Fred M. Fetrow: On "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves"

Originally little more than a fragment, a brief section of a poem entitled "From the Coney Island Suite" published in Figure of Time (1955), the final version in Words derives as much from the idea-theme of that fragment as it does from a real model for its central personage. Hayden called the original brief segment "Congress of Freaks." In it, he lists the "cast" of a Coney Island carnival sideshow (the "Unique Original Jemima / and Kokimo the Dixie Dancing Fool. . . . The snake-skinned man. / the boy with elephant face") and protests the "perverted logic" that makes confederates of physical freaks and racial stereotypes. The speaker disdains further consideration of the scene and turns away, "weary of this stale American joke."

In its more modern rendering, similar elements of setting, character, and authorial tone are almost entirely recast to emphasize character study and an empathetic understanding of the character. Aunt Jemima remains, and then some. She still wears the mask of outrageous racial stereotyping, and, as the introductory narrator realizes, is "enacting someone's notion of themselves / (and me)." Hayden, as this "new" narrator, again ponders the logic that groups together carnival freaks, blackface parodies, and himself, but this time he identifies more tolerantly, recognizing their roles as survival strategies: "Poor devils have to live somehow." After introducing Aunt Jemima (and himself) in those terms, the poet-speaker initiates the real portrait of this "heroine" through a subsequent encounter and dialogue between them on the Coney Island beach. By then out of her costume and role as Aunt Jemima, the woman, "her blue-rinsed hair / without the red bandana now," asks the narrator for a light, and soon explains that she spoke to him because he reminded her of a "friend" she once had. The dialogue quickly gives way to her monologue of reminiscence, wherein she recounts her life, love, and career.

Although her rambling discourse shows that she is totally self-aware of the irony in her present status, her account of how she arrived at this juncture is devoid of a sense of special self-merit for having endured. Therein lies the strength and subtlety of Hayden's portrait of her as an intriguing individual, and as an admired type. The detail of her autobiographical monologue illustrates these features of her portrayal. Gazing beyond the breakers toward the open sea, she recalls crossing the ocean long ago to "play" the major European capitals, billed as "The Sepia High Stepper," when "Crowned heads applauded me." With the world at her dancing feet, she found love to complement her fame and riches. But that "sweetest gentleman" was killed in World War I, and her "high-stepping" life ended with his. Reduced to survival tactics, she adopted another role, "Mysteria From / The Mystic East," reading palms and minds, "and telling suckers how to get / stolen rings and sweethearts back." But a night visit from the ghost of her dead lover aborts this "career"; in her reckoning, he "without a single word" silently warned her: "Baby, quit playing with spiritual stuff." So she ended up with the sideshow, a "fake mammy to God's mistakes," in her phrasing, in her recognition of life's ironies.

Hayden closes the poem with a combination of direct narrative commentary and impressionistic figuration--a combination that extends the psychological portrait of this particular "Aunt Jemima" and suggests her racial and human significance. The narrator's response to her bemusement at her present self-deprecatory role in life reveals his understanding of her need both to shield and to mock herself. Her endurance depends on that detached perspective, that protective posture. The poet-speaker finds something noble in her self-sufficiency. The conjunction of her real person, her adopted role, and the ocean-resort locale brings to his mind "an antique etching" of "The Sable Venus, " which he remembers "naked on / a baroque Cellini shell, "a portrait he imagines symbolically equivalent to his romanticized vision of Aunt Jemima: "voluptuous imago floating in the wake / of slave-ships on fantastic seas."

Of course neither the narrator-listener nor the poem's reader can be certain that Aunt Jemima's life story is not just another false image like the "sexual glitter" and "oppressive fun" of the beach carnival. The narrator rightly discerns that her laughter "shields" and "mocks" both herself and those enraptured by her story. Hayden jerks himself and the reader back from the "Sable Venus" reverie with a concluding balance between empathy and mere tolerance. Jemima has the last word; she sighs as she rises from the beach sand to return to her disguised life, but she takes her leave with the wisecracking attitude symptomatic of her resilient ability to cope: "Don't you take no wooden nickels, hear? / Tin dimes neither. So long, pal." As Hayden surely and carefully planned it, Aunt Jemima lingers in the reader's mind, an heroic figure regardless of whether she is wooden nickel, tin dime, or a true "Sable Venus."

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Title Fred M. Fetrow: On "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Fred M. Fetrow Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Hayden
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