Explicate the poem "Names" by Robert Hayden.

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This poem by Robert Hayden partly describes his own life and the realization that the name he was raised with is not the name of his birth parents. However, some African American readers have also taken this poem as representative of their own feelings upon realizing that the names used...

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This poem by Robert Hayden partly describes his own life and the realization that the name he was raised with is not the name of his birth parents. However, some African American readers have also taken this poem as representative of their own feelings upon realizing that the names used by their families are, ultimately, names taken from slave owners, not their original names. This feeling has been famously expressed by Malcolm X.

At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is a bookish child who is called names such as "Four Eyes" because he wears glasses. This causes him to retreat into books, "Tom Swift and Kubla Khan."

When he reaches his "fourth decade," the speaker discovers that the name he had always believed was his own—as opposed to the false names people called him—was, in fact, a false name too. This makes him feel disoriented, but he ultimately realizes that it does not matter—those who lied to him "are dead," "like the life my mother fled." Whatever has happened to him in the past does not really matter, and yet, he cannot help pausing to consider what might have been, "the life I might have led." Knowing how he has been lied to, the speaker cannot help but feel that he is in some way "a ghost, an alter ego" of the self he perhaps should have been.

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"Names" is a semi-autobiographical poem. The first stanza details the taunting that Hayden endured as a child due to his "extreme nearsightedness":

Once they were sticks and stones
I feared would break my bones:
Four Eyes. And worse.
Old Four Eyes fled
to safety in the danger zones
Tom Swift and Kubla Khan traversed

The "safety" appears to be the young Hayden's retreat into fiction ("Tom Swift") and poetry ("Kubla Khan"). For Hayden, whose home life was also a place of anger and violence, the books may have offered the only safety that he could find.

The second stanza seems to address his newly discovered knowledge of the fact that he had been raised by "foster parents" after his birth parents left him:

When my fourth decade came,
I learned my name was not my name.
I felt deserted, mocked.
Why had the old ones lied?
No matter. They were dead.

The "old ones" refer to the foster parents who raised him. Now, his real name—the one he thought was "real" due to blood ties—becomes another source of mockery, another indirect way of being made to feel inadequate and unwanted.

In the third stanza, "the name on the books" has a possible double meaning. It could refer to the names of the authors or historical figures that Hayden read in his youth or his legal name, which has no standing because he is not "on the books." His loss of a name leads him to question his overall identity. Who is he, if not Robert Hayden? Does he really exist, or is he existing as a version of another self he will never know?

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