Robert Hayden

Asa Bundy Sheffey, better known as Robert (Earl) Hayden (1913-1980), was a Black poet who focused on the Black experience. He worked as an American poet, essayist, and educator and served as a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976-78 — who we now call the Poet Laureate. Although he earned high regard as an accomplished poet in his life, he came from humble beginnings. He embraced his identity as an American poet and worked diligently throughout his life to maintain that recognition.

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Table of contents

    Robert Hayden's Biography

    Robert Hayden was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 4, 1913. His parents, Ruth and Asa Sheffey, separated before he was born. He was raised in a poor neighborhood of Detroit called Paradise Valley by a neighboring family.

    His foster parents, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden had a challenging marriage and often fought with one another. Hayden witnessed countless verbal and physical altercations between his foster parents, experienced child abuse, and consequently had an unhappy home life. His mother, who lived next door, was troubled and jealous of his relationship with the family caring for him, and she was competitive for her son's attention. The trauma he experienced at a young age led to several instances of depression.

    In school, young Robert Hayden was plagued with chronic nearsightedness and was short for his age. Because of his bad eyesight, he could not participate in regular boyhood activities, such as sports or tree climbing. He struggled to build lasting friendships and gain acceptance from his peers. His isolated childhood caused Hayden to turn to reading for comfort and companionship. Through reading he developed a range of voices, a keen understanding of the variety of English Back people spoke, and a foundation for formal poetic forms.

    Robert Hayden, a child's shadow, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Robert Hayden's childhood was rocky and influenced his later works.

    He graduated from high school in 1932 and enrolled in Detroit City College (today known as Wayne State University). Hayden pursued a major in Spanish with a minor in English. However, he left the school shy one credit during the Great Depression in 1936. A promising job for the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project pulled him away from his studies. While working for the Federal Writer's Project, Hayden's extensive research on American and Black history bolstered his view of Black history and informed his writing. He focused on the history and roots of Black people, from their home countries to their status in the United States.

    Robert Hayden left the Federal Writers' Project in 1938 and then met and married his wife, Erma Morris, in 1940. Later that year, Hayden published the first volume of his poetry, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940). His wife Erma influenced him to follow the Baháʼí Faith, although he had grown up Baptist. Robert Hayden began writing Baháʼí poetry and promptly became a prominent poet for the faith. A year later, Hayden enrolled at the University of Michigan. He and Erma welcomed their daughter, Maia, in 1942.

    The Baháʼí Faith is a monotheistic religion. Its name means "Glory of God" in Arabic. The central tenets of the religion are the fundamental unity of all religions and the unity of humanity. According to the Baháʼí Faith, the world's prominent religions teach an indistinguishable truth despite their obvious differences. Through their belief in the oneness of humanity, people who follow the Baháʼí Faith dedicate themselves to the abolition of religious, racial, and class prejudices. This core belief led Hayden to reject being differentiated as a Black writer and embrace his title as an American writer.

    After earning his undergraduate degree, Hayden pursued a graduate degree in English from the University of Michigan. His mentor, W. H. Auden (1907-1973), was instrumental in helping Hayden focus on varied poetic forms, writer's techniques, and artistic presentation. Breaking racial boundaries, Hayden also became the first Black faculty member in the English Department at Michigan when he began his teaching career there. He then taught at Fisk University for 23 years, returned to the University of Michigan in 1969, and taught there for 11 more years.

    During his years as an instructor, Hayden served as a poet-in-residence at Indiana State University, and a visiting poet at the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, Denison University, and Connecticut College.

    Hayden was an active writer and earned many honors during his lifetime. While at the University of Michigan, he was awarded the Hopwood Award for poetry. He won the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966 for his collection of poetry, A Ballad of Remembrance (1962). He also received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1975. In 1976 he became the first Black American to be honored with the role we now know as Poet Laureate of the United States. Hayden also received honorary doctorate degrees from Brown University, Fisk University, and more. In January of 1980, President Jimmy Carter and his wife honored Hayden and several others at the White House, celebrating American poetry.

    Robert Hayden died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 25, 1980, from cancer.

    Poems by Robert Hayden

    Hayden ultimately penned nine collections of poems during his lifetime. He also authored several essays and even some children's literature. By far, two of his most famous pieces of work remain poems called "Those Winter Sundays" (1962), which is widely anthologized in high school and university textbooks, and "Middle Passage" (1945). "Middle Passage" is a narrative poem from a white enslaver's perspective. It tells the story of a group of enslaved people transported across the Atlantic to America.

    Sundays too my father got up earlyand put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,then with cracked hands that achedfrom labor in the weekday weather madebanked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.When the rooms were warm, he’d call,and slowly I would rise and dress,fearing the chronic angers of that house,Speaking indifferently to him,who had driven out the coldand polished my good shoes as well.What did I know, what did I knowof love’s austere and lonely offices?"

    ("Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden)

    The poem is a heartfelt lyric expressing the love an otherwise cold, stern, and silent father has for his son, the speaker. The poem is brief and an example of Hayden's ability to use spare diction to convey deep ideas and emotions. He expresses the ideas of the child narrator and adult who is reminiscing on a childhood experience. The speaker recalls his father's actions and, in hindsight, realizes those thankless acts were labors of love.

