Robert Earl Hayden

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Robert Earl Hayden

Through his meticulously crafted and highly thoughtful poetry, Robert Hayden (1913-1980) often explored human dilemmas in the context of race. He was a college professor throughout his career, doing most of his work at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Hayden won the Grand Prix de la Poésie at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. In 1976 he was appointed consultant to the Library of Congress, becoming the first African American poet to receive this honor.

Robert Earl Hayden was born on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth Finn and Asa Sheffey. His parents had divorced by the time of their son's birth. Originally named Asa Bundy Sheffey, he was raised by foster parents, William and Sue Hayden. Robert Hayden (as he was now called) occasionally visited each of his biological parents while he was growing up. His mother lived nearby and, at times, with the Haydens. Although she was not well educated, Ruth Sheffey supported her son's ambitions. She was a vivacious woman, in contrast to her son's foster family. William Hayden, a laborer, was a strict Baptist fundamentalist. Sue Hayden was less austere in manner and outlook than her husband. Although they were not highly educated, the Haydens did the best they could for young Robert. The family lived in an environment of poverty and danger in Paradise Valley, the ironic name for their inner-city Detroit community. Robert Hayden recalled in Collected Prose that in Paradise Valley, along with the "violence, ugliness, and cruelty, … there were people who retained … a sheltering spiritual beauty and dignity—my mother and my foster father among them—despite sordid and disheartening circumstances.

Very nearsighted as a boy, Hayden was introverted and spent much of his time reading. He enjoyed playing the violin until he had to give it up because of his vision problems. Because of his weak eyesight, he transferred from the inner city's predominantly black Miller High School to predominantly white Northern High School, which provided resources to assist visually-impaired students.

Hayden's graduated from high school in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. His family lacked the financial resources to send him to college. Unable to find work, Hayden took some courses at Cass Technical High School. In 1932, he entered Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) where he majored in Spanish. Although he left college in 1936—just one semester hour short of graduation, he subsequently returned and received his B.A. in 1942.

From 1936 to 1938, Hayden worked as a researcher and writer with the Detroit unit of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Pontheolla Williams noted in Robert Hayden: A CriticalAnalysis of His Poetry that he "completed… [essays] on the anti-slavery activities in Detroit and… in Illinois" and that he "supervise[d] research into local history and folklore." In addition to providing him a livelihood during the Depression, the research proved relevant to Hayden's poetry, for he often meditated on the implications of historical figures and events. The experience also enabled him to learn more about other black writers affiliated with the WPA, such as Richard Wright. However, unlike Wright, Hayden was not drawn to Marxist thought.

Hayden took some graduate courses at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor during the summer of 1938. On June 10, 1940 he married Erma Inez Morris, a musician who had studied piano at Julliard. Their daughter, Maia, was born on October 5, 1942. The same year Hayden began full time graduate study at Michigan, receiving his Master's degree in 1944. He worked as a teaching assistant at Michigan from 1944 to 1946. From 1946 to 1969 he taught at Fisk University. After a brief period at the University of Louisville, he returned to the University of Michigan, his home base for the rest of his career. Hayden held visiting appointments at the University of Washington, the University of Connecticut, Connecticut College, Indiana State University, and Denison University in Ohio.

In 1943 Hayden became a member of the Baha'i faith. In a 1977 interview in Collected Prose, Hayden explained the meshing of Baha'i tenets and his own beliefs. He wrote: "I believe in the oneness of all people and I believe in the basic unity of all religions. I don't believe that races are important. I'm very suspicious of any form of ethnicity or nationalism; I think that these things are very crippling and are very divisive. These are all Baha'i points of view, and my work grows out of this vision.

