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*Robert Hayden was born on this date in 1913. He was an Black poet.
Born Asa Bundy Sheffey, Hayden was raised in the poor Paradise Valley neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. He had an emotionally turbulent youth and was shuttled between the home of his parents and that of a foster family, who lived next door. Childhood events would result in times of depression he would later call 'my dark nights of the soul'. A nearsighted child, he was often ostracized by his peers and was excluded from many physical Hobbies. Reading on the other hand occupied a great deal of his time.
Hayden finished high school in 1932 and through a scholarship attended Detroit City College. After graduation, he worked for the Federal Writers Project, researching Black history and folk culture. In 1941, he enrolled in a graduate English Literature program at the University of Michigan where he studied with W. H. Auden. Auden became an influential mentor and guide in the development of his writing. Hayden also admired the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wiley, Carl Sandburg, and Hart Crane, as well as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer.
He had an interest in African American history and explored his anxieties about race in his writing. Hayden published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940. After finishing the degree in 1942, he taught for several years at Michigan before transferring to Fisk University; in 1969, he would return to Michigan to complete his teaching career.
Hayden's poetry gained international recognition in the 1960s and he was awarded the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966 for his book Ballad of Remembrance. In 1976, he became the first Black person to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (later called the Poet Laureate). Robert Hayden died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1980.
The Academy of American Poets,
584 Broadway, Suite 604,
New York, NY 10012-3210
photo: Jay Semple