Robert Hayden's Epic of Community
by Benjamin Friedlanderpublished in Melus
Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States, 1998
As early as 1941 Robert Hayden prepared himself for the task of writing a "black-skinned epic," an ambition he formed after reading Stephen Vincent Benet's long Civil War poem, John Brown's Body. Interviewed in 1972, Hayden spoke of this ambition in the following manner:
Speaking here of "our" history and "our" past, Hayden shifts easily from the first person singular to first person plural, a reminder that all historical epics are first of all affirmations of community. Yet readers familiar with Hayden's concerns, with the care of his writing, will hear in this particular affirmation a quiet but important ambiguity. For while he speaks in this passage in the first person plural, it is not entirely clear whether his "our" is meant to encompass all of America, or only the Negro portion. As I shall try to show, the possibility afforded by this ambiguity is a major theme of Hayden's later work.
Over the years Hayden's planned epic--his ambitious corrective to cliches and misconceptions about black history--would assume many forms, reaching temporary completion as a collection of poems called The Black Spear, "a mixture of styles, idioms" submitted to various publishers but eventually withdrawn (Collected Prose 187). Asked about the genesis of this collection, Hayden recalled:
Hayden eventually abandoned The Black Spear, but the inspiration driving the project remained strong. Indeed, the inclusion of a sequence of meditations on John Brown in the posthumous volume American Journal--there are also poems for Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar--indicates the depth of Hayden's commitment to this original impetus of his work. The principal difference between The Black Spear and American Journal is the nature of Hayden's use of the first person plural--the pronoun of community. Implicit from the beginning in Benet's call for a black epic was an essentialist understanding of the poet's relationship to this pronoun. Hayden's increasingly deft interrogation of this essentialism thus provides an especially useful means of tracing the development of Hayden's art. Leaving behind the writing of Benet's "black-skinned epic," he increasingly took on the task of writing a more generally American poetry, first under the aegis of a passionate universalism, later through a stance somewhat akin to multiculturalism.
An early collation of The Black Spear won for Hayden the Hopwood Award for 1942, judged by W. H. Auden; a single poem survives from that manuscript in Hayden's Collected Poems--"O Daedelus, Fly Away Home."(1) Another early poem, "Frederick Douglass," conceived originally as the final sonnet in a sequence celebrating "outstanding figures in the antislavery struggle," was also written for that project (Collected Prose 185). Then too there's "Middle Passage," prepared specifically as The Black Spear's opening, now Hayden's most famous poem, an early version of which appeared in Phylon. Epic in scale if not length, this astonishing work allows us to consider Hayden's abandonment of The Black Spear as something other than a sign of failure.
Of course, as is often the case with writers' projects, The Black Spear was never really abandoned after all, but only underwent a metamorphosis. As Hayden developed a more complicated relationship to history, his answer to Benet's call for an epic, poetic treatment of the black experience became muted, surviving in piecemeal fashion as the fifth and final section of Selected Poems--now the final five poems of the section "A Ballad of Remembrance" in Hayden's Collected Poems.(2) "What remains," declares Charles T. Davis, "is not simply `O Daedalus, Fly Away Home' and `Frederick Douglass,' but a preoccupation with a continuing historical ambition" (253). A glance at the original dates of publication bears out Davis's observation that Hayden's "continuing historical ambition" lends coherence to the fragments of the abandoned book. The section begins with "Middle Passage" (1943, revised 1962), continues with "Daedelus" (1942), "The Ballad of Nat Turner" (1962) and "Runagate Runagate" (1949), then concludes with "Frederick Douglass" (1945). The sequence, though it covers a twenty-year period, is nonchronological; or rather, the logic of its chronology reflects the development of an African American community, does not follow the order of composition. We begin with the slave ships, hearing tell--principally from the slavers themselves--of The Amistad rebellion, and of Cinquez; now in the New World, we listen to the wind and hear its echoes of Africa; next we hear the biblically inflected stanzas of Hayden's tribute to Nat Turner; next, moving closer to the period of the Civil War, we're told about the Underground Railroad, and Harriet Tubman, in a language beautifully informed by the rhythm and phraseology of gospel singing, of sermon; finally, in a sonnet which (according to Hayden) "owes something to Gerard Manley Hopkins," we arrive at the very threshold of emancipation.
