Robert Hayden and Being Politically Correct
One dilemma facing contemporary American Poets is that of political correctness. Usually the issue of politically correct writing is associated with writers in countries with oppressive totalitarian regimes, but the problem is broader than that. In any time or place when a person is expected to write according to the agenda of some other person or idea, and is castigated for not doing so, then political correctness is the issue. At first glance the issue of political correctness may not appear to be related to either the form or style of poetry, but if art is forced to be politically correct that affects all aspects of the art. And in these days of easily inflamed passions, the issue is imperative.
One American poet who faced this issue was Robert Hayden. Though he died in 1980 the appropriateness of his refusal to bow to the agenda of others (hence, to be politically correct) has become more and more evident. The issue was race. Born in 1913 he grew up a "Negro." In the 1960's he was called "Black" and then, when he refused to submit to a militant "Black Agenda," he was denounced as a traitor to his race, an "Uncle Tom" and a "white nigger." He was neither.
The pain he suffered was immense, but his commitment to the entirety of the human race would not let him narrowly restrict his scope to any one race at the expense of any other. He did not believe that hatred, in any direction, was a solution to any problem. Over the years his poetry, illuminating the experience of African-Americans, has been repeatedly published in anthologies on many subjects, while the writings of his detractors are largely considered African-American Literature or part of African-American Studies. Hayden's work, appearing in popular anthologies, educates a wider audience about the experience of being an African-American.
The setting for this issue of political correctness (before the term itself was coined) occurred at a writers conference at Fisk University in 1966 when Hayden was teaching there. This was during the forward surge of the militant Black Power movement. In retrospect, this effort to establish the independence and integrity of the African-American identity was necessary and timely. At the conference all African-American writers where challenged to align themselves with the militant's definition of a Black Aesthetic, where "Blackness" was the central aim. Writers who did not comply faced rejection. Hayden would not submit. In turn, he was attacked.
Hayden had spent his life striving for excellence in his writing, to be accepted without a limiting designation, and was finally beginning to feel he had made some small achievements. Those attending the conference were largely young, inexperienced and had no perspective on Hayden's struggle. It was their intolerance that hurt Hayden the most.
The attacks on his independence continued for the rest of his life. His poetry was not sufficiently "Black" for the agenda of the militant Black Aesthetic. As the years passed the stridency of the attacks lessened and grudging respect was given to the quality of Hayden's work, but the chasm was there. It was only resolved the day before he died when the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan hosted a tribute in his honor.
As Pontheolla Williams explains in her work Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry that "...he (Hayden) was severely attacked by a group of militant black nationalists who had convened at Fisk University (where Hayden taught) for the first Black Writers' Conference. Having achieved some status in American and international literary circles, he incurred the active displeasure, and perhaps jealousy, of the black militants who raised the political issue of the black writer's role during the `searing sixties.' They espoused the Maoist-inspired philosophy, decreed by Ron Karenga and other black nationalists, that black literature should be didactic and propagandistic for the purpose of indoctrinating the masses in their revolutionary cause."(p.30-31) Hayden refused to participate that way.
Hayden did not back down from his four point position stated in 1948 (eighteen years earlier) in Counterpoise 3, that being: 1) opposition to the chauvinistic, the cultish, and special pleading; 2) support and encouragement for the `experimental and the unconventional in writing, music and the graphic arts'; 3) opposition to criticism of work based `entirely in the light of sociology and politics'; 4) opposition to `criticism of work by editors, reviewers and anthologists who refuse encouragement or critical guidance because the work may deal with realities. (p.28)
The position statement ended with the affirmation that, "We believe in the oneness of mankind and the importance of the arts in the struggle for peace and unity." These points did not agree with the agenda of militant Black Power and Hayden was accused of being a traitor to his race who had "sold out."
When Hayden would not cave in to their demands he was attacked from another angle: on his refusal of long-standing to be labeled a "Black Poet." Hayden tried to explain that he was not rejecting his African-American heritage, nor relegating it to some inconsequential position, but he did not want any label; none at all. He only wanted to be a POET, and the best possible one he could be. If his background happened to be African-American, so be it. He wanted to write the best possible poems so he could contribute quality work to the literature of the world, not because he was black, nor in spite of being black; he just happened to be black.
Williams explained, the militants voices were, "confusing artistic aims with political activism, they espoused political separatism and encouraged the rejection of traditional aesthetics and literary standards as monuments of a degenerate, racist culture. It was this artistically naive failure to recognize the necessity of individual integrity, demanding that the artist subordinate his creative talents and perception to the socio-political goals of the group, that Hayden would not condone." (p.31-32) The pain of this rejection lasted the rest of Hayden's lifetime.
Yet even in the few years since Hayden's death in February 1980, one result of Hayden's position can be noted. Increasingly, Hayden's poems are being chosen for inclusion in a broad range of anthologies, and a majority of these poems deal with the African-American experience. They bring to ever larger numbers of readers, from all backgrounds, an increasing appreciation for the African-American experience thereby increasing the level of understanding throughout American culture as a whole.
From the ghetto of Detroit, to Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress (now designated "Poet Laureate of the United States"), to a voice continuing to bring understanding between two races, Robert Earl Hayden has achieved a significant position in American Letters.