Harryette Mullen and Stephen Yenser: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

Yenser: Note especially line 11:

[. . . .]

O cleave the air fly away home

[. . . .]

I remember your saying in your last letter that you thought Jean Toomer might be "more robustly earthy, and more innovative in technique than Hayden." While that might well be, the poem I've just quoted seems to me to have qualities, sensuous and especially innovative, that I also admire in Toomer's poems. I'm thinking especially of Toomer's "Song of the Son," "November Cotton Flower," and "Tell Me," and some of the sound poems, in which he combines elements of an African American heritage with elements of a European legacy. In Hayden's "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," those two influences are incipient in the title, one on either side of the comma. There's first the classical reference to the Athenian architect and inventor and then the allusion to the folk song ("Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, / Your home is on fire, and your children will burn"). This poem's title, in sum, looks to me like a real cleaving, in both senses at once.

The "two wings" appear in Hayden's third stanza: "Night is an African juju man / weaving a wish and a weariness together / to make two wings." The twinning adumbrated sonically by "juju," which refers us to West African magic, works itself out in "a wish and a weariness," contraries bound together by the alliteration on w--itself carried on in "weavings" and in "wings"--a letter that patently looks like wings. And who would have both wish and weariness if not the African American, a forced exile (like Daedalus on Crete), who must devise an ingenious means of liberation? The African American descendant of slaves, then, is our contemporary artificer, working not with feathers and wax but with "coonskin drums and jubilee banjo." (If jubilee comes from a Hebrew root meaning "to conduct," which is to say "to lead together," whereas banjo evolves from an African American pronunciation of bandore, many spirituals have the same diverse parentage.)

So maybe it comes to seem that there's no end to duplicity, to "wish and weariness," to "laughing" and "longing"--to cleaving, in a word (or is it two?). In Hayden's poem, Africa is Daedalus's Athens, the biblical Eden, the blissful place from which we have all been ostracized and can only (and cannot but) recall. What can we do? Well, for one thing, we can write airs, cleaved, cleft, or cloven, that call up slave songs on the one hand and Sapphic stanzas on the other--but basta! So rarely do I catch a train of thought these days that I'm reluctant to get off one once I've done so. Everything human is mixogamous. (Which is probably why Terence could say [as Cicero quotes him] "Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto": "I'm a person: nothing human is alien to me.") It probably follows from my premise that no writer can be, in Rampersad's term, "transracial." To be "transracial" would be to have arrived at some quintessentially human (or even superhuman, since humans are "racial") point of view, n'est-ce pas? But--on my tentative premise--no point of view can be quintessential. 

[. . . .]

Mullen: . . . While Malcolm X made his individual metamorphosis a public model for a redefinition of the meaning of blackness, Hayde worked for most of his life in relative obscurity, and as he became more visible through his poetry, moved further from an identification of his writing with his race.

Hayden's identity was formed at a time when blackness and African American culture were more severely stigmatized than they are today, and his work is marked by residual attitudes of the nineteenth century that black Americans strove to eradicate, at least from our own psyches, in the decades of the 1960s and '70s. If the mantras of racial self-esteem were unconvincing to Hayden, it was perhaps because his ambivalence about race was more complicated than a psychosocially comprehensible internalized racism. Certainly, given the history that formed him, it was a significant resistance that motivated Hayden (like Toomer) to insist on the priority of his identity as an American, particularly if it was self-evident to a scholar of the literature that "he so decorously did not belong" to the canon of American poetry, as you put it in your opening letter.

William Meredith's book-jacket blurb is somewhat misleading in its insistence that Hayden "would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity," as is Arnold Rampersad's explanation of Hayden's desire to be counted as an "American" rather than a "black" or "African American" poet. No doubt, they accurately represent Hayden's preference; but why does neither question that the title of American should be considered more inclusive, given that more people of African descent inhabit the earth than "Americans" (if that term designates U.S. citizens), and "African American nationalism" has always been linked to a pan-African awareness of the global black diaspora. 

Notwithstanding the critic's complicity in constructing the reputation of a "transracial" artist, or the poet's conversion to the supposedly color-blind Baha'i religion, Hayden does not so much transcend race, as he employs racial identity as a metaphor for the opacity of the self. Race is one of myriad differences that might make a human being appear alien to another, one of the assorted labels that could cause an individual to feel estranged from others, as well as from himself.

[. . . .]

Yenser: . . . Maybe I'm wrong, but it looks to me as though we dovetail when I venture that Hayden is not really "transracial," although his Eden (in "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home") is "the blissful place from which we have all been ostracized," and when you argue that "Hayden does not so much transcend race as employ identity as a metaphor for the opacity of the self." If my ostracized self is one with your self rendered opaque, I'm delighted as I rarely am by agreement.

[. . . .]

Mullen:  Your richly elaborated reading of "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" suggested to me another manifestation of the double consciousness signaled by the contradictory dual signification of the predicate "cleave." Looking at the poem again, following your explication, I noticed that, if the title and dedication are counted as lines, the poem divides into halves hinged by the provocative question, "Do you remember Africa?" Like Countee Cullen's "What is Africa to me?" this line poses the vexed question of the African American's divided identity. Here it highlights a generational difference and a crucial break separating captive Africans with a memory of "home" from their offspring born into American slavery. The latter remember Africa only indirectly, through the memory of their ancestors.

The legends of flying Africans always involved those with a recent memory of a home elsewhere, to which they walked, swam, or flew over the ocean, trusting in traditional African spiritual beliefs that the souls of the dead return to their birthplace. The speaker in the poem has reconciled himself to his alienation, and only the memory of the grandfather's faith suggests the possibility of some alternative existence. The African American's determination to build a life and create a culture in the "New World" is a commitment his legendary flying ancestor refused to make. The grandfather who flies away versus the grandchild who remains, together figure the internal struggle that DuBois termed "double consciousness."

All of us who are Americans of African descent know this place as home, while at the same time knowing that our claim to belonging here continues to be contested. The ancestor cutting his losses and cutting loose for Africa, cleaving the air, and the descendant cleaving to his earthly existence as dearly as he clings to the consolations of myth and music, dramatically represent DuBois's concept of double consciousness, as two halves of the "one dark body" whose dogged strength is the only thing that prevents its being torn asunder. Double consciousness describes the psychic constitution of African Americans who are at home neither in Africa, where we are foreigners, nor in the U.S., which declined to assimilate us in its melting pot. We who cleave to a home that was never fully ours, regardless of our labor, faith, and blood, are divided from ourselves by our compulsory awareness of how others see us. We are reminded every day that we are aliens here, and so we keep alive in ourselves the memory of the Middle Passage and the ancestors' flight. . . .

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Title Harryette Mullen and Stephen Yenser: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Harryette Mullen, Stephen Yenser Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Aug 2022
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Theme & Variations on Robert Hayden's Poetry
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