Get this: Robert Hayden was the first African American to be named Poet Laureate of the ol’ US of A (in 1976). Yep, it took until 1976 for an African American to be named Poet Laureate, and the office had been around since 1937. That's a pretty big deal. Despite the significance of this breakthrough, Hayden didn’t want to be defined by his race. He wanted to be known as an “American poet,” not a “black poet.”
Sound revolutionary to you? Maybe not so much? Well, Hayden came under a whole lot of fire from other black artists and writers for not emphasizing his race when he came to prominence as a poet during the 50s and 60s. He started getting attention at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when many black writers were embracing their race as an important part (and sometimes as the most important part) of their art and literature.
So, our guy Hayden was kind of a rebel for his time. Sure, he wrote some awesome poems about African-American history and his experiences of being a black man in America, but equally important to Hayden was the collective American history, the common American experience.
Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” is not about race at all. It’s a small but powerful poem about a father-child relationship and all the mixed feelings that come with it: love, admiration, fear, misunderstanding, even hate. We’d even go as far as saying that it’s a universal poem—it transcends race, class, and nation, and we bet that it’s as meaningful to people in India as it is to people in Iowa, and as meaningful to people in Belgium as it is to people in Boston.
The parent-child relationship that Hayden explores in “Those Winter Sundays” is just so familiar that we wish we could talk to Hayden himself and ask: how did you get in our heads, Mr. H? How did you manage to capture our intimate experiences so clearly, when we haven’t even met?
Sadly, Hayden passed away in 1980, so we’ll never get to ask him these questions ourselves. But we’ve got his awesome poem “Those Winter Sundays” to speak to us still, from Iowa to India, from Boston to Belgium. Hayden thought of himself as an American poet, but we think of him as a world poet. A universe poet.
No family relationship is without its complications. Whether you were raised by loving parents or by Petunia and Vernon Dursley, you know that the child-parent (or even the child-guardian) relationship is a tricky one.
There are so many conflicting feelings flying around all of our families, and, when we’re young, we might not understand these feelings very well. We might not understand our parents’ motivations, lives, and dreams until we’re older, until we can see what our parents or guardians have done, maybe even sacrificed, for our well-being.
“Those Winter Sundays” is a poem for all those kids out there (young and old) who may be just the teensiest bit blinded to their parents lives, and who may not appreciate, or even understand, their family dynamics when they’re young. Hayden’s poem offers us a glimpse into an ordinary father-child relationship, and may just shed some much-needed light onto your own relationship with your parents.