John Hatcher: On "Middle Passage"

The dramatic and powerful "Middle Passage" is, first of all, a synthesis of historical voices recalling the inhuman cruelty of a people transported as chattel. And yet we must infer that violence from the civilized rhetoric of the court deposition:


that there was hardly room 'tween-decks for half

the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;

that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh

and sucked the blood.


We do not hear the voice of the African captives or their leader Cinquez; any indictment of the slavers comes from our own reaction to the powerful irony of the accusations of the slavers themselves, as is exemplified in the speech by the Spanish emissary from Havana:


We find it paradoxical indeed

that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty

are rooted in the labor of your slaves

should suffer the august John Quincy Adams

to speak with so much passion of the right

of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters

and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero's

garland for Cinquez.


Assembled by Hayden from historical records, these speeches document the fabric of a society, ostensibly founded on principles of freedom and justice, actually interwoven with threads of racism and injustice:


Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,

the dark ships move, the dark ships move,

their bright ironical names

like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth ...


But just as the ancient identity and beliefs of the Mexican people reassert themselves, so these poems recount the "timeless will" of a people to struggle for freedom and identity:


the deep immortal human wish,

the timeless will:


Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,

life that transfigures many lives.


Voyage through death

                                to life upon these shores.


[. . . .]


in addition to referring to the second leg of a three-part journey of a slave ship (from America to Africa, from Africa to a Caribbean or West Indies port, from there to America) this middle journey implies the middle or transitional stage in the progress of the speaker, of the Afro-American people, and ultimately of mankind upon the shores of physical reality and history. In a most general sense the middle passage thus reflects the sentiments of the Bahá’í burial ring inscription which states that we come from God and return to God. The ascent from slavery symbolizes in broad terms the aspiration toward detachment and certitude for which the speaker longs in "Veracruz," and which the sleepers anticipate in "The Prophet."


Title John Hatcher: On "Middle Passage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Hatcher Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden
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