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Robert Hayden:
A Struggling African-American Voice



Robert Hayden is well known for his poetry in American and African-American letters. Hayden’s poetry concentrates on African-American social and political plight even though his poetry describes race through expansive language and the transformational power of art. He is an award-winning poet of voice, symbol, and lyricism.

Born in the slums of Detroit in 1913, Robert Hayden’s life became a real challenge at the onset, with the split between his parents, Ruth and Asa Sheffey. Ruth Sheffey was born with a racially mixed ancestry and she gave Robert away to a foster family when he was only eighteen months old. He then lived a tough life due to his foster parents, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, beating him, which caused him to spiral into depressive moods. He was able to see his real mother when Sue Ellen too him to visit. The troubles he endured at home with his peers caused him to develop an ear and eye for literature.

Robert Hayden attended and graduated from Wayne State University. After leaving Wayne State University, he studied black history and folk culture in the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936. He also took an interest in several American and British poets during this time while his associations and friendships helped to enhance his understanding of poetry and its techniques.

Hayden left the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938 and married Emma Morris in 1940. He also converted to the Baha'i Faith during this time. His life began to progress as he published his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust. He then enrolled in the University of Michigan. Hayden received his masters degree in 1942 and continued to teach at Michigan University. In 1946, he transferred to Fisk University and spent 23 years teaching there. He was honored with a distinguished professorship at the University of Michigan as a final crown of accomplishment.

Robert Hayden's poetry reflects dramatic growth from imitation to a fully realized and independent artistic vision. Other collections of poetry he wrote and published include The Lion and the Archer, Figure of Time: Poems, Words in the Mourning Time: Poems, and The Night-Blooming Cereus. In most of the pieces, his style focused on free verse in dramatic and narrative poems and sonnets.

His first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, got its direction from Harlem Renaissance poetry, particularly that of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. The work concentrated mainly on social criticism and its use of racial and cultural material. He highlights the complexity of African-American life in American history. In this book he mainly uses dramatic voice, juxtaposition, irony, and montage as the elements to convey his poetic messages.

These elements are very visible in most of his work, in fact. Hayden was highly dedicated to his work, which explains his success in poetry. His success as a poet led Hayden to become a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His success continued until his death as he served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976-1978, becoming the first black poet to hold that position.

Readers of Robert Hayden’s poetry will always remember his sustaining voice, a voice that struggled with epistemology and language, celebration of African-American history, and his racial heritage’s aesthetics and form. Robert Hayden died in 1980.





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