- Christopher BuckChristopher BuckWilmette Institute
- and Derik SmithDerik SmithDepartment of Literature, Claremont McKenna College
Robert Hayden was made poet laureate of Senegal in 1966 and ten years later became America’s first black poet laureate. He was acclaimed as “People’s Poet” early in his career, but he was largely ignored by the American literary establishment until late in life. In his poetics of history and his nuanced representations of black life, Hayden’s art showed that the African American experience was quintessentially American, and that blackness was an essential aspect of relentlessly heterogeneous America. As he figured it in his late-in-life poem, “[American Journal],” national identity was best metaphorized in “bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans / hard hat yarmulka mini skirt.” Hayden’s archetypal efforts to demonstrate the kaleidoscopic quality of both black and American identity produced an art that transcended propagandistic categories of race and nation, and pathed the way for a large cadre of late 20th and early 21st century poets who, like Hayden, understand themselves to be simultaneously black and American, but ultimately human.