It’s the birthday of the poet and teacher Robert Hayden (books by this author). Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan (1913), he was given up for adoption as a child and raised by a foster family. He was a skinny and severely nearsighted boy and was often ostracized by the other children of “Paradise Valley,” the Detroit ghetto where he grew up, and which served as the backdrop to much of his writing. He found comfort in the world of books and went on to the city college, before taking a job in 1936 with the Federal Writers’ Project. He researched black history and folk culture, gaining knowledge that would inform his work for the rest of his career. In 1940, he published his first collection of poetry, Heart Shape in the Dust, still heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. He quickly mastered traditional form, and his poetry later became known for its use of multiple voices and the vernacular of black life, such as in his best-known poem, “Middle Passage,” about the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad. In 1946, he took a job at Fisk University, where he would teach for the next 23 years. In 1985, he was the first African-American to be awarded the post of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.
He said, “Art is not an escape, but a way of finding order in chaos, a way of confronting life.”