For Charles T. Davis, Hayden's history poems are distinguished throughout by an historiographic difference from the long Civil War poem of Benet which inspired them. Principally, writes Davis, this difference consists in the superiority of Hayden's documentation, in Hayden's deeper reliance on folk materials, and in Hayden's vision of history. "Benet," declares Davis,
Hayden corroborates Davis's claims in a 1967 statement:
Davis emphasizes the struggle for spiritual liberation in Hayden's poetry. Michael Collins--addressing the same aspect--speaks of Hayden as a universalist:
I'm not sure I agree with this characterization, but certainly Hayden--a member of the Bahai faith--was concerned in his work to "calibrate" the differences constitutive of America, without pretense that such calibration might "penetrate or name" America's "essence" or "quiddity." Thus the alien observer of Hayden's science fiction poem "[American Journal]":
In these lines from his final book, Hayden identifies America as a problem whose many variables--as in an algebra problem--forever threaten the viability of any single solution.
For Du Bois, the problem of community was the problem of the color-line, "the relation of the darker to the lighter races," and to seek in poetry a solution to this problem was certainly one of Hayden's motivations in writing--or attempting to write---The Black Spear (13). Yet if we take seriously--as I think Hayden did--the possibility that the color-line is an algebraic problem, it becomes clear The Black Spear could only be a solution for a particular set of variables, for a particular moment in the history of that problem. Indeed, if we return to John Brown's Body and the passage where Benet calls for a "black skinned epic," we discover that the moment in question--the same moment which preoccupies Du Bois in Souls--is the chaos and jubilation of emancipation, what Du Bois calls "The Dawn of Freedom" (13). At this Dawn, and again after Reconstruction, the necessity of upholding the character and contributions of the former slaves appeared to depend on locating the "essence" or "quiddity" of Negro life. For Hayden, however, writing after World War Two, America had become "as much a problem of metaphysics" as an actual "nation" or "organism." To examine, then, the "fact or fantasy" of America by studying the specific situation of the Negro--a situation "that changes / even as [we] examine it"--appeared more pertinent than honing a portrait of Negro life useful as a weapon. For Hayden, the emphasis had shifted, and definitively, from a fixed concept of race (in which humanity is the key "point"), to a fluid concept of humanity (in which race is the key "measure"). Eventually, this shift would lead Hayden to form his own Bahá'í-inflected version of multiculturalism. We get a hint of this when Hayden says in a Bicentennial year interview:
The fruition of these ideas is "[American Journal]," where Hayden refers to Americans as "this baffling / multi people" (Collected Poems 182).
Such a view is not in evidence in the poems of The Black Spear--or rather, in those fragments of The Black Spear which form the last section of Hayden's Selected Poems. Neither do those poems contradict such a view--Hayden's multiculturalism is both an outgrowth of The Black Spear, and an overcoming of The Black Spear's underlying assumptions about identity. Already in 1948, in his manifesto "Counterpoise," Hayden had declared, "we believe in the oneness of mankind and the importance of the arts in the struggle for peace and unity" (Collected Prose 42). Twenty years later, prefacing a new edition of Alain Locke's The New Negro, Hayden wrote what might have been an assessment of his own earlier aims:
The combination of "rebellion," "self-discovery" and "reassessment" is "crucial," limited primarily by the unexamined concept of Americanism. Yet Hayden shows himself aware of this limitation. Placing "Americanism" within quotes, he marks off that word as a site for future contestation.
