Against and deeply engaged with the backdrop of modernism, world-renowned Black educator and poet Robert Hayden melds himself as a so-called “US” poet. Hayden’s poems are often fragmentary collages of visual images and drift between time periods, those of US history and his own position as a mid-20th-century modernist poet. Frequently implementing both fixed and experimental poetic forms, Hayden takes the syntactic structure of a Shakespearean sonnet, for example, and reworks its form with that of montage in such a precise manner that the subject matter of Frederick Douglass’s call to action fits the way the poet reimagines freedom as intrinsically shared and accessible to all.
Hayden was wary of the designation “Black poet” because of the detrimental impact of race-based segregation he experienced throughout the Jim Crow era. He refused to reduce his identity as poet to restrictive and constructed markers of ethnicity. Much of the racist hostility whites customarily held against Black people, especially those who endeavored to establish names for ourselves, poetically, artistically or otherwise, exacerbated the struggle. Hayden’s strategy for striving to cross through these racist barriers clashed with that of the Black separatists who held much of the country’s attention during the 1960s and ‘70s.
To this day, when we face a Black poem—a poem written by a Black poet, we are presented with more than what the poetic speaker brings into the poem. This is because the Black poet/Black human is both enlivened and burdened by reconciling the literary nuances of more than one reality. When a Black poem is composed, it is construed as an additive discussion within the global discourse of Blackness, and partakes of an alternate “ethnic” discourse rather than an integral aspect of the US literary fabric. Moreover, such ethnically marked discourse invites consideration of the impact of whiteness on Euro-Americans within the sphere of US politics.
Rather than attempt to integrate ourselves into the infrastructure of white society and build our sociopolitical status, proponents of Black separatism such as Larry Neal, a scholar of the 1960s and ‘70s Black Arts Movement, contended that Black people (including Hayden himself) must engage in utter disunification; it is through an uncompromising separation of human life, racially divided from white influence, that Black people could thrive and strive in the United States. Neal writes in “The Black Arts Movement” manifesto:
The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. This movement is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the [euro]western cultural aesthetic. (446)
Indeed, Neal’s provocative declaration is a most striking sentiment that echoes the collective mindset of the Black Power movement; Hayden, advancing an alternative position, however, delineates himself apart from the notion of the so-called Black artist. In his manifesto, “Counterpoise,” Hayden gives a succinctly balanced overview of how the Black artist should strive for artistic greatness. He contends:
1) we are unalterably opposed to the chauvinistic, the cultish, the special pleading, to all that seeks to limit and restrict creative expression
2) we believe experimentation to be an absolute necessity in keeping the arts vital and significant in contemporary life; therefore we support and encourage the experimental and unconventional in writing, music and the graphic arts, though we do not consider our own work avant-garde in the accepted sense of the term. (Hayden, “Counterpoise” 41)
Hayden’s stark disagreement with the Black Arts Movement’s schemata has extended the collective conversation of identity and respectability politics in the United States; more importantly, it has taken the question of the validity of the “undesignated” Black artist significantly further. Even as he celebrates the innovative and experimental, apparent in his own work, he eschews the confrontational term avant-garde,the keynote of early twentieth-century white European modernism. The disputably prolonged aftereffects of Hayden’s poetry, overall, have helped integrate Black figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Frederick Douglass, and James Baldwin into the US literary canon.
