Robert Hayden’s childhood independence was instrumental to his becoming a scholar and poet. He was reared in a poor Detroit neighborhood, where such distinