Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Robert Hayden as a Black Arts (Era) Poet?

In discussions of the history of African American poetry, Robert Hayden is often pitted against major black arts poets. Many of Hayden's supporters feel that he and his work were unfairly dismissed by militant black poets. An article from a 1966 issue of Negro Digest that characterized Hayden as presumably conservative and opposed to apparent race-conscious writers is often cited as evidence or the reason why Hayden was viewed unfavorably. 

It's likely that some writers did have disdain for Hayden, given some of his positions on race and writing. However, a close look at the bibliographic record during the time period reveals that Hayden's work circulated more extensively than ever before during the black arts era. His poems were reprinted in collections along with works by Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, and other writers most often associated with the Black Arts Movement.

The Golden Age of Anthologies featuring black poetry, which was most pronounced between 1968 - 1975, gave new and extended publishing to elder poets such as Hayden, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, not just "new" black poets. The wide circulation and frequent publication of Hayden's work during the time period ensured that several of his poems would become and remain central to a kind of canon of black poetry. 

Like several black arts poets, Hayden dedicated poems to music and history in his works. Also, like many young militant writers, Hayden wrote at least one poem about Malcolm X, one of the most revered figures by black poets of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As strange as it seems in some respects, it's possible to view Hayden as a kind of black arts poet. His works were certainly prevalent in the discourse. 

Modern-day anthologies such as The Norton Anthology of African American Literature place Hayden in a different section from the black arts era. Thus, younger readers and readers unfamiliar with the details of publishing history might not realize just how much Hayden benefited from the Black Arts Movement and how the movement benefited by including his works.

A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

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