Developed as a Writer

Hayden had become interested in writing while he was still in elementary school. Williams wrote that "he tried to rewrite the stories of plays and movies he had seen" and that while still in high school, he won an award for a short story entitled "Gold." He developed an interest in modern poetry as a teenager and was especially drawn to Countee Cullen's work. Hayden's poem "Africa," published by Abbott's Monthly in 1931, is reminiscent of Cullen's "Heritage." According to Collected Prose, Hayden met Cullen in 1941. The poet knew of Hayden's work and praised it during their conversation. Earlier, in the 1930s, Hayden had been thrilled to meet Langston Hughes, who read some of his poetry and encouraged him to find his own voice. Although the response dampened his spirits at the time, Hayden later recognized the accuracy and helpfulness of Hughes's critique.

As an apprentice volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940) reflects Hughes's assessment. Even so, Hayden's merit as a poet was discernible, for the volume won the 1938 Jules and Avery Hopwood summer award at the University of Michigan. Hayden won another Hopwood for "The Black Spear," a poetry collection which to date has not been published. W.H Auden, who was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, taught Hayden when he was in graduate school. Hayden characterized the experience in Collected Prose as a marvelous one. Auden's erudition and stimulation made him a memorable teacher. The two men subsequently maintained a warm, though not close, relationship.

Hayden received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in Creative Writing in 1947, during which time he worked on poems published in The Lion and the Archer (1948). The volume features six poems by Hayden and six by Myron O'Higgins. O'Higgins, a consultant and researcher at Fisk, had also received a Rosenwald Fellowship. The Lion contains "A Ballad of Remembrance," which became the title poem in a later volume. The cover art was provided by one of Hayden's students, William Demby, who was attending Fisk as a World War II veteran and who later became famous in his own right as a novelist. Hayden's next volume, Figure of Time: Poems (1955), consisted of 14 poems: 11 new ones and three reprints. The work was illustrated by Aaron Douglas, who had come to prominence for his murals during the Harlem Renaissance and was on the faculty at Fisk.

Both The Lion and the Archer and Figure of Time were published by Hemphill Press, a small black press in Nashville, Tennessee. The volumes were part of the Counterpoise Series at Fisk, a project for which Hayden edited four books. The introductory leaflet to the series reflects Hayden's view that it expresses opposition "to the chauvinistic, the cultish, to special pleading, to all that seeks to limit and restrict creative expression." In phrasing consistent with Baha'i beliefs, the statement supports "the oneness of mankind and the importance of the arts in the struggle for peace and unity," as noted in Collected Prose.

A Ballad of Remembrance (1962) contains some of Hayden's best known poems. "Middle Passage," revised from earlier versions, is a key example. The poem focuses on the Amistad rebellion, in which Africans being brought to the Caribbean took over the ship meant to deliver them to slavery and eventually won their freedom in a United States court. The poem is a collage of various of materials, including journals, depositions, and hymns. A refrain characterizes the middle passage as a "voyage through death / to life upon these shores." Other often anthologized poems from the volume are "O Daedalus Fly Away Home" and "Frederick Douglass," as well as "Home to the Empress of the Blues," a tribute to the blues singer, Bessie Smith.

A section of Ballad draws on Hayden's time in Mexico, where he was based in 1954 and 1955, having received a Ford Foundation Fellowship. The sojourn enabled Hayden to draw on his earlier study of Spanish. Another section of the volume draws on childhood memories in poems such as "The Whipping," "Those Winter Sundays," and "Summertime and the Living." Ballad was first published in London and then by the American firm, October House, as Selected Poems in 1966. "Runagate Runagate," Hayden's stirring tribute to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, had been published earlier, but was revised for Selected Poems.

Taken together, A Ballad and Selected Poems mark Hayden's maturity as a poet. The change in publishers and the international dimensions of publication also widened Hayden's audience. In 1966, A Ballad of Remembrance was awarded the Grand Prix de la Poésie at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. In the same year, Hayden was named poet laureate of Senegal.

Despite the accolades and greater fame in the sixties, Hayden was also subjected to negative criticism. At the Black Writer's Conference held at Fisk in 1966, Hayden was castigated by many of the conferees as the author of poems that were too erudite and too removed from political and social activism. The conference had been organized by John O. Killens, then writer-in-residence at Fisk. Hayden compared the experience at the Fisk conference to the criticism he received in college when he read his poems before the John Reed Club. There, according to Collected Prose, "he was scathingly criticized for his lack of political awareness. And he was often accused of being too much the individualist and not willing to submit to ideology." In any case, the Fisk experience was painful. In 1969 Hayden resigned from the university.

Williams characterized Hayden's next volume Words in the Mourning Time (1970) as "a cathartic work, his poetic response to the Fisk confrontation with the black militants, an affirmation of his humanism, and the rejection of what he sees as evil." The volume contains Hayden's tribute to Malcolm X, "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz." The opening lines show Hayden's "rejection of evil" as well as his attention to central issues of the African American experience. In accessible, economical use of language, Hayden declares: "The icy evil that struck his father down/ and ravished his mother into madness / trapped him in violence of a punished self / Struggling to break free." The title poem in the volume ponders the meaning of the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and it mourns "for America, self-destructive, self-betrayed."

Hayden's other volumes are The Night Blooming Cereus (1972), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), and American Journal (1978 and 1982). These works continue to demonstrate his maturity of thought and concise crafting of language. The title, American Journal, for example, refers to the report of an extraterrestrial trying to discern American values. The alien observes that he will "disguise myself in order to study them unobserved / adapting their varied pigmentations white black / red brown yellow the imprecise and strangering / distinctions by which they live by which they / justify their cruelties to one another." American Journal also includes "The Snow Lamp," which focuses on Matthew Henson and his exploration of the North Pole, and "Letter from Phillis Wheatley," which draws on Wheatley's letters to her black friend Obour.

Hayden was also a critic and editor. He wrote the preface to the reissue of Alain Locke's The New Negro, reissued by Atheneum in 1968. He edited Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets (1967), and for many years, he was the poetry editor for World Order, the Baha'i magazine. He collaborated with James E. Miller and Robert O'Neal in editing many Scott Foresman publications, including American Models: A Collection of Modern Stories (1973), Person Place and Point of View: Factual Prose for Interpretation and Extension (1974), The Lyric Potential (1974), and The Human Condition: Literature Written in the English Language. Another of Hayden's co-edited works, with David J. Burrows and Frederick Lapides, is Afro-American Literature: An Introduction (1971).

The city of Detroit recognized Hayden in 1969 for distinguished achievement by presenting him the Mayor's Bronze Medal. In 1970 he received an award from the National Institute of Letters for distinguished achievement in poetry. In 1975 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Poets. Hayden served two terms as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, 1976—77 and 1977—78. He was the first African American poet to hold this post.

Hayden held honorary degrees from Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan, Brown University, Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Wayne State University, and Fisk University. On January 4, 1980, he was among a group of American poets honored by President Jimmy Carter at the White House. Hayden was too ill to attend a celebration held in his honor in Ann Arbor on February 24, 1980. He died the next day.

Although he saw the relevance of race to the human condition, Hayden refused to be limited in his subject matter. At the same time, he understood and demonstrated that poems on a racial theme inherently deal with the human condition. In an interview with John O'Brien for Interviews With Black Writers, Hayden summarized his philosophy. "I am convinced," he said, "that if poets have any calling… beyond the attempt to produce viable poems--and that in itself is more than enough--it is to affirm the humane, the universal, the potentially divine in the human creature." Hayden affirmed that calling unequivocally.


Harris, Trudier, ed. Afro-American Writers, 1940—1955. Gale Research, 1988.

Hatcher, John. From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. George Ronald, 1984.

Nicholas, Xavier, ed. "Robert Hayden and Michael S. Harper: A Literary Friendship." Callaloo 17 (Fall 1994): 975—1016.

O'Brien, John, ed. Interviews with Black Writers. Liveright, 1973.

Williams, Pontheolla T. Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. University of Illinois Press, 1987. □

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Robert Earl Hayden

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