Robert Hayden was a writer of astonishing skill—a poet with “perfect pitch,” as the New York Times described him in 1976, the year he became America’s first black poet laureate. He wrote with such meticulous care that he published relatively little—his Collected Works falls short of 250 pages—but almost every piece sparkles with the precision of a cleaved diamond, words and meter falling into place with fine inevitability.
Consider his most famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” A moving ode to his foster father, with whom he had a contentious relationship growing up, its final two lines hit so exact a note of wistful appreciation that it has become a perennial Father’s Day favorite. Or take his sonnet in honor of Frederick Douglass, with its honed phrases and pauses. Rarely has a poet so expertly captured the essence of an historical hero.
That poem was only one of many he composed about black American historical figures—including everyone from Phillis Wheatley and Crispus Attucks to Bessie Smith and Malcom X. He hoped to assemble these into a longer work called The Black Spear, in answer to a passage in Stephen Vincent Benét’s book-length Civil War saga, John Brown’s Body. Benét had paused in his dramatic poem—which features almost entirely white characters—to note that he could not write the “blackskinned epic” of slavery’s demise because he had “too white a heart.” He predicted, however, that “some day, a poet will rise” who would write such a poem, and that it would “be a match for any song / Sung by old, populous nations in the past.” Hayden never managed to complete The Black Spear, but the poems he did write about slavery, freedom, and Jim Crow—especially “Middle Passage” and “Runagate Runagate”—are so extraordinary in their blend of history and drama, and so utterly American in their sensibility and sound, that they give good reason to think the finished work would have compared well to Benét’s own:
Moon so bright and no place to hide, the cry up and the patterollers riding, hound dogs belling in bladed air. And fear starts a-murbling, Never make it, we’ll never make it. Hush that now, and she’s turned upon us, levelled pistol glinting in the moonlight: Dead folks can’t jaybird-talk, she says; you keep on going now or die, she says. Wanted Harriet Tubman alias The General alias Moses Stealer of Slaves…. Come ride-a my train Mean mean mean to be free.
Yet while Hayden focused much of his attention on the sufferings and triumphs of black Americans, that wasn’t enough for some of his contemporaries, who, in April 1966, began denouncing him for refusing to write black nationalist propaganda.
Hayden was born in a Detroit slum in 1913 to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, who were unable to care for him and placed him in the care of their next-door neighbors, William and Sue Ellen Hayden. The Haydens may not have been abusive by the standards of the day, but their household was rough, and Robert was sometimes beaten. With his intellectualism and weak physique—especially his extreme myopia—he found it hard to fit in either with his foster family or at school, and he suffered attacks of depression throughout his life. He graduated high school in 1940, and although he was already writing poetry, he had little prospect of finding a literary career—until one day when a social worker noticed him in line at the welfare office reading a book by Countee Cullen. Impressed by his literary interests, she helped arrange a scholarship for him to attend Detroit City College, where he performed well enough that after a brief stint on the Federal Writers Project, he was able to land a seat at the University of Michigan, studying under W.H. Auden.
Auden had just published such famous works as “September 1, 1939,” “Musée de Beaux Arts,” and “Law, Like Love,” and had not yet entered the phase that would include his religious writing. His style was laconic and modern, concerned with social and political questions, and focused more on vocabulary and conceptualism than on the kinds of rhapsodic or valedictory effects then common in popular poetry. He once told Hayden that a poem is like an equation, in which the writer solves for x. But along with this intellectualism, Auden brought a sense of moral witness to his work, emphasizing universal, human values in an era wracked by chauvinism, collectivism, and cruelty. Hayden would learn these things from him, but would adapt Auden’s methods into a distinctly American voice.
An equally important influence on Hayden’s writing was his embrace of the Bahá’í Faith, to which he was introduced by his wife Erma in 1942. A religious movement that began in the Middle East in the mid-19th century, the Bahá’í preach the brotherhood of man and the gradual unfolding of universal truth through an ongoing revelation in which Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and others, play parts. From his conversion to his death, Hayden would remain a devout Bahá’í, often invoking the religion’s metaphors and historical figures in his work.
The University of Michigan offered Hayden a teaching job upon his graduation in 1942, and after four more years in Ann Arbor, he and Erma moved to Fisk University in Tennessee. For the next 23 years they would live in the segregated South, Hayden teaching a course load so heavy that he had little time to write. He managed to publish some small collections, The Lion and the Archer (1948) and Figure of Time (1955), but it was A Ballad of Remembrance in 1962 that made his national reputation. That book, which included not only “Middle Passage” and “Frederick Douglass,” but powerful poems about Nat Turner, the battle of Lookout Mountain, his childhood in the Detroit ghetto, and the contemporary struggle for civil rights in Mississippi, won the Grand Prize at the World Festival of Negro Arts on April 7, 1966. He was, the jury declared, “among the finest of our anglophone contemporaries.” It was the highest recognition he had yet received. But two weeks later, he was denounced at Fisk University by a group of writers who labeled him an “Uncle Tom.”