Hayden’s insistence upon racial visibility and value, despite his refusal to capitulate to the directives of the Black Arts Movement, succeeds as the leading message in his poetry. In his lines, one does not receive the totality of a unified speaker’s voice. Instead, one detects a plethora of voices that echo sentiments following said ideas. To demonstrate Hayden’s prowess as an artist and his fervent, uncompromising commitment to racial justice, we examine the multiplicity and nuances of voice, speaker, and innovative syntactic structure of “Night, Death, Mississippi” penned during the era of “Freedom Summer” 1964. Written in nine quatrains and told in two parts, the speaker addresses an instance of racist lynching. The speaker doesn’t settle for melding an individual voice to convey the “situational life” within the poem. Hayden inventively includes voices outside of himself and outside his racialized category: the white supremacist assailants, who are at first particularized and understood as members belonging to a welcoming family. Yet, the initial speaker, an aged white father figure, includes instances of recognition in response to the external world, a rural location in the US south—implying that the Black body is in impending danger:
A quavering cry. Screech-owl? Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs—
One of them, I bet—
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night. (Hayden, CP 15; lines 1-8)
Hayden’s elusive technique in voice, colloquially described as “polyphonic,” enriches the narrative element that invites us to continue unpacking what will occur throughout the poem. In particular, we receive sufficient detail – “white robes” – to discern that the elderly white man recalls the towering presence of the Ku Klux Klan. If someone or something is gaunt, it is bleak, barren—haggard in appearance. Of course, the tone of the man’s monologue is staunch and snide, as he makes othering references to the Black person as “one of them” (1.2), murdered by racist lynching. Importing the voice of an elderly man who prizes his history as a white supremacist, Hayden gives us an immediate glimpse of Mississippi’s abhorrent history. Surely, as a result, it was through the parents’ conditioned hate, objectification, infantilization, and weaponization of their own children that the US tradition of white supremacy would continue to exist, as enacted in this poem. The elderly white man voices racist nostalgia with vicarious imaginings of his son or grandson’s murderous activities:
Be there with Boy and the rest if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight
In the sweetgum dark. Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus as we cut it off. (l.12-16)
Hayden’s presentation of the reminiscing old white man as animal-like, somber, yet peculiarly “appeased” by the reality that racist whites routinely put Black people through, accentuates the poem’s historic, situational authenticity and liveliness. Here, the victim, objectified as an animal of prey, is castrated with visceral detail.
Hayden not only speaks obliquely to his own oppression as a Black man, but vivifies life into the retroactive Ku Klux Klan member. The Black poet, who resisted this label, is thus truly
in tune with the worlds in which he is creating literature. James C. Hall sees [Black] poetry as “a performative activity that sees itself in struggle with other practices” (182). He explains,
African-American poetry [. . .] is often radically reflexive and reveals much about contemporary [white] American reality. It exposes contradictory desires for autonomous selfhood and definitive community, for unlimited possibility and comforting continuity, and, as such, inevitably complicates claims as to what exactly makes up a self. This critique of subjectivity complicates both simplistic nationalisms and the impulse toward or imposition of assimilation. (Hall 92)
Black modernist poets have been no more or less capable of producing just that and much more. Following this sentiment, Edward M. Pavlić also speaks to a nuanced characteristic of Black modernist writers, specifically Hayden’s:
Like all modernisms, [Black] modernisms have one foot in the “historical” past, one in the “cultural” present. While they’ve attracted almost no critical attention at all, Hayden’s poems set in his cultural present contribute to this cultural axis of Black modernism. Like all notable [Black] modernist artists, Hayden understood that confrontations with modernity are historically contingent. (533)
Though Hayden’s confrontation with modernity was historically contingent, this choice was intersectionally impacted by social constructs of race. This is to say that Black people born in the US, possess a nuanced, dual self with which we have to make ourselves cognizant, as
W.E.B. Du Bois explained in The Souls of Black Folk(1903). Blackness and Americanness are historically and sociopolitically irreconcilable, antithetical projects. For Americanness to exist, Blackness must suffer. In that sense, Black artists such as Hayden, can only go so far within the US literary canon. This poem illuminates the manner by which Black people navigated the white supremacist South, simply by bearing witness. In the same way, the remaining lines articulated by the elderly white man, maintain the authenticity of violent anti-Black society even after he finishes speaking. The speaker concludes:
Time was. A cry?
A cry all right.
He hawks and spits, fevered as by groinfire.
Have us a bottle,
Boy and me—
he’s earned him a bottle— when he gets home. (l.16-20)
Consequently, the destruction of the Black body concludes the first portion of the poem with a reward: liquor and approbation. While the old man reminisces about his role in terrorizing Black communities, he gifts his offspring with alcohol, inviting the “boy” to revel in these atrocities with him. Via usage and distribution of alcohol, the elderly white man basks in the remembrance of and current event of the murder and death of a Black person, simultaneously adorning his offspring with this memory by projecting his racist fantasies onto him.
