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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Biography of Robert Hayden

A. His Life
            Robert Earl Hayden was recognized as the poet laureate of Senegal in 1966 and as America’s first black poet laureate in 1976. 

            Robert Earl Hayden was not the name that appeared in his birth certificate.  His first name was Asa Bundy Sheffey and he was born on August 4, 1913.  He was born in Paradise Valley in Detroit Michigan.  His biological parents were Ruth Sheffey and Asa Sheffey who were separated before he was born.  When he was only eighteen (18) months old, his mother gave him to William Hayden and Sue Ellen Hayden who lived next door.  They were the ones who rechristened him to become Robert Earl Hayden but the Haydens never legally adopted him. (Pontheolla Williams 3) The Haydens never denied the Sheffeys to and visit their child in their home.  In fact, the Haydens often took Robert to his biological mother’s home to pay her a visit.

            Hayden had a good relationship with his biological mother.  When he was a young boy, Ruth Sheffey often took him to theatres in Buffalo.  They also enjoyed the board rides, theaters and the gifts and the time he spent with his biological mother.  These experiences will later on shape his view about his world and give him a less ethnically centered view of art than that of the other artists. 

            Robert’s biological father also paid him a visit often.  Asa Sheffey also took him shopping and gave him gifts.  However, Robert noticed that when his father was drunk, he would often disparage his mother in front of him. (Pontheolla Williams 4) Because of his remarks, he developed feelings of resentment towards his father. 

            Robert Earl Hayden was a near-sighted from birth.  He considered this impairment as his handicap.  Because of his handicap, he did not engage in sports activities like the other children his age.  He would often refuse to interact with other children who called him “old four eyes.” In this young age, he found solace in reading, day dreaming and drawing. 

His neighborhood, Paradise Valley, was described as a racially mixed but predominantly black neighborhood.  Hayden once described his neighborhood as “the most notorious part of town.” (Pontheolla T. Williams 6)  Racial bias and prejudice was common in this neighborhood with issues such as segregation often being discussed.  It was in this environment that is full of color prejudice that Robert Earl Hayden realized as a young boy born from black parents that he was vulnerable.   

He recalled the days when his adoptive mother refused to let him play with his white friends.  She admonished him not to run around with his friends who are white and reminded him that he was “coloured.”  When he reached puberty, the whites warned him saying “You’re coloured I don’t want you playing with my girls.” (Pontheolla T. Williams 8) Hayden, however, emphasized that racial bigotry was not universal.  He recalled the times when Jews and Italians extended credit to his family and the fun times he had with his white friends when they play together.  The knowledge that not everybody was conscious about the color of their skin or the color of the skin of other people will soon play an important role in his life as a poet.
            The Afro-American church served as one of the most crucial influences in Hayden’s life.  Hayden once said that the church was the center of his family life. Hayden also said that he had experienced a genuine, even near-mystical conversion, and became a member while he still a child. His activities with the church such as acting, writing and speaking all helped him in his development and would later be part of his poems such as the “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday.” 

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            In 1930, he graduated from the Northern High School in Detroit which he described as a “sight saving” school.  It was in this year where he became familiar with modern poetry.  He discovered both the mainstream American literary tradition and the Afro-American literary tradition through the Harlem Renaissance poets in the likes of Elinor Wylie, Alain Locke and Countee Cullen.  Soon, he would follow Cullen who declined to call himself the Negro poet.  In 1931, Hayden’s first poem “Africa” was published in the 1931 issue of Chicago’s Abbott’s Monthly.  “Africa” reflects the extent of influence of Cullen in Hayden.  The poem “Africa” gives praise to Africa which Hayden considered as a cradle of human race.  The structure and style of the poem was patterned after Cullen’s “Heritage” which also discusses about Africa.  Cullen also influenced Hayden who wanted to be labeled as a poet rather than a “Negro poet.” In his poem, Cullen refused to be restricted to racial themes which were common among coloured poets during his time. 

            It was also at this age that he attended the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts where he took violin lessons.  He enjoyed the lessons and continued attending the school until his family could no longer pay for it.  At the same time, he was forced to quit when his vision had become worse that he had to sit so close to the music which obstructed the view of his classmate.  It was his love of music that would later cause him to be attracted to the woman that he would later marry. (Pontheolla T. Williams 8)

            In 1932, Hayden entered the Detroit City College through scholarship from the State Rehabilitation Service.  In 1936, Hayden secured a job as a researcher and writer for Detroit Writers Project Administration.  Later, he was recognized at a Detroit United Auto Workers Union rally where he was called the People’s Poet.” (Christopher Buck 177)

            In June 1940, Hayden married Erma Inez Morris who was a musician.  Maia, their daughter, was born two years after.  In 1942, Hayden started his full time graduate study at Michigan and completed his Master’s degree in 1944.  He also started his working as a teaching assistant in Michigan from 1944 to 1946 and taught at Fisk University from 1946 to 1969. 

II. Criticisms
            Despite his skills, talents and the recognition that he has received as a poet, Robert Hayden, together with Countee Cullen, were often criticized by their colleagues for their lack of political involvement and for refusing to be called a Negro poet.  In fact, while his poetry was being recognized in Senegal, Hayden was being criticized at his own hometown for refusing to be labeled as a Negro poet.  Hayden, for his part, did not deny and insisted that he was an American poet.  He refused to be called a Negro poet but “a poet who happens to be a Negro.” (Bryan Conniff 1) Many of these critics believed that coloured poets should write about the coloured men and women and their situation in life. 

The criticisms are understandable because during this time, it had become the trend among many artists to write about the situation involving the whites and the coloured persons.  Many poets discussed about the discrimination they had experienced and the difficulties of being a coloured poet.  The poem was considered as a vehicle among these poets to raise the social awareness about the coloured people and to instill to them a sense of pride. 

However, Robert Hayden believed that poets “are the keepers of a nation’s conscience, the partisans of freedom and justice, even when they eschew political involvement. By the very act of continuing to function as poets they are affirming what is human and eternal.” He stressed that poets should not be restricted to write about racial issues.  Hayden believed that there are poets who want to write about racial injustice and there are poets who want to write a more personal kind of poetry.  These poets, for him, should be left alone.  He also wanted to correct the perception that coloured people only want to read about racial injustice.  He admonished his critics that they should not downgrade the coloured people and that poetry regardless of its topic is to be enjoyed by everybody regardless of the color of their skin.

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