Celebrated American poet Walt Whitman is a regular staple of classroom currricula in schools and universities across the country. What’s often left unsaid is the unabashed racism that Whitman displayed in his later years when he called black people “baboons” and intoned that America is “for the whites.” Whitman once stated, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated.”
Timothy L. McNair is a 25-year-old aspiring opera singer who’s studying at Northwestern University. McNair is also black, and took obvious offense to performing Whitman’s “Song for Democracy” as part of his master’s degree requirement at the university’s Bienan School of Music.
The university has backed the professor who failed Mr. McNair and says that it expects students to complete the work assigned to them. Students have had mixed reactions, with some demonstrating support for Mr. McNair and others defending the professor, Donald Nally.
Scholars at Northwestern and elsewhere suggest that Mr. Nally could have offered his student another assignment instead of failing him.
The controversy over Mr. McNair’s protest raises larger questions: What rights should students have to refuse an assignment when they feel it disrespects them or violates their principles? How accommodating should professors be when students raise those concerns? And what campus policies might help resolve such sensitive situations?
McNair has filed a complaint with the Evanston/North Shore branch of the NAACP.