Coincident of Douglass and Hayden

Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,”  where one of the main characters had that family name.

Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.

That’s right, Sir Walter Scott, and that romanticized Scottish past, is the reason that the post-Civil War terror organization styled itself as Knights of a Klan.

There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.

I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.

To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.

Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.

For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.

Sun Ra and the MC5 by Gary Grimshaw

How did Afro-Futurist Jazz  appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair

 

For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?

I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.

Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.

And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.

“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.

Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company