Black American authors were then at the cusp of the so-called “Black Aesthetic” movement—a hyper-politicized theory that held that art is a function of racial and class imperatives, and that the prevailing criteria of poetic excellence were nothing more than forms of oppressive white hegemony. The poet (and president of Sengal) Léopold Senghor argued that black artists should embrace instead what he called négritude (“blackness”)—which supposedly meant emphasizing African traditions, but which in practice meant subordinating artistic concerns to the demands of Marxist revolution. Under Senghor’s influence, writers such as LeRoi Jones (who adopted the name Amiri Baraka), Don Lee (Haki Madhubuti), and Ronald Everett (Ron Karenga), insisted on viewing themselves primarily through a racial lens, and rejecting poetic formalism or the disciplined creation of literary effects as an abandonment of authentic blackness. In 1966, Karenga (who later that year invented Kwanzaa) declared that black artists “must become and remain a part of the revolutionary machinery” “like everything else in the black community.”
Previous generations of black writers had tried to integrate the Republic of Letters. But these militants equated that with servitude to the white man. “The Black Artist’s role,” Baraka proclaimed, “is to aid in the destruction of America. … His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society … that other men … if they are black men, grow strong … and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil!” Obviously, Hayden’s sensitive, finely tuned compositions could never satisfy that standard. When, for example, Baraka’s 1965 poem “Black Art” declared,
Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth… …we want “poems that kill.” Assassin poems, Poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys and take their weapons leaving them dead with tongues pulled out…
—it was hard to imagine the writer could have much in common with a poet who could write, as Hayden did, of the liberation of the Nazi death camps:
…because that day was a holy day when even the dead, it seemed, must rise, she was allowed to stay and see the golden strangers who Were Father, Brother, and her dream of God. Afterwards she said, “They were so beautiful, and they were not afraid.”
Hayden had worked too hard perfecting his skill to elevate protest over craftsmanship. Négritude seemed like an easy excuse to avoid the hard labor of honing one’s proficiency—and like a surrender of hard-won civil rights gains. “My generation was working hard for acceptance as writers, as artists, and not as writers with a particular identity,” he said, and he was not alone in this view. “The Black Arts Movement is predicated on the assumption that black people are inherently different from people of other races,” observed literary scholar J. Saunders Redding. That was “a snare and a delusion” which would “give aid and comfort” to those “who categorically affirm that Negroes are born inferior, and that no quality or quantity of education and learning can alter the fact and make them equal to whites.” Baraka and Madhubuti’s “disingenuous” literary notions obscured the fact that the most important literary contributions black Americans had made were “insights into what it means to be an American”—not a separate people.
On April 22 1966, Fisk University hosted the first Black Arts Conference, where Redding and Hayden were confronted by champions of the movement, including Arna Bontemps and Melvin Tolson, both Hayden’s faculty colleagues. “One gets the idea Hayden doesn’t … exactly like that Negro thing,” Bontemps told the audience. When Hayden pleaded, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks,” Tolson shouted back, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet…and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.” Although the audience was reportedly moved to tears when Hayden later read “Middle Passage” to them, he could never accept the demand that he subordinate his art to his race, let alone that he hate white people. He refused to attend future Fisk conferences.
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as ‘Black’ poetry,” he told an interviewer.
There is just American poetry. I think that it does a lot of harm to keep this kind polarization going. I know that some people are capitalizing on this, are profiting from it. And people who might otherwise not have any recognition at all can stand up and be called poets because they’re dealing with a particular kind of subject matter…. The people who would [call me an “Uncle Tom”] have never read anything…. They don’t even know the work of their own people…. I think that we are denying something very fundamental. We’ve been in this country for almost four hundred years; if anybody’s got a stake down here, we have…! Anybody who tells me I don’t have a stake down here is out of his cotton-picking head. What was all that sweating and bleeding and dying about? I had ancestors in the Civil War…. I think that to advocate or to support separatism in any form is to give aid and comfort to the bigots. I think the “Toms” are the one who are running around being separate, running around college campuses wanting their own dormitories and their own cafeterias and so on.
By 1969, fed up with the atmosphere at Fisk, Hayden returned to Ann Arbor, to teach at the University of Michigan.
The demand that he surrender his individuality also gave rise to one of his most intriguing poems, “The Diver,” which appeared the same year as the Fisk conference. In it, Hayden reflected on his ascent from the ghetto and the temptations and threats that had influenced his literary and religious life. The poem is narrated by a survivor of nitrogen narcosis, an intoxicating condition that causes scuba divers to experience tunnel vision and hallucinations. He describes how he visited a sunken ship, where he was surrounded by “snappers” and “gold groupers” before entering a shipwreck. There he witnessed
the sad slow dance of gilded chairs, the ectoplasmic swirl of garments… [the] livid gesturings, eldritch hide and seek of laughing faces.
