How was Robert Hayden able to capture the African-American experience in his poem "Middle Passage"?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator
By emphasizing both suffering and its countervailing force of restoration, Hayden is able to capture the African American experience in "Middle Passage."
Hayden recognizes that slavery contains a tremendous amount of pain. It is clear that he uses his poem as a way to communicate this aspect of the African American experience:
A charnel stench, effluvium of living death   
spreads outward from the hold,
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,   
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.
A distinct part of the African-American experience is slavery's legacy.  Hayden makes it clear it must be confronted.  It must be recognized for what it is.  In using such visceral language such as "stench," "living death," and "blood and excrement," Hayden is affirming that there is a painful historical and psychological condition within the African American experience.  
Yet, Hayden recognizes that the African American experience is more than hurt. While suffering is an indelible part of any group made to experience the Middle Passage, of "sharks following the moans the fever and the dying," Hayden understands the presence of restoration. It was hope that allowed so many to persevere through slavery's horrors.  Refrains in the poem such as "Voyage through death / to life upon these shores" conveys how the struggle through hardship is a part of the African American experience.  The faith in the divine is another aspect of this restoration.  This aspect of the African American experience is communicated through the poem:
Jesus    Saviour    Pilot    Me
Over    Life’s    Tempestuous    Sea
Hayden recognizes that the African American experience contains suffering and redemption.  Hayden articulates this in the idea that the African American experience is about “weaving toward New World littorals that are mirage and myth and actual shore.”
Read the study guide:
Middle Passage

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