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The African American poet Robert Hayden faced the classic dilemma of the twentieth-century minority artist: the desire to be known primarily by his professional appellation, rather than his racial one. Instead of ignoring the problem, Hayden attacked it head-on, mastering traditional poetic forms while embracing black history and black experience among his themes, and always refusing to subordinate art to race.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Education in Books, Love, and Poverty
Robert Hayden—whose given name was Asa Bundy Sheffey— was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 4, 1913. When his parents separated, he became the foster son of neighbors and was rechristened. The Haydens never legally adopted Robert, but they provided him with a home and an education. He did not become reacquainted with his birth mother until his teens, when she returned to Detroit. The young Hayden often found himself in the midst of an emotional tug-of-war: between his two mother figures and between the women and his difficult foster father.
Hayden had vision problems as a child but became an avid reader nonetheless, thanks to the books his birth mother sent him throughout his childhood. The Hay-dens were uneducated people, but neither this nor their poverty prevented them from encouraging Robert’s pursuit of an education. He entered Wayne State University on a scholarship in 1932 and majored in Spanish and minored in English, with aspirations to become a teacher. Acting in a play by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes brought him into contact with the first of the many major poets he was to encounter. He showed Hughes some of his poetry, only to be told that his work was not original. In a 1977 interview he agreed with Hughes, but at the time, he said, he was crestfallen.
Delving into History
After graduation Hayden worked with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) from 1936 to 1938. This Detroit-based project was started in 1935 under the New Deal program’s Works Progress Administration at the height of the Great Depression. It was meant to put writers to work producing texts, mostly nonfiction, that would be of significance to American culture. For the FWP Hayden researched local black folklore and history. His next project involved compiling information on the Underground Railroad in Michigan while working part-time as a theater, movie, and music critic for the Michigan Chronicle, a black weekly paper.
In 1940 Hayden married Erma Morris, a concert pianist and aspiring composer. After a summer in New York, where Hayden pursued his historical research and Erma studied at Juilliard, the couple returned to Detroit, where Robert found himself unemployed thanks to the dismantling of the Works Progress Administration. Hayden then decided to go back to school for his master’s degree, enrolling at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1941. His only child, Maia, was born the following year. At Michigan he was afforded the opportunity to study poetry with W. H. Auden, then a visiting professor. Auden gave him personal advice as well as valuable criticism of his poems, which Hayden credited with helping him to develop his own individual style. Twice, Hayden won the university’s Hopwood Award for poetry by a student. After completing his master’s degree in 1944, Hayden remained at Michigan for two years as a teaching fellow and had the distinction of being the first black member of the English department’s teaching staff. When a position as assistant professor of English opened at Nashville’s black Fisk University in 1946, Hayden and his family made the move to the segregated South.
Growing as a Poet
Hayden’s style continued to evolve during the 1940s. His output in this decade was slender— The Lion and the Archer (1948) contained only six poems—thanks to the demands of a full teaching schedule and active mentorship of his students. Though a short collection, the poems in The Lion and the Archer show a much more condensed and sophisticated use of language than his earlier work.
Hayden’s best-known black history poem was written and repeatedly revised during this period. ”Middle Passage” is famous for the way it blends lyric, dramatic, and narrative techniques. It is composed of three sections that offer different slants on the slave trade. It contains the thoughts of slave ship officers, a retired slave trader’s recollections about Africa, and the story of the slave rebellion aboard the Cuban vessel Amistad and the blacks’ eventual return to Africa, thanks to U.S. justice. Particularly striking is the poem’s use of many forms of discourse: ship names, logs, diaries, prayers, hymns, legal depositions, parodies, and orations are all featured. All of these are joined together by lyric commentary that tries to come to terms with this ”voyage through death / to life upon these shores.”
The 1940s also saw the introduction of a new influence in Hayden’s life: religion. Raised a Southern Baptist, Hayden was seeking a new direction in 1943 when he found Baha’i, a religious faith that follows the teachings of the Persian prophet Baha’u’llah (1817-1892). Baha’i emphasizes the unity of all religions and the brotherhood of humankind. Hayden found the Baha’i emphasis on social ethics and world peace ideal for the twentieth century. The Baha’i outlook appears in Hayden’s poem ”In Light half nightmare, half vision,” where human suffering in Germany, South Africa, Korea, and America are related to the suffering of Baha’u’llah.
Engaging with History
The 1960s began the most significant phase of Hayden’s literary career, bringing the middle-aged poet both unanticipated recognition and rejection. The temper of the times, especially the civil rights movement, seemed to give the poet fresh creative drive. A Ballad of Remembrance (1962) brought Hayden international recognition when it won the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts at Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. An American version of A Ballad of Remembrance was published as Selected Poems in 1966 and included an assortment of other poems, with themes including black history, the quest for the meaning of human existence, Mexico (where Hayden had spent a year in the 1950s on a Ford Foundation fellowship), racism, and autobiography. The volume represents the finished artist, a view Hayden himself shared.
