“The past is for most Americans, unfortunately, rather meaningless,” the poet Robert Hayden said in 1976. “But some of us are aware of it as a long, tortuous, and often bloody process of becoming.” Hayden’s oeuvre is haunted by the ghosts of that bloody process—by Nat Turner, Malcolm X, enslaved Africans trapped on a transatlantic ship, and those fleeing through the Underground Railroad with “moon so bright and no place to hide … hound dogs belling in bladed air.”
Hayden’s 1947 poem “Frederick Douglass” is about more than Douglass the individual. It concerns the course of history itself. “When it is finally ours, this freedom … needful to man as air,” he writes, the memory of Douglass will be honored “not with legends and poems … but with the lives grown out of his life.” Reading this poem in the present day, it’s hard not to place the current moment within that tortuous march toward freedom that Hayden was so captivated by, and to think of those who force it unevenly forward—George Floyd’s life grown out of Douglass’s, and the many lives that will grow out of Floyd’s in turn—until this freedom, needful to man as air, is won.