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What these Southerners reciting Walt Whitman verses can teach us about America
Are we a nation divided? Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall doesn’t think so. For her new project, “Whitman in Alabama,” Crandall spent two years crisscrossing the state and asking Alabamians to recite Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “Song of Myself.” The goal: to learn more about the people who lived there — and also to find the threads that tie them, and all of us, together.
The result is a deeply affirmative, wise, strange and sometimes funny set of 52 mini-documentaries or episodes, each dedicated to a different verse. In these videos, Whitman is recited in the most unlikely places: in a drug court, on a baseball field, at a skate park, on a farm, in a plane.
Crandall said she had the idea of capturing Southern voices reading a poem by a “dead Yankee” to try to “actualize that we are all writing this poem together.”
Perhaps the best-remembered line from “Song of Myself” is “I am large, I contain multitudes,” and Crandall hits this point home in the diversity of her subjects. A young girl from a Birmingham hip hop dance crew reads a verse on womanhood. An older man and his wife off Route 43 read about faith from their front porch. A judge in Scottsboro does a sort of call-and-response with his defendant on identifying as the poor or convicted. And a mother on a family farm, surrounded by her children and animals, recites lines on living beside beasts.
“The South is part of who we are, and we need to turn our gaze toward the South or else we’ll lose part of who we are,” Crandall said. “It’s a way more complex place than anyone outside the South gives it credit for.”
Crandall also hopes the readings will help illuminate the broader American identity, by using a text that is about both the individual and the universal. “Whitman allows us to seem large, allows for differences between us,” she said. “It’s an avenue to understand our own identity.”
Below, watch several of the “Whitman in Alabama” episodes; see more at WhitmanAlabama.com.
“Song of Myself” Verse 1 by Virginia Mae Schmitt
“Song of Myself” Verse 43: On The Road
“Song of Myself” Verse 37: John Graham & Chris Freeman
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Haiti, part Chinese and part white, Jennifer is asked more often than not, “what are you?” Not finding the answer to that question simple, or easy, Jennifer became a journalist and filmmaker so she could explore themes of identity and connection. She worked at The Washington Post where she created the Emmy nominated video series onBeing. With “Whitman, Alabama,” Jennifer returns to that question, “what are you?” while hoping to raise the volume on voices from the American South. Her previous work has received a Knight-Batten Special Distinction Award for Innovation, an Online News Association Award for Innovation, awards from the White House News Photographers Association and recognition from the American Film Institute.