Middle Passage: Voyaging on an Irony of Fate
Robert E. Hayden did not want to be known as an African American poet, but rather simply a poet. Because of his desire, Hayden endured much criticism from his own African American community. However, it was through this sort of detachment, that Hayden was able to stretch the boundaries of his poetic abilities to create “Middle Passage.” Hayden, therefore, challenged his own doubts regarding moral limitations on modernism. “Middle Passage” is the poetic and historical account of a gang of slave traders who purchase a group of Africans and later suffer demise. Arthur Abraham chronicled the event in his article entitled The Amistad Revolt, An Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States. The purchase and trade of the Africans was outlawed based on the “Anglo-Spanish Treaty of 1820, which prohibited the transatlantic slave trade (Abraham 11).” Hence, the capture and sale of the Africans was done so illegally, making the Africans free men. According to one of Hayden’s biographical accounts, “the poem is laden with irony, which in part, depends upon the ships’ names (Jesus, Esperanza, Mercy), a sailor’s hymn (“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”), and a parody of a song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Jones). Hayden brilliantly inserts Christian references, which also imply a Christian belief system, into the poem that add a definite contrast to the actual events that take place on board the vessel Amistad. In order to take the notion of irony a step further, I suggest that the poem in whole consists of an irony of fate; particularly with regard to the slavers. Hayden wrote “Middle Passage” as an answer, partly, to T.S. Eliot’s, “The Waste land.” Brian Conniff’s article refers to Michael S. Harper’s remark regarding the poem as “a poetic and historical challenge rather than a reverent echo (Conniff).” Harper also remarked that “Hayden tried, through his knowledge of diverse poetic traditions, to move beyond the many of the experiments steeped in conscious modernism (Conniff).” Hayden uses a mix of postmodernism pastiche techniques in “Middle Passage.” He gathers information from historical documents and creates what reads like a ship’s log, poetic voice, diary, hymn and narrative. According to Hayden, written in an article by Jim Murphy with regard to the narrator(s) in the poem: At times [the poet’s] voice seems to merge with voices from the past, voices not intended to be clearly identified. There are the voices of the traders, of the hymn-singers, and perhaps even of the dead. Yes, I would say that – the voices of the dead (Murphy 110). It is through these various perspectives that Hayden is able to provide a seemingly unbiased detail of events that lead to no particular universal thought as to who the true victims are. It is left to the reader’s perspective. The slave traders’ mentality is that they have a right to capture and enslave other human beings for their own use. The slavers become seriously disturbed when the slaves rebel against being captured and inhumanely treated. In an attempt to determine whether the concept of ironic fate applies, it is important to explore the assorted events that take place on board the vessel. In one example, the slave traders believe themselves to be good Christian men, but subject the slaves to cruel and inhumane suffering. As what reads to be a sort of diary in the poem, the narrator prays, “We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord, / safe passage to our vessels bring / heathen souls unto Thy chastening” (23-24). The crewmember’s intent is that the crew be saved so that the slavers can inflict suffering upon the slaves for moral improvement. Noted in what appears to be the diary of a slave trader, is his account of an African King who aids and abets in the capture of other Africans from various villages. The very men who pillage, in some cases, whole villages and conceivably almost...
Cited: “509. Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.” HymnSite.com. 7 Oct 2008
Abraham, Arthur. “The Amistad Revolt, An Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States.” U.S. Department of State International Information Programs 11 (no year listed). 9 Oct 2008
Conniff, Brian. “Answering “The Waste Land”: Robert Hayden and the Rise of the African American Poetic Sequence.”African American Review. 33.3 (Fall 1999): 487. Academic OneFile. Gale. Chapman University. 30 Sept. 2008
Jones, Norma R. “Robert Hayen.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Trudier Harris, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Gale Group, 1988. 75-88.
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