    Conversely, "Middle Passage" is a much longer poem in three parts. Hayden effortlessly expresses the brutality of the Transatlantic Slave Trade through the perspective of a white enslaver. The first section, perhaps most shocking and memorable, recounts the grotesque conditions the enslaved people were subjected to, as some would purposely starve themselves to death to end their suffering:

    Sails flashing to the wind like weapons, sharks following the moans the fever and the dying; horror the corposant and compass rose.Middle Passage: voyage through death to life upon these shores. “10 April 1800— Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says their moaning is a prayer for death, ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves. Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”

    (Lines 1-12)

    The direct tone and the personal narrative Hayden incorporated pulls readers into the action and adds to the shock. It begins in media res and tosses readers in "winds like weapons" (line 1) by taking the audience on a journey of horrific proportions. The disjunct ideas and abrupt end stops mimic the confusion and uneasiness that the ship's cargo, and the enslaved people, must have felt.

    In media res is Latin for "in the midst of things" and is a technique where the writer or poet begins a story in the middle of action already taking place.

    Themes in Robert Hayden's Poetry

    Robert Hayden was a poet who covered a diverse range of themes within his writing intending to unite humanity and express the human experience. He saw an opportunity to use poetry as a vehicle to explore the past to understand the present and arrive at a more unified future. Some recurring themes in his poetry include personal reflections and the Black voice.

    Personal Reflections

    Robert Hayden had a difficult upbringing, which he even had to grapple with as an adult. He often suffered from bouts of depression, and some of his writings express the turmoil he endured as a child. Feelings of rejection from parental figures were a constant for him. Growing up, he believed his foster parents had changed his name. It wasn't until he was older and applying for a passport that he learned no legal document had even been submitted. He had to change his name himself. Hayden's poem "The Whipping" (1962) expresses these feelings of rejection, physical and emotional fear, and anguish:

    The old woman across the way is whipping the boy againand shouting to the neighborhood her goodness and his wrongs.Wildly he crashes through elephant ears, (5) pleads in dusty zinnias,while she in spite of crippling fat pursues and corners him.She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling boy till the stick breaks (10)in her hand. His tears are rainy weather to woundlike memories:My head gripped in bony vise of knees, the writhing struggleto wrench free, the blows, the fear (15) worse than blows that hatefulWords could bring, the face that I no longer knew or loved . . .Well, it is over now, it is over, and the boy sobs in his room, (20)And the woman leans muttering against a tree, exhausted, purged—avenged in part for lifelong hidings she has had to bear."

    Black Voice

    Much of Hayden's best work is grounded in the historical context of slavery and the Black community's struggle for freedom, equality, and acceptance into American society. Inspired by his historical research and other Black writers of the time, including Langston Hughes (1901-1967), Countee Cullen (1903-1946), and Arna Bontemps (1902-1973), Hayden captured the struggle and resentment of an entire group of people.

    From pieces like "Middle Passage", to poems written in the classical sonnet form like "Frederick Douglass" (1947), themes of the Black experience, the voice of formerly enslaved people, and hopeful Black American citizens run throughout his poems.

    When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautifuland terrible thing, needful to man as air, usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole, reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, this man, superb in love and logic, this man shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing."

    "Frederick Douglass" by Robert Hayden

    Quotes by Robert Hayden

    Robert Hayden retained a vision and a belief in the ability of poetry and the arts to transcend cultures, religions, and races. He felt poetry was important not just for a political or social message but for art's sake. Here are some of his quotes that reflect his ideals.

    We must not be frightened nor cajoledinto accepting evil as deliverance from evil.We must go on struggling to be human,though monsters of abstractionpolice and threaten us.

    (Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Section IX, lines 10-14)

    Ever relevant even in today's society, these words were referenced by late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert during an interview with artist Dua Lipa.2 Hayden's belief in the ability of humanity to overcome evil, defeat, and tragedy, lies in the ability to unite as one.

    Voyage through death

    to life upon these shores"

    ("Middle Passage" lines 5-6)

    These two lines are a refrain from the poem "Middle Passage." With vivid descriptions, the poem expresses the harrowing journey through one leg of the journey across the Atlantic. Although the poem discusses specifically one group of enslaved people, the lines here refer to the journey of the entire Black community. Many had to journey through death for others to find the promise of life beyond subjugation, discrimination, and oppression.

    Robert Hayden - Key takeaways

    • Robert Hayden was an American poet, essayist, and educator.
    • Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, and he spent most of his childhood in foster care.
    • As a young boy, Hayden had severe nearsightedness and couldn't participate in typical childhood sports. He found solace in reading.
    • Robert Hayden was influenced by his mentor, W. H. Auden, and Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Arna Bontemps.
    • Hayden is best known for his poems "Those Winter Sundays" and "Middle Passage."
    Frequently Asked Questions about Robert Hayden

    Who is Robert Hayden? 

    Robert Hayden was an American poet, essayist, and educator. 

    How did Robert Hayden die? 

    Robert Hayden died from cancer in 1980. 

    How many poems did Robert Hayden write? 

    Robert Hayden published nine collections of poetry during his lifetime. 

    What was Robert Hayden known for?

    Hayden is best known for being the first African-American to hold the position of what we now call Poet Laureate of the United States and for his poems "Those Winter Sundays" and "Middle Passage." 

    Why did Robert Hayden change his name? 

    Growing up, he believed his foster parents had changed his name. It wasn't until he was older and applying for a passport that he learned no legal document had even been submitted. He had to change his name himself. 

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