The particular foresight of Hayden's achievement in The Black Spear was his bringing to bear upon the historical struggle of African Americans a sense of human struggle that led him, in his subsequent work, to question Benet's division of American experience into "white" and "black" epics. In Hayden's later work, the relation of such antinomies tells more than either side alone has power to articulate. This is nowhere clearer than in "The Dream"--a poem part of and yet subsequent to The Black Spear--where Hayden puts into play such seemingly natural contraries as writing and speech, dream and action, masculinity and femininity. Here, in a poem situated in the midst of the Civil War, The Black Spear reveals itself as something other than a weapon in the historical war for freedom. The Black Spear is now also revealed as a sign of the dream of freedom--a freedom whose ultimate manifestation is the transhistorical power of hope. No longer, moreover, is this transhistorical hope the abstract "oneness" of the "Counterpoise" manifesto; nor is it the privileged concept of "Americanness" implicit in The Black Spear. The sense of community promised by the dream within "The Dream" depends instead upon the particularity of the dreamer's experience--historically specific, and yet transcendent.
"The Dream" grows out of The Black Spear and to some extent reads as a commentary on that project. For one thing, while the poems of The Black Spear bring us to the threshold of emancipation, "The Dream" occurs just the other side of that event. For another, Hayden composed "The Dream" by combining two of the poems originally written for The Black Spear"--a doubleness that survives in "The Dream"'s very structure.(4) Alternating sections of verse and prose record the stories of Sinda, an aged slave, and Cal, a black soldier of the Union Army. Likewise, while Cal tells his own story in a letter home (an historical document), Sinda's perceptions are given in a third-person verse narration. Most importantly, while Cal is a man of action, Sinda is a dreamer. This doubleness--a doubleness at the very heart of Hayden's hope for a "blackskinned epic"--forestalls us from ascribing to Hayden any single view of history. The sense of community Hayden conjures in "The Dream" does not eradicate but is instead sustained by this doubleness--by the complementarity of Hayden's two visions of history. Thus, Cal's offering of sacrifice--told by Hayden in a recreation of a Negro soldier's prose--is only half of "The Dream." Sinda's deferral from participation is of equal weight, is perhaps more than half, since here Hayden gives reign to his own poetic gifts. Yet neither half can really be said to consummate the poem proper; "The Dream" is the two together. The poem's arrangement emphasizes this, for the two halves are so mutually dependent as to make a separate reading of Cal's and Sinda's portions both difficult and unsatisfying. The effect of each depends upon the interruption registered by the other. The two are conceptually intertwined.
The poems of The Black Spear--as presented in Hayden's Selected Poems--drew strength from their mutual proximity. "The Dream"-- second poem in Hayden's subsequent volume, Words in the Mourning Time--occupies a more isolated position, occurring between two poems whose concern with history isn't immediately obvious, "Sphinx" and "'Mystery Boy' Looks for Kin in Nashville"(5) History, we might infer, has become more mysterious for Hayden, its contemplation providing less a corrective than a riddle. These two not-necessarily-competing historiographic positions--history perceived as riddle, history offered as corrective--are represented in the poem by the twin concerns of Cal and Sinda. Cal's purpose is putting slavery to an end, though the only goal he states in his letter is catching and hanging Jefferson Davis. The freedom he seeks is practical specific, and to the extent he so conceives it, already attained. For Sinda, emancipation is redemption. Her vision requires "great big soldiers marching out of gunburst," and includes the faces, not only of Cal, but Joe (who may be Cal's brother) and Charlie ("sold to the ricefields oh sold away / a-many and a-many a long year ago"). For Cal--a soldier preoccupied with practical problems yet nonchalant in the face of death--such signs as God may send are interpreted without difficulty. For Sinda, on the other hand, tempted by stray sounds and stray forces, history is a more complicated affair. Indeed, when "Marse Lincum's soldier boys" do finally arrive, Sinda hides and will not follow; "those / Buckras with their ornery / funning cussed commands, oh they were not were not / the hosts the dream had promised her." For Cal and Sinda, emancipation has distinct but supplementary meanings--a supplementarity to which Cal alludes when he describes his own experience as "somthing you mite dream about"(6) We have, then, two versions of what it means to enter history--which in "The Dream" means, pointedly enough, facing the future. While Sinda faces the future by persevering, by holding to "the bannering sounds" of her dream, Cal offers himself in sacrifice to "the Bullit with my name Rote on it." This figure of the bullet suggests an ironic reformulation of Benet's figure of the black spear. Only by sacrifice can the name of an African American enter history.
