Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey to Asa and Ruth Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in the Paradise Valley slum section of Detroit. He kept his birth name only briefly; his father immediately deserted the infant, and when he was eighteen months old, his mother left him with neighbors, the Haydens, so she could pursue a stage career in another state. His foster parents rechristened him Robert Earl Hayden.
Although the Haydens raised Robert as their own son, his foster mother often reminded the boy how much he owed her for taking him in when his own mother had rejected him. The boy’s emotional life was complicated by the frequent reappearances of his natural mother, who eventually moved back to Detroit. The mother and foster mother often struggled over the boy, vying for his affection.
When he was a youth, his extreme myopia prevented him from participating in sports with other children, and this, combined with the difficulties of his home life, drove him increasingly to books. In school, he showed interest in poetry and drama, doing poorly only in physics.
Though he was a good student in high school, prevalent racial bias and his family’s poverty during the Depression meant that he would not have an easy time getting a college education. From 1932 to 1944, he went to school at Detroit City College and the University of Michigan, punctuating his stints in academia with periods doing research for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project. During this period, he deepened his knowledge of African American history. In 1946 he married Erma Morris, a pianist and teacher, to whom he would remain married for the rest of...
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