The civil rights era brought Hayden both overdue praise and unexpected enmity. African American writing was now being judged on merit rather than ethnicity by the white establishment, but at the same time a new racial emphasis dominated the critical judgment of some blacks. These mostly young critics rejected the idea that the black writer should speak for or to anyone outside his own race. This school of thought focused on the search for a black aesthetic, a notion with political overtones, based on the idea that blacks and whites are fundamentally different. Such a philosophy was anathema to Hayden, both as a Baha’i and an artist: in his view, poetry was poetry, no matter who wrote it. At the first Black Writers’ Conference, held at Fisk in 1966, Hayden was accused of coming dangerously close to being antiblack for his refusal to be categorized as a ”black poet.” It was four years before Hayden could deal artistically with these attacks, which he did in Words in the Mourning Time (1970). The most significant poem in Words in the Mourning Time is ”El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” a summation of the life of Malcolm X. It is significant that Hayden chose Malcolm X as his subject, as Malcolm X was the quintessential embodiment ofblack rage, but he was also quintessentially American. In the poem, Hayden addresses his feelings about being a black artist in America through Malcolm X’s life.
As the 1960s drew to a close, many predominantly white universities began actively recruiting black students and faculty, and in 1969 Hayden returned to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, as professor of English. With his next work, The Night-Blooming Cereus, Hayden broke away from the black historical themes of his earlier work and moved toward more private symbolism. Although Hayden was criticized for this move, some argued that all along he had used the features of black history and the black experience as universal human symbols, to which anyone could relate.
The 1970s were a happier period for Hayden: he won the Russell Loines Award in 1970 and was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. He published Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems in 1975 and in 1976 was appointed the first black consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the American equivalent to England’s poet laureate). His appointment was renewed the following year. He was at work on a collection of new and selected poems (published as a revised version of American Journal in 1982) when he was hospitalized in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a heart ailment. He died on February 25, 1980.
Works in Literary Context
Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance
Hayden’s early work, which he viewed as apprentice efforts, derives much of its style and substance from the Harlem Renaissance, the great flowering of literary activity that began among the African American writers of New York in the 1920s and spread across the country and abroad. The young writers whose creativity sparked the renaissance were the first generation of African Americans to grow up unfettered by slavery, and the wide variety of literary genres they embraced—from poetry to drama to journalism to philosophy—reflects the realization of African American culture. Hayden’s early poetry shows his indebtedness to his literary predecessors. For example, his poem ”The Negro to America” recalls Langston Hughes’s poems ”I, Too, Sing America” and ”Let America be America Again” in its assertion that until democracy applies to the least of Americans, no American can truly claim to be free. Similarly, Hayden’s ”Poem for a Negro Dancer” is indebted to Countee Cullen’s ”Heritage” and Claude McKay’s ”Harlem Dancer.” Hayden joins Cullen in advocating the value of a heritage that should not be corrupted by contact with the West, and joins McKay in emphasizing that, like the dancer who performs for the lurid eyes of customers in a Harlem cabaret, black people must hold some part of themselves free from the degrading implications that compensation for their art can sometimes bring. In other words, Hayden, like some of his colleagues, believed that art produced from the souls of black people cannot be bought and sold.
Works in Critical Context
For most of his career, Hayden’s work received little critical response on its own merits. It wasn’t until 1966, with the publication of Selected Poems, that Hayden first enjoyed widespread attention from the nation’s literary critics. As the Choice critic remarked at the time, Selected Poems showed Hayden to be ”the surest poetic talent of any Negro poet in America; more importantly, it demonstrated a major talent and poetic coming-of-age without regard to race or creed.” With each succeeding volume of poems his reputation was further enhanced. By appointment as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1976, Hayden was generally recognized as one of the country’s leading black poets.
Critics often point to Hayden’s unique ability to combine the historical and the personal when speaking of his own life and the lives of his people. Writing in Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, Gary Zebrun argued that
the voice of the speaker in Hayden’s best work twists and squirms its way out of anguish in order to tell, or sing, stories of American history—in particular the courageous and plaintive record of Afro-American history—and to chart the thoughts and feelings of the poet’s own private space…. Hayden is ceaselessly trying to achieve . . . transcendence, which must not be an escape from the horror of history or from the loneliness of individual mortality, but an ascent that somehow transforms the horror and creates a blessed permanence.
- Davis, Arthur P. ”Robert Hayden.” In From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.
- Davis, Charles T. ”Robert Hayden’s Use of History.” In Modern Black Poets. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973.
- Hatcher, John. From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxford: George Ronald, 1984.
- O’Brien, John. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973.
- Faulkner, Howard. ”’Transformed by Steeps of Flight’: The Poetry of Robert Hayden.” CLA Journal (June 1978).
- Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. ”Robert Hayden’s Meditation on Art: The Final Sequence of Words in the Mourning Time?’ Black American Literature (Fall 1985).
- Parks, Gerald. ”The Baha i Muse: Religion in Robert Hayden s Poetry. World Order (Fall 1981).
- Review of Selected Poems. Choice (May 1967).
- Williams, Pontheolla T. ”Robert Hayden: A Life Upon These Shores. World Order (Fall 1981).
- Zebrun, Gary. Review of Selected Poems. Obsidian: Black Literature in Review (Spring 1981).
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