"The Dream" is subtitled with a date, 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Hayden, who certainly knew his history, may have been recalling the second chapter of Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk, "Of the Dawn of Freedom":
I suggested earlier that The Black Spear offered a solution to the problem of America as posed at the moment when "the barriers were levelled." What does it mean, then, that Hayden, having finally laid The Black Spear to rest, having gathered together and published the poems that were to constitute it, returns to that moment, reimagining its meaning for two very different African Americans? And what does it mean that this reimagination involves the portrait of a slave-- Sinda--who sees no such levelling? Who refuses to join the stream of fugitives? I say re-imagining: the link between The Black Spear and "The Dream" is maintained by other means than the incorporation of two early poems, for the content of "The Dream" recalls, in addition to the abandoned or superseded project of writing "a blackskinned epic," the portion of John Brown's Body which inspired Hayden in the first place. In Book Eight, describing General Sherman's march to the sea, Benet attempts to evoke the life of the freed slaves left behind by the Union Army. No doubt Benet had read Souls of Black Folk and been impressed by Du Bois's description of Sherman's entourage, the "dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them" (17). In "The Dream," Du Bois's "dark human cloud" is called "a ragged jubilo."(8) This is what Benet sees:
He also sees those who fall away from the phalanx, or who disdain joining in the first place. Writes Benet:
Oh, blackskinned epic, epic with the black spear, I cannot sing you, having too white a heart, And yet, some day, a poet will rise to sing you And sing you with such truth and mellowness, --Deep mellow of the husky golden voice Crying dark heaven through the spirituals, Soft mellow of the levee roustabouts, Singing at night against the banjo moon-- That you will be a match for any song Sung by old, populous nations in the past, And stand like hills against the American sky, And lay your black spear down by Roland's horn. (354)
It is not difficult to imagine Hayden's enthusiasm when he first read these lines, for in their generosity and open excitement before the prospect of a Black poetry, they are still more uncommon than is likely to make us comfortable. The "coonskin drum and jubilee banjo" of Hayden's "Daedalus," the "livid trees / where Ibo warriors / hung shadowless, turning in wind / that moaned like Africa" in "Nat Turner," the "darkness thicketed with shapes of terror" in "Runagate Runagate," all fulfill Benet's prophecy, not only in their content, but through their "husky, golden voice / Crying dark heaven through the spirituals" (Collected Poems 55, 56, 59). How then does "The Dream" articulate a difference, not only from Benet, but from the poem Benet calls for? The answer lies in the relationship established by Hayden's poem between dream and history.
In his book on Hayden, Fred Fetrow cites "The Dream" for its "thematic treatment of time as a barrier to human realization"--a description in detail of a dream deferred (118). Indeed, Hayden's poem defines "The Dream" as deferral. For Hayden, Sinda's persistence--the faith she keeps with her vision, a vision of community--is no less admirable than Cal's sacrifice, is in fact what signifies the ultimate worthiness of that sacrifice. Cal's success at entering history depends upon his succumbing to the forces of history. Nor is Cal the only instance of such a succumbing in Hayden's later poetry. The final piece in Angle of Ascent registers another example of sacrifice:
Hayden is not derisory of Cal's willingness to die, nor is he derisory of the achievement of Attucks (the first victim of the Revolutionary War). To enter history as a hero even a "Moot" hero--is a significant event, worthy of sacrifice, even as sacrifice is worthy of remembrance. Moreover, the citation of both "Betsy Ross" and "Garvey" flags indicates that Attucks is remembered by more than one community.(10) In the end, it is community that redeems the losses of history, and insofar as the future of a memory is at stake, such communities are always communities to come. In this, Cal depends as much as Sinda on the promise of the dream. Though Sinda seems to hide from history, remaining true instead to "the hosts" promised by her vision, her persistence is as much a sacrifice as Cal's. In the penultimate stanza of Hayden's poem we thus find her close to death, trembling and tottering to the road, as though only her utmost preparation could bring the vision to fruition:
She tried to stand, could not so much as lift her head, tried to hold the bannering sounds, heard only the whippoorwills in tenuous moonlight; struggled to rise and made her way to the road to welcome Joe and Cal and Charlie, fought with brittle strength to rise.