Hayden’s elegy, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” provides another instance of this poetic insistence upon complexity and racial dignity. Given its titular nod to internationalist Black activist, Malcolm X, Hayden memorializes a former Black separatist whom he esteemed despite his own Ba’hai commitment to unity between the races. Hayden thus furthers his skepticism about racial constructs despite the harsh reality of institutionalized race difference. The poem leads into a biographical account of X, post assassination. This poem proves exemplary in its development, first of all, in its syntactic construction. The speaker brings forward the plight of the Black man in a succession of unrhyming and irregular line lengths that vary between quatrains, tercets, and couplets. In both parts of the poem, the speaker renders the story in a way that describes a beginning, middle, and “posthumous affect” that melds into the end. In the first part of the poem, the speaker addresses a sequence that alludes to X’s autobiographical memoir:
The icy evil that struck his father down and ravished his mother into madness trapped him in violence of a punished self struggling to break free.
As Home Boy, as Dee-troit Red,
he fled his name, became the quarry of his own obsessed pursuit. (l. 1-7)
The speaker opens with an allusion to the death of X’s parents. Highlighting their existence in passing foments an unyielding curiosity. The US public has never received accurate accounts about Black life, be they alive, or assassinated by the state or the fascist FBI itself. The truths behind these state-sanctioned anti-Black murders have continually been buried throughout US soil. Analogously, within Modernist discourse, Euro-western literary obscurantism has befallen Black authors in the same vein. Thus, it was intellectually necessary that the speaker include the deaths of X’s parents in conjunction with X’s death, a legitimation and display of the ignored Black family. The speaker mentions that X’s “childhood bullied him” through “cannibal flowers of the [euro] American dream” (l. 11; 13). From the time of X’s inception, he had been introduced to nothing but Black nihilism and death.
To help further consider the consolidation of Black authorship within Modernism, we look to the poem’s progression as a whole. The speaker cleverly includes X’s transition from being a Black boy (Malcolm Little) to a drug-dealer (Detroit Red), serving time in prison, and fortifying his intellectual curiosity with literature while incarcerated. Sometime after Malcolm X’s incarceration, he gradually transitioned on his path to the Nation of Islam under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad and achieved personal and political growth that enabled his towering influence. The unwavering articulation of the of Blackness X embodies and performs throughout makes this poem a visceral experience for its readers. Hayden, whom we have previously discussed as an artist who has had to attest to his Blackness, brings our attention to the integration of literary technique and the impassioned strength of Black activism within the poetic realm. The speaker concludes:
He fell upon his face before
Allah the raceless in whose blazing Oneness all
were one. He rose renewed renamed, became
much more than there was time for him to be. (l. 52-55)
The speaker gives us melancholic lines that affirm Malcolm X as a Black human being, the Black activist he existed as when he was alive, and with this poem, constitutes his legacy after his being assassinated. As such, Hayden laments that Malcolm X died before “his time” and finds solidarity with him through their mutual commitment to the Oneness of all despite their differing strategies to fight systematic racist oppression. As in “Counterpoise” manifesto mentioned above, Hayden insists upon Black ownership of modernist innovation and the dissolution of difference based on racial constructs.
To this end, we have examined pivotal instances in which a Black writer has laboriously acclimated himself and, by extension, ourselves within the US literary canon. Speaking specifically to the linguistic particularities of Black poets such as Robert Hayden, modernism has become a complicated, nuanced movement that has been juggled between the literary voices of the colonizer and the colonized subject. The promise of racial integration proved to be an ineffective and illusory schema that has only worked in favor of privileged, racist whites, but it has not utterly obscured colonized voices. During the outgrowth of Modernism, Hayden successfully broke the cultural gap by fomenting his Black successors to extend the discourse on race-relations further into the artistic realm. Furthermore, he introduced accurate, honest racial representation in the US literary canon through his own experimental and highly innovative techniques.
Hall, James C. Mercy, Mercy Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties. Oxford UP, 2001.
Hayden, Robert. Collected Poems. Frederick Glaysher, ed.. Liveright, 2013.
—. “Counterpoise.” Collected Prose: Robert Hayden, Frederick Glaysher, ed. U of Michigan P, 1984, 41-42.
Neal, Larry. “The Black Arts Movement.” The Portable Sixties Reader, Anne Charles, ed.. Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 446-453.
Pavlić, Edward M. “‘Something Patterned, Wild, and Free’: Robert Hayden’s Angles of Descent and the Democratic Unconscious.” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 4, 2002, pp. 533–555.