Influenced equally by the poets of the Harlem Renaissance and by his teacher, W. H. Auden, Robert Hayden sought to write a poetry that balanced an exploration of the problem of race with a technical mastery that no one could quibble with, qualify, or backhandedly praise as an example of "Black Literature." Hayden wanted to be read as an accomplished poet who happened to be black, or not at all.
Hayden's fifth collection, A Ballad of Remembrance, was published in 1962, amid the political turmoil of that decade. The poems demonstrate the narrative ease and compelling character development that mark Hayden's best work and earned him two Hopwood Awards, a Grand Prize at the Dakar World Festival of the Arts, and the post of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (later called the Poet Laureate).
A Ballad of Remembrance includes a mix of stark lyrics about family along with historical narratives. The volume features many of his most well-known, and frequently anthologized poems, such as: "Those Winter Sundays," a tender, restrained lyric evoking the unspoken love between a stern, silent father and his ungrateful son; and "Night, Death, Mississippi," in which Hayden adopts the shocking persona of an aging Klansman, listening longingly to the sounds of a lynching outside, but too feeble to join in.
The book concludes with a series of poems that follow that follow the history of slavery, beginning with the long and devastating account in "Middle Passage." The next poem, "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," was Hayden's first work to appear in Poetry magazine, and speaks in the voice of a slave recalling his African home. The series ends with "The Ballad of Nat Turner," "Runagate Runagate," a tribute to the Underground Railroad, and finally, the hopeful "Frederick Douglass."