If "the Bullit with my name Rote on it" is indeed Hayden's reformulation of Benet's figure of the "black spear," then by opposing to Cal's sacrifice Sinda's persistence, her struggle to stay alive so as to welcome a coming community, Hayden points the way to a new phase in his work.
The community Sinda awaits is not yet a community of difference. For such a vision we must turn instead to Hayden's "Elegies for Paradise Valley." In these eight poems from American Journal a lost community is summoned--the centerpiece of the sequence ironically suggests a seance--by what is less an act of redemption than "a gazing upon the Medusa" (Collected Prose 21). The community in question is the poor, predominantly black portion of Detroit where Hayden spent the early part of his life. Recalling this neighborhood after a visit back, Hayden once wrote:
The importance of the "Elegies" in the present context is Hayden's careful deconstruction of the opposition between "us" and "them," an opposition which determines so much of our discourse about identity, community and history, and which necessarily animates the narrative of transformation told in the poems of The Black Spear. In the "Elegies," the progression of meanings taken on by these two pronouns itself tells the story of Hayden's often difficult identifications.
In the first poem of the sequence, Hayden's "them" is the police, for whom "us" is signified by a dead junkie "shoved into a van," a sight Hayden catches from a "shared" bedroom window. From that vantage, says the poet, "I saw the hatred for our kind / glistening like tears / in the policeman's eyes" (Collected Poems 163). "Our kind": African Americans, perhaps; in any case the poor; an identification between the child poet and the junkie recognized by the child and by the police alike. In the next poem of the sequence, however, the meaning of this "us" has already metamorphosed. The first person plural now gathers together the children of the ghetto, robbed of innocence; "them" is now the ghetto's adult population. Most importantly, the relationship between "us" and "them" has also changed: "Godfearing / elders, Godless grifters, tried / as best they could to shelter / us. Rats fighting in their walls" (Collected Poems 164). Before, the relationship between "us" and "them" was one of suspicion and hate; now, dependence and protection. Moreover, as in the first poem, an identification gathers together what might have seemed hopelessly opposed figures--before, child and junkie; now, "God-fearing" and "Godless."
The rest of the sequence, mournful to be sure, is above all a celebration of lost community. Chinese, Italian, Gypsy and African American, men and women, gay and straight--the procession of names and memories is vertiginous. Especially moving to me is the seventh poem in the sequence, a recollection of Paradise Valley's gypsy population, which again involves a wry consideration of the opposition between "us" and "them":
Our parents warned us: Gypsies kidnap you. And we must never play with Gypsy children: Gypsies all got lice in their hair. Their queen was dark as Cleopatra in the Negro History Book. Their king's sinister arrogance flashed fire like the diamonds on his dirty hands. Quite suddenly he was dead, his tribe clamoring in grief. They take on bad as Colored Folks Uncle Crip allowed. Die like us too. Zingaros: Tzigeune: Gitanos: Gypsies: pornographers of gaudy otherness: aliens among the alien: thieves: carriers of sickness: like us like us. (Collected Poems 169)
In his poems subsequent to The Black Spear, Hayden increasingly concerns himself with the question of how communities are constituted. The meaning of the first person plural--the pronoun of community--can no longer be assumed, or left blankly open. At the start of his career, Hayden had endeavored to demonstrate "the black man's 'Americanness'"--a kind of universalism that tended toward the effacement of difference, witness the telling recourse to the male gender. Here, at the end of his career, the peculiar ("gaudy") quality of Americanness, now identified as "otherness," overtakes this universalism and quietly qualifies it--a shift with enormous implications for a poetry that would draw the contours of community, that would speak in the first person plural.
