville's Moby-Dick, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson's two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life.

"None of those, not even Emerson's, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass."

In July, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 48, also known as the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, into law.

It revised an existing law that adds the LGBT community to a list of under-represented cultural and ethnic groups that are covered in textbooks and other instructional materials in schools.

Stop SB 48 wants to repeal FAIR through a ballot measure, and the group has now started a petition drive to get the initiative on the June, 2012, ballot.

In seeking the repeal of FAIR, Stop SB 48 is creating the same kind of coalition of religious groups and conservative think tanks that worked to get California voters to approve anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2008.

Courage Campaign, Equality California, and other gay rights and social justice groups are undertaking a "decline to sign" effort to keep California voters from signing Stop SB 48's petition.

"They want kids to grow up thinking gay people have never contributed to society at all," Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs wrote in an email to his members.

Recently, gay rights activists have become concerned that if the petition drive is successful, the gay community will face a major political battle to prevent the repeal of SB 48.

Every Wednesday, L.A. Weekly is highlighting those important gays and lesbians in history -- the same people Stop SB 48 doesn't want California students to know about.

Reilly T. Bates contributed to this post.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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