William Thomas Caine, Getty Images (2003)
When we were growing up, my mother never let us identify people by race or class. In conversation with her, the “white girl” in my class had to become the girl who sat in the left corner, carried the green backpack; the “poor” kid became the kid who lived on XYZ street or had thick hair and wore glasses.
A high school teacher who was good at telling me things about myself with descriptors I had to look up in the dictionary to understand, gave me a book of poetry at graduation and wrote me during my first semester of college with encouragement to take “plenty of humanities courses.”
I didn’t know Robert Hayden outside of “Those Winter Sundays,” his highly anthologized poem, until I began to study the Black Arts Movement.
Where I thought I understood my mom and Mrs. Ferrari, discovering Hayden provided a context I hadn’t known I needed. Hayden did not want to be identified solely as a Black poet but for his merits to be realized independently of, at least not solely as that descriptor.
Publishing is a subjective business–key word probably being “business.” And to make it in this industry on one’s own merit is as much an exception to the rule as it is true that no one makes it from a to b alone anyway.
Everyone will not be daunted by the former, will even be willing to ride a label to something like success. And way too many times they seem unwilling–or is it embarrassed–to acknowledge that. Hayden wasn’t willing to take the label train even if the decision cost him the validation of his peers. And the recollection of the father in “Those Winter Sundays” suggests, too, that he was not unwilling or embarrassed to admit that he had not made it as far as he had alone.
Individuals are not labels, just another red crayon in a box of red crayons. How cowardly to pretend otherwise for convenience or personal benefit.
Robert Hayden (1913 – 1980)
The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.
Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.
She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:
My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful
Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,
And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged–
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.