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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

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Robert Hayden's lengthy poem about the African-American experience during the era of slave trade contains many significant and powerful quotations, all of which help Hayden to convey his overarching themes. Some particularly illustrative quotations are given below, with commentary:

10 April 1800—
Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says their moaning is a prayer for death,
ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.
Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter
to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.

This first quotation is vitally important, as it sets the tone for the rest of the poem to follow. The date indicates the time period with which the poem is concerned. The curt "Blacks rebellious" shows the offhand way with which the slavetrader who is speaking considers his cargo: they are "moaning," apparently praying for death, and yet to the slavetrader, this is an act of rebellion on their part, causing them to be "lost" like cargo as they fling themselves to their death. A particularly poignant detail is the reference to them singing as they enter the sea, knowing that they will die and, yet, preferring this to their captivity. Most significantly of all, the voice we hear is that of the slavetrader, not the slaves—what they are saying is obfuscated, wordless; we have to trust to the interpretation of the white "linguist." The black experience, this quotation suggests, has long been defined by white voices, with blacks not allowed to speak. The wording here is echoed later in the poem, where blacks are described in other slaveholder interludes as "sweltering cattle" and "the burning blacks"—they are not people in the eyes of these men; although, they claim to be Christians.

Middle Passage:
voyage through death
to life upon these shores.
This is a vital quotation. Hayden both opens and closes his poem with the latter two lines, indicating that the black experience is encapsulated by this idea. The voyage they experience, and the treatment that is meted out to them, is terrible and endless: this is made evident throughout the poem. Only because the slaves understand that after this death, there will be a new life, are they able to keep going. Perhaps that "life" is not yet really available to them, but there is always the promise of it. The slaves' "timeless will" keeps them alive where life should have been impossible to endure.
Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,
of his bones New England pews are made,
those are altar lights that were his eyes.
This is a Shakespearean allusion which evokes T.S. Eliot—we recognize the phrasing and rhythms, but the words have been changed. Alluding to The Tempest ("Full fathom five thy father lies...") this eerie lyric is not literal in its message, but it is evocative. The forefathers of many black men were indeed confined to the "festering holds" of ships, and while pews were not made literally of their bones, it is true that much of the modern US was built upon the backs of slaves. The transported slave has become a legendary figure, unworldly and eerie. He is not represented in the white Western canon, as represented by Shakespeare: instead, Hayden has to put him there.