Asa Bundy Sheffey Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111207628-Hayden.jpg Robert Hayden Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 683 words.)


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Robert Earl Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, on August 4, 1913. His natural parents divorced while he was young, and he was reared by William Hayden and Sue Ellen Hayden, taking their name and thinking that he had been legally adopted. His natural mother sometimes lived next door to the Haydens, and Hayden described his childhood environment as angry and disrupted. Hayden suffered from extremely poor eyesight, and even as a child, he spent more time in reading poetry—and later in writing it—than in more physical activities.

From 1932 to 1936, Hayden attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University). There he had the first of three important meetings with famous poets: Langston Hughes came for a reading, and Hayden was able to have the more established poet read and evaluate some of his work. After graduation, and while he was briefly married, Hayden met Countée Cullen; later, working on a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, Hayden was able to study poetry under W. H. Auden.

During this period, he married again, to Erma Morris, and in 1946, he and his family moved to Nashville, where Hayden began a twenty-two-year teaching career at Fisk University. By this point in his life, he had published some of his most famous poems (including “Middle Passage” in Phylon magazine) and had twice won the Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan. He and his wife had also converted to the Baha’i faith, a worldview that underlies much of Hayden’s poetry, especially in its reconciliation of the oneness of God with the multiplicity of his historical manifestations and in the sustaining faith that the events that rise from the dark side of humanity, such as the assassinations of which Hayden writes in “Words in the Mourning Time,” “are process, major means whereby/ oh dreadfully, our humanness must be achieved.”

From the time Hayden left Fisk in 1968 until his death in 1980, he was a professor of English at the University of Michigan. In 1976, he became the first African American to be appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

African American poet Robert Earl Hayden, named Asa Bundy Sheffey when he was born, grew up poor in Detroit, raised by foster parents (the Haydens) who wanted him to have a good education. In Hayden’s well-known poem “Those Winter Sundays,” he recalls his foster father getting up early to make “banked fires blaze” and to polish his shoes.{$S[A]Sheffey, Asa Bundy;Hayden, Robert}

After high school and years of odd jobs and reading in libraries, Hayden managed to attend Detroit City College (now Wayne State University). He spent several years in the Federal Writers’ Project before beginning graduate work at the University of Michigan, where he studied with W. H. Auden and received two Hopwood Awards. He earned his master’s degree in 1944 and began his long teaching career, first at Fisk University and later at the University of Michigan.

Although he won the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal, he was denounced by some militants during the 1960’s for his view that he was a poet rather than a “black poet.” However, some of his finest poems deal unforgettably with African American history, including “Middle Passage,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” “Runagate Runagate,” and the sonnet “Frederick Douglass.”

All four of those poems appear in his breakthrough 1962 volume, A Ballad of Remembrance. He wanted his earlier poems, which he called his “’prentice pieces,” omitted from his collected works. “Middle Passage,” a longer poem that runs just over six pages, is a masterpiece about the African slave trade told in different voices. It includes passages from a sailor’s log, testimony about a burning abandoned slave ship, talk from a trader, and a request for the extradition of Cinquez, “that surly brute who calls himself a prince.” Passages of third-person narration alternate with the monologues. The poem begins with a list of ships’ names and intersperses lines from spirituals, summing up with a split line of iambic pentameter: “Voyage through...

(The entire section is 848 words.)