Robert Hayden, one of the most important black poets of the 20th Century, was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1913 and grew up in extreme poverty in a racially mixed neighborhood. His parents divorced when he was a child and he was raised by their neighbors, William and Sue Ellen Hayden, and not until he was in his forties did he learn that Asa Sheffey and Gladys Finn were his biological parents. During the Great Depression he was employed for two years by the Federal Writer's Project, and published his first volume of poetry Heart-Shape in the Dust in 1940. He taught English at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for twenty-three years, and then at the University of Michigan from 1969 until his death in 1980. Among his other works were The Lion and the Archer (1948), Figure of Time (1955), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Works in Mourning Time (1970) and Angle of Ascent (1975). Hayden was heavily influenced by realist and modernist poets like William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, but also by his Baha'i faith, folk characters and his childhood experiences in Detroit, and he always mixed realistic descriptions of his subjects with romantic imagination (Gates and Higgenbotham 251). His style was to find "words and formal patterns cleansed of the egocentric…that gave his subjects their most objective aspect" (Gates and Higgenbotham 252). Although his poems about Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Joseph Cinque often reflected black history and culture, Hayden did not simply wish to be remembered as a 'black' poet. Today, though, his best-known poem is Middle Passage, which described the revolt led by Joseph Cinque on the slave ship Amistad in 1839.
Hayden's early life was a struggle on many levels, growing up in poverty during the Great Depression and also experiencing racial segregation and discrimination firsthand on many occasions. He was also belittled for his poor vision, lack of athletic ability and his own sexual identity, since he realized at an early age that he had desires for other men. When he graduated from high school in 1930, his parents were poor and unemployed, and he did not even have $65 for tuition money at a the City College, which he earned doing a variety of jobs from working in a grocery store to doing errands to running numbers for a local gang (Williams 11). His first poem, Africa, was published when he was eighteen, and he also wrote about his childhood in Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s in Elegies for Paradise Valley. A poem about himself, Old Four Eyes, referred to the thick glasses he wore and the mockery he received from other children, while Uncle Crisp described his sexual feelings for an older man and the "ways of guilt" and "sexual pain" that he experienced (Williams 167). He recalled other people he had known at the time, such as Iola who "loved to dance" and "mad Miss Alice who ate from garbage cans," and noted that now they were all dead (Williams 167). In Names, he remembered all the slurs that were directed against him "in the course of his two-fold quest for identity -- sexual identity as well as legal identity" (Williams 168).
Although Hayden always denied that he was a poet who wrote only about black themes, many of his most famous works celebrate the heroes and martyrs of black history and culture, going back to the times of slavery. He praised leaders of slave revolts like Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser, and called John Brown an "angelic evil" and "demonic good" who had been given a "prophetic task" by God (Williams 171). Brown and the 19th Century abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass had also attended the same Second Baptist Church in Detroit where Hayden had been a member for thirty years, before he joined the Baha'i faith. In From the SNOW LAMP, Hayden memorialized the forgotten black explorer Matthews H. Hensen, who discovered the North Pole with Richard Perry, and was regarded by the Eskimos as a great whale hunter and builder for his ability to survive in the Far North (Williams 169). Hayden admired the musical talent of Paul Robeson, as well, but in his poem about the great singer also regretted that he had been "deluded" and "betrayed" into being a "dupe" of the Communist Party (Williams 170).
Epic poems feature national heroes, battles, ships, warriors and long, formal speeches by the important people, and Middle Passage has all of these elements, but shaped in creative and imaginative ways that make it a kind on anti-epic poem. Hayden's poetic integrity was "absolute, and invariably courageous, in the mode of Ralph Ellison," and so it was is describing this "voyage through death…whose chartings are unlove" (Bloom 2). In the holds of the slave ship Amisdad (Friendship), "the living and the dead, the horribly dying, lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement" (Bloom 3). Hayden spent over a year doing historical research for this poem, and determining how best to fit the sections together by allowing its characters to speak in different voices. He also noted that the slave ships had names that concealed their true mission and purpose, such as Jesus, Esperanza (Hope), Mercy, Desire and Adventure, which under the circumstances were like "jests of kindness on a murderers mouth" (Fetrow 37). Dead bodies are thrown into the ocean "like so much jetsam" while the sharks that follow the slave ships are like "grinning gods," the only gods that appear in this particular epic (Fetrow 38). During an epidemic on the ship, even the blind and the sick are thrown to the sharks to save the rest of the valuable 'cargo', but in the end the slaves see a chance to rebel and they take the ship.
Joseph Cinque (or Cinquez), the rice farmer who led the revolt on the Amistad, has no long and heroic speeches to deliver like the warriors in Greek or Norse epics, only the simple determination that he and his people should be freed and allowed to return to Africa. Although the surviving crew members promised to return them, instead they sailed the ship to the United States, where the Africans were jailed until the courts could decide their fate. Finally their case went to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams argued that they had a natural right to fight for their freedom, as every human being had, and that if slavery could be abolished in no other way except revolts, violence and civil way, then let it come. This speech by Adams was the real "hero's garland for Cinquez," who was freed and returned to Africa (Fetrow 43). In Hayden's poem, the Amistad rebellion "stands for the physical and spiritual struggle for freedom by all blacks then and since" (Fetrow 45).
Like most of Hayden's poetry, Middle Passage was also about dislocation in the physical, social and cultural sense, given that the slaves were uprooted from their homelands and forced into a violent and corrupt world that had been totally unknown to them. Since Hayden was also on outsider on so many levels, including color, social class, and sexual identity, he naturally identified with the rebels of history, and those who had to pay the ultimate price for freedom. Although Hayden always denied being a political or ideological poet, the net effect of his work was to undermine "the ideological foundations of American society to clear a space in which to articulate his own difference" (Kutzinski 309). This would be a difficult enough task today, and it was far more so in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and Hayden has earned some well-deserved credit for courage and integrity in writing about these subjects with such power and clarity.