He briefly fantasized about “fling[ing] aside / [his] mask” in order to “yield to rapturous / whisperings,” but knowing this would be suicidal, he instead
strove against the cancelling arms that suddenly surrounded me,
and, escaping the seductive scene, “swam from / the ship somehow, / somehow began the / measured rise.”
“The Diver” lends itself to many interpretations, but among them is certainly his resistance to the pressure (apt word!) to conform to the political demands of the age—demands that would obliterate his hard-won artistic skill—even when radicals, as we say nowadays, threatened to “cancel” him.
Hayden’s refusal to accept the confines of race-based literary theories cut both ways: A year after the Fisk conference, when William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, he defended Styron against black activists who denounced the novel for “the whitened appropriation of our history.” Such “chauvinistic censorship,” Hayden replied, “should give all writers pause. … Are we to be told what to write about and how to write it? Are we to be restricted in our choice of subjects?”
That same year, he published an anthology of black poets called Kaleidoscope, in which he remarked briefly on the “militant racism” of the Black Aesthetic movement. That provoked an angry response by Madhubuti, who accused Hayden of being “out of touch with black poets.” But Hayden was undeterred. He “deplore[d]” the “black nazism” [sic] of the militants, he said, for the same reason he despised Jim Crow. “Segregation in any form is stultifying. Let us direct our work toward human beings. … I want to see black writers concern themselves with truth, justice, freedom, as writers have always done (writers worth their salt, that is).”
A half a decade later, tempers had not cooled. When he published The Night-Blooming Cereus, a short collection on Bahá’í themes, a Black Aesthetic critic condemned it as “artificial” and “sterile,” complaining particularly that “Black/activity in this world [sic]” was “never at the center” of the book. That only seemed to prove Hayden’s point about propagandistic art. “I have no desire to ignore my heritage,” he told an interviewer, “any more than Yeats wanted to turn away from being Irish. At the same time, I don’t want to be limited to that.”
And he was not so limited. In 1975, his best-of collection, Angle of Ascent, was released by a major publisher. Widely celebrated, it led to his being named in the bicentennial year as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, typically called poet laureate. He was already at work on American Journal, a set of poems that included portraits of John Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and his childhood friends in the ghetto. In “The Islands,” inspired by a trip to St. Thomas, he expressed his exhaustion with the cultural fights of his age, and his longing to relish the simple beauty of life. He was “tired today / of history, its patina’d cliches / of endless evil,” he wrote. Instead, he wanted to appreciate the
Flame trees. The intricate sheen of waters flowing into sun. I wake and see the morning like a god in peacock-flower mantle dancing on opalescent waves— and can believe my furies have abandoned for a time their long pursuit.
But his last poetic word was the title work, “[American Journal],” which reflected on his abiding belief in the American dream. The lyric takes the form of a report by an extraterrestrial spy struggling to explain the United States to his superiors on his home planet. Americans, he writes, are
charming savages enlightened primitives brash new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy how describe them[?]
Despite their “ignorant pride” and their “violent cities,” the alien observes, “the americans achieved identity” somehow. And although the alien rulers would probably spurn Americans as “a decadent people,” the narrator finds himself “attracted / none the less” to “their variousness their ingenuity / their elan vital.” Above all else, there is one quality he finds precious and elusive:
we are an ancient race and have outgrown illusions cherished here item their vaunted liberty no body pushes me around i have heard Them say land of the free they sing
By the time American Journal appeared, Hayden was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life.On February 24, 1980, the University of Michigan hosted a daylong tribute to his work, but the poet was too ill to attend. Instead, some of the participants walked to his home at the close of the festivities and visited with him in his living room.He died the next day, at the age of 66.
“I cherish my individuality,” he once told an interviewer.“I don’t get involved with groups.The Bahá’í Faith is about the only organized body I can stand.” Few black writers managed to give voice to the struggle against oppression and racism than he did—from whatever direction those forces might assail him—and throughout it all he did so in his own unique way.Whether it be the white racists who denied that he had any place in the American saga, or the black separatists who agreed with them, Hayden refused to surrender his belief in the oneness of man or the universal power of art.
His life’s mission was perhaps best expressed in his 1970 poem “Words in the Mourning Time,” which he wrote “for King for Kennedy… / And for America.”After examining race riots, political assassinations, and the killing in Vietnam, he paused toward that poem’s climax to say
…this, this: we must not be frightened nor cajoled into accepting evil as deliverance from evil. We must go on struggling to be human, though monsters of abstraction police and threaten us. Reclaim now, now renew the vision of a human world where godliness is possible and man is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike but man permitted to be man.