Hayden repeatedly affirmed that he did not want to be labeled simply as an African American poet who wrote about and for black readers. In his work, he said,I am not so interested in pointing out what is singularly black or Afro-American as in pointing out something about the way people live. . . . Perhaps we’ve had to go through a phase of ethnicity, but now we must move to our common heritage.
This could hardly mean that Hayden, who had grown up in a black slum, who had faced racial obstacles throughout his life, and who had steeped himself in African American history would ignore or downplay the black experience in his work. On the contrary, most of his significant poems are careful reflections on this experience. Rather, his emphasis on “common humanity” is to be seen in how he presents this ethnic experience within a broad philosophical framework and in how he reserves special attention for molding a personal language and style that draw on, without being subsumed by, black English.
One of the major focuses of Hayden’s work is religion. A turning point in the poet’s life came when he abandoned the fundamentalist Christianity of his youth to embrace the Baha’í religion, a faith that emphasizes the underlying unity of all religious credos and of all races. The Baha’í religion provided a pattern of belief that would inform many of his poems. In Words in the Mourning Time, for example, it is only a faith in the evolving brotherhood of all peoples that leads the poem’s speaker out of the despair brought on by a meditation on America’s troubles.
A second religious motif found in Hayden’s work, to which he was sensitized by his own journey from the religion of his youth to the one of his adulthood, is that of the personal crisis that results in a change of faith. Hayden is acutely aware of how an ethical orientation may grow, and, in the process, possibly cause a change in religious allegiance. This is illustrated in “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” a 1962 poem that concentrates on the antebellum slave-revolt leader’s conversion experience. Wandering in the woods, Turner has a vision of a war in Heaven between good and evil angels that transmutes into a battle between slaves and masters, with the slaves eventually winning the victory. Thus Turner’s Christianity—a faith that, as disseminated by the masters, stressed forbearance and acceptance of life’s yokes—is transformed by Turner’s vision into a radicalized liberation theology.
Equally important as a theme for Hayden was the black struggle for freedom. Rather than seeing this struggle in parochial terms as one limited ethnic fight, the poet sets it within humanity’s perpetual striving for justice. Thus in the poignant “Frederick Douglass” (1949), Hayden’s aim is not so much to eulogize a great leader as to emphasize that Douglass will neither be properly celebrated nor even correctly understood until the world has escaped all oppression and freedom has become “reflex action.” Whereas in “Words in the Mourning Time” Hayden links antiblack racism in the South with anti-Asian racism in Southeast Asia, in his poem about Douglass he situates the African American struggle for freedom in illuminatingly wide parameters.
This contextualization of one struggle within a wider horizon is carried out by Hayden at the linguistic level through a unique blending of voices and idioms. His work sometimes gives distinctly African American diction pride of place, but as only one element that is part of a felicitous mixture of styles and voices.
His mixing of discourses appears in the way that some of his most powerful poetic vehicles involve a shifting among voices. This is displayed clearly in a poem that has often been identified as his masterpiece, “Middle Passage” (1945). The poem describes the voyages of slave ships carrying human cargo from Africa to plantations in the Americas. Not only does the poem recount the sufferings of the captives, but it also alternates these viewpoints with accounts given by the slave traders. In presenting these accounts, Hayden never takes the sides of the purveyors of human flesh, but he is willing to adopt their viewpoints in some passages. The technique allows him to present a much wider picture of the slave trade as well as to provide a wider feeling for the human tragedy of the whole enterprise, which dehumanized all involved.
Even where Hayden eschews the use of more than one speaker, he artfully mixes different types of language. An example of Hayden’s combinatorial style is “El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X)” (1967), in which the poet weaves together in one voice a heightened Romantic diction, slang, and phrases from the American Black Muslim movement and the religion of Islam as practiced in the Middle East. Such poems give the reader the impression that a single voice is picking its way through the varied, interconnecting dialects of the United States in order to create one unified, mighty speech.
In such relatively monovocal presentations, the leading part is supplied by a nuanced, ambiguous voice loved by academics. Hayden’s decision to use this voice as his principal one brought him into disfavor with those African American writers who called for an identifiably black tone in literature. It is worth arguing, however, that this one voice best represents Hayden’s stance as one who, in his writing, wanted to take a step away from his own and his race’s specific life experiences in order to be able to return with redoubled clarity and feeling.
First published: 1945 (collected and revised in Collected Poems, 1985)
Type of work: Poem
A historical collage re-creates the voyages of slave ships taking Africans to the New World.
In “Middle Passage” Hayden mingles the voices of multiple speakers to depict the voyages of slave traders bringing Africans across the Atlantic...
(The entire section is 2456 words.)