Preface to Robert Hayden, Collected Prose. University of Michigan Press, 1984.
Robert Hayden is now generally recognized as the most outstanding craftsman of Afro-American poetry. But too often such recognition fails to see deeper into the poems of Robert Hayden; too often it overlooks the fact that a large part of his poetry is on other than Afro-American themes. Like Yeats, who achieves universality through his commitment to, and exploration of, his Irish heritage, Hayden attains it through his dedication to his Afro-American background: humanity remains the subject. This is apparent in Hayden’s poems as well as in the prose reprinted here.
The difficulty we face in our attempt to appreciate Hayden’s work is that we are still provincial; we think too much in terms of nationality and race; we do not see or take seriously the value of a body of poetry that has as one of its major themes the inadequacy of such conceptions. He himself gave his vision its best expression; a vision which mankind, on this side of the globe as in the United States, indeed throughout the world, must continue to evolve toward:
Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike
permitted to be man.
This emphasis on his universality is not intended to gainsay his allegiance to his heritage. It is merely to point out the importance of what he himself repeatedly, quietly said, as in one of the selections reprinted here: “As a Baha’i I am committed to belief in the fundamental oneness of all races, the essential oneness of mankind, to the vision of world unity.”
Maebashi, Japan: 1982
For a variety of material on Robert Hayden, see