(1.) In addition to Hayden's own comments given in the interviews reprinted in his Collected Prose, I have relied on Appendix C to Pantheolla T. Williams's book on Hayden, where a "Chronological Listing of Robert Hayden's Poetry, Including Reprints and Revised Works" is given. This chronology lists the contents of the Hopwood manuscript. See also Reginald Gibbons, "Robert Hayden in the 1940's," which presents several uncollected poems from the period in question.
(2.) Though Hayden's Collected Poems appeared posthumously, the title of the section "Ballad of Remembrance" and the order of the poems are Hayden's own, devised for the 1975 collection Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems.
(3.) The passage continues with an acknowledgment of the centrism of Locke's position. "This hope," writes Hayden, "was not shared by Garvey and other nationalists, as we know, and today's black revolutionists repudiate Negro `Americanism' in favor of separatism" (Collected Prose 64).
(4.) That Hayden would revisit these unpublished poems after nearly 30 years tells us something useful about Hayden's sense of craft, and about the continuities and discontinuities which inform his work.
(5.) The ordering of Collected Poems preserves and even highlights this sequencing by narrowing the space between volumes to a single page. Thus, immediately after the five surviving poems of The Black Spear we come upon "The Sphinx," and then "The Dream," and then "`Mystery Boy Looks for Kin in Nashville'."
(6.) I assume that the "you" is Sinda. Let me note in passing, however, the problems of interpretation posed in this poem by the distinctness of the two sections. Is Cal writing Sinda? What is their relationship? And has Cal's letter already arrived, or is it yet to find a recipient? The undecideability of these questions tells us quite a bit about the condition of the Negro community after slavery, and the difficulties this condition posed and poses for historians.
(7.) The reference in Hayden's poem to "contrybans" also recalls Du Bois, who cites the Union Army's consideration of slaves as "contraband of war" (14).
(8.) Here Hayden echoes Benet, whose "wind of jubilo" is contrasted with the age of some of the slaves:
A wind blows into black faces, into old hands Knotted with long rheumatics, cramped on the hoe, Into old backs bent double over the cotton, The wind of freedom, the wind of jubilo. (353)
Is Sinda's rejection of this "jubilo" a comment on Hayden's abandonment--in favor of a "wind of freedom" yet to come--of the project of The Black Spear? Some of the dialect in Cal's letter also echoes Benet, whose "Linkum sits at a desk in his gold silk hat" Hayden recalls with the phrase "Marse Lincum's soldier boys" (353).
(9.) Hayden echoes the last line cited here in his sonnet for Frederick Douglass.
(10.) Note that Hayden doesn't say "banners with black stars" (Collected Prose 19), or Stars and Stripes--these flags are meant to recall names, the names of real women and men.
(11.) These sentences come from an unfinished exercise in autobiography, The Life. The recourse to the third person is telling, for Hayden was not, as John S. Wright notes, a confessional poet. See Wright's "Homage to a Mystery Boy," where Hayden is quoted as having said "reticence has its aesthetic values too" (905).
Benet, Stephen Vincent. John Brown's Body. 1928. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
Collins, Michael. "On the Track of the Universal: `Middle Passage' and America." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 17:2/18:1 (1993): 334-60.
Davis, Charles T. "Robert Hayden's Use of History." Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Garland, 1982.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Fetrow, Fred. Robert Hayden. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Gibbons, Reginald. "Robert Hayden in the 1940's" TriQuarterly 62 (Winter 1985): 177-86.
Hayden, Robert. American Journal. New York: Liveright, 1982.
--. Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems. New York: Liveright, 1975.
--. Collected Poems. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. New York: Liveright, 1985.
--. Collected Prose. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1984.
--. Selected Poems. New York: October House, 1966.
--. Words in the Mourning Time. New York: October House, 1970.
Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro. 1925. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Williams, Pantheolla T. Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.
Wright, John S. "Homage to a Mystery Boy." The Georgia Review 36:4 (Winter 1982): 904-11.