Vera M. Kutzinski: On "Middle Passage"

If writing (here in the form of a slaver's logbook) creates an illusion of control and of an authority already in the process of being eroded, it does so by "exorcizing" a threatening reality, or better, by containing the disturbing inconsistencies of reality within the ordered patterns of linearity. The religious overtones of this kind of exorcism are readily apparent, especially in connection with the mocking plea to grant "safe passage to our vessels bringing / heathen souls unto thy chastening." But if exorcism, in the religious sense, is a form of "chastening," of restoring the purity of the soul and the kind of innocence associated with Christian mythology, it is also, more generally, a way of negating otherness, that is, cultural differences of any sort.  Exorcism, then, becomes a self-imposed blindness resulting from the failure (or refusal) to acknowledge the legitimate existence of other cultures and creeds in order to avoid being "contaminated" by them. This ironic play on the religious justification of slavery is indeed effective, but Hayden's language penetrates the myth of purity even more deeply. Hayden's language reaches down to the ideological core of American society: its Puritan heritage. The implications of Hayden's attack on the narrow-mindedness and intolerance of Puritanism are clarified by a statement from Octavio Paz's meditations on the same subject. He contends that for the Puritans and their North American descendents, "every contact is contamination. Foreign races, ideas, customs, and bodies carry within themselves the germs of perdition and impurity. Social hygiene complements that of the body and soul."

For Hayden, the kind of writing to which we generally attribute the status of historical documentary and thus a certain truth-value is characterized precisely by such practices of "social hygiene," which is of course but a euphemism for slavery in its many forms. In this way, the written chronicles of the slave ships'  voyages render visible in their own rhetoric the underlying ideological structures and strictures of North American imperialism: historiography becomes a mechanism of defense against cultural otherness and difference, against everything, in short, that would challenge ("contaminate") existing social institutions. Hayden's is a struggle not only against historical slavery; his struggle is also against the linguistic vestiges of slavery manifest in the continued confinement of Afro-Americans by a language that denies not only their complex historico-cultural identities, but their humanity: for him, the difference between such phrases as "sweltering cattle," "chattel slaves," and "black poet' is one of the degrees only.

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Title Vera M. Kutzinski: On "Middle Passage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Vera M. Kutzinski Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Aug 2022
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Changing Permanences: Historical and Literary Revisionsim in Robert Hayden's 'Middle Passage
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