Life Sketch of Robert Hayden

Image:  Robert Hayden Painting by Nicole Macdonald 

Robert Hayden’s unique service to the world of poetry extends beyond that narrow world to his useful assistance in introducing to American culture information about the Baha’i faith, which influenced his own vision in seeing race through the lens of universality rather than tribalism.

Early Life and Education

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Asa and Ruth Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his tumultuous childhood with an adoptive family headed by William and Sue Ellen Westerfield Hayden, in the lower class Detroit neighborhood called ironically, Paradise Valley.  

Hayden’s parents had separated before his birth, and his mother was unable to care for her son; thus, Mrs. Sheffey’s neighbors, the Haydens, took over the care of Robert, raising him as their own, even though they themselves experienced a dysfunctional marriage.

Hayden was a small framed boy with poor vision, physical realities that kept him from successfully participating in sports.  He, therefore, spent much of his time with books, pursuing literary studies.  Social isolation led to his life and career as a poet and professor.  

He attended Detroit City College (later renamed Wayne State University); then after spending two years with the Federal Writers’ Project, he returned to school at the University of Michigan to finish his Masters Degree.  

At Michigan, Hayden had to good fortune to study with W. H. Auden, and Auden’s influence can be detected in Hayden’s technique and use of form.

After graduation with the masters degree, Hayden took a teaching position at the University of Michigan; then he later taught at Fisk University in Nashville, where he remained for twenty-three years.  Returning to the University of Michigan, he taught there for the last eleven years of his life.  

He once stated that he considered himself, “a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then.” He always considered himself a poet first and foremost.

The Influence of the Baha’i Faith

In 1940, Robert Hayden married Erma Inez Morris.  He converted from his Baptist religion to her Baha’i faith.  His new faith influenced his writing, and his publications helped publicize the Baha’i faith.  

Hayden was inspired by the Baha’i teaching that artists’ works represent a manner of worship and through that type of worship the products of artists offer a spiritual service to humanity.  Art offers the human mind and heart the opportunity for upliftment.  

According to a tenet of the religion:  “Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. —Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.

This belief about the function of art sustained Hayden throughout his writing career.  Through this faith, Hayden came to understand the futility and oppression of racial segregation.  He rejected the label of “Negro Poet,” because he believed there was no such thing as a black or a white poetry.  

He chose racial unity over the consciousness of tribalism.  He understood that the universal human struggle for freedom remained the bridge that unites the multi-colored races.

A Career in Poetry

“I have said this until I almost think I’ll choke and fall over backwards,” thus began a visibly disturbed Robert Hayden addressing himself to the argument as to whether one is a Negro poet or, as Hayden insists, “a poet who happens to be a Negro.” Reading lines from Yeats, Hayden solemnly commented, “I didn’t have to be Irish to love those lines.” — John S. Hatcher  “Racial Identity and the Patterns of Consolation in the Poetry of Robert Hayden”

For his entire life, Robert Hayden continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He found it dismaying that political correctness isolated “black poets” afflicting them with a special critical treatment that resulted in lower standards.  

Instead, he wished to be considered just a poet, an American poet, and to be criticized only for the merits of his works.  Before the idea was popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hayden believed in being judged by his character not the color of his complexion.

Lewis Turco, scholar of the formal verse form, has explained that Hayden recognized that classifying poets by race “was useful to white academics who wish to ignore poetry written by blacks.” 

 Hayden had observed that poetry by African Americans was relegated to courses in African American literature courses and was not part of the syllabus in standard English literatures.

Hayden recognized that the ghettoizing of African American poets and using different standards to critique their art implied that they were not capable of producing quality poetry that could stand alongside white writers and others included in the Anglo-Saxon canon of literary arts.  

Hayden rightly resented such segregation and insisted that his works be critiqued “as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism” apply.  Hayden felt that conflating sociology and art made for unworkable, even inaccurate, points of view.  According to Duane L. Herrmann, Hayden did not adhere to the tenets of political correctness: 

Though he died in 1980 the appropriateness of his refusal to bow to the agenda of others (hence, to be politically correct) has become more and more evident. The issue was race. Born in 1913 he grew up a “Negro.” In the 1960’s he was called “Black” and then, when he refused to submit to a militant “Black Agenda,” he was denounced as a traitor to his race, an “Uncle Tom” and a “white ni**er.”

In his writing, Hayden employed the terms, “Negro,” “colored,” and “black,” commonly used at the time. He was writing several decades before Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, “African American.”

LeRoi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, contended that Hayden was “disconnected” from much of the African American experience, even though Robert Hayden’s works have revealed much about his ethnic background and done so cogently and clearly. According to William Meredith, 

In the 1960s, Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.

The issue of whether black poets should trade on their race continued to stifle Hayden’s reputation.  

In April of 1966, attending the Fisk Black Writer’s Conference, which was convened by John Oliver Killens with the impetus that “black writers should find new ways to express themselves as black writers to a black audience,” Hayden remarked, “we should quit advertising ourselves as black writers to a black audience . . . it gives it more of an importance than it should have.”  

This mere statement of fact set off a fire storm against Hayden, causing his reputation to continue to suffer:

Melvin Tolson and several other student activists engaged in responses to him that were racially accusatory scream fests, in which they accused him of hating his people. Amiri Baraka wrote a veiled response poem “Poem to Half White College Students” saying that people like him should be put in the gas chamber. Black World Digest told numerous stories of academics and students harassing him, first at Fisk, then wherever he went. Poets from Thomas Sayers Ellis to far too many “woke” critical race theorists to count kept repeating the same misreading of what he said to the point where Hayden’s reputation as Black Academic Poetry’s greatest villain is all but set in stone.

In the larger world of art, Hayden has actually enjoyed a rather stellar reputation. 

Perhaps even among black poets, the wisdom of Robert Hayden’s thoughts and claims is turning with the zeitgeist; contemporary Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, who is otherwise deeply engaged in the political correctness of identity politics, has remarked about Hayden,”I keep going back to Robert Hayden. He’s so important to me.” 

Publication and Awards

Robert Hayden published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems in 1940. While serving as professor, Hayden continued to write.  His published collections include the following:

  • Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (Falcon Press 1940) 
  • The Lion and the Archer (Hemphill Press 1948) Figures of Time: Poems (Hemphill Press 1955) 
  • A Ballad of Remembrance (P. Breman 1962)Selected Poems (October House 1966) 
  • Words in the Mourning Time (October House 1970) Night-Blooming Cereus (P. Breman 1972) 
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright 1975) 
  • American Journal (Liveright 1982) 
  • Collected Poems (Liveright 1985).  
  • Collected Prose (University of Michigan Press 1984). 

Robert Hayden was awarded twice the Hopwood Award for poetry.  He was also awarded the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts for A Ballad of Remembrance.  The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed on Hayden the Russell Loines Award.

Hayden’s stellar reputation did become well established in the poetry world, and in 1976, he was picked to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position later became designated Poet Laureate of the United States of America.  He served in that position for two years.

On February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Robert Hayden died at age 66. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery.  The FindAGrave site offers the following tribute to this fine poet:

In 1976 he served as as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that later became known as Poet Laureate of the United States. One of the most well known and venerated of the Bahá’í poets, he received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. On April 21, 2012, a United States Postage Stamp, within a pane of 10 Twentieth Century Poets, was issued featuring Robert Hayden.

The FindAGrave site also links to memorials of Hayden’s wife, Erma Inez Morris Hayden, 1911–1994, and their daughter, Maia Beth Hayden Patillo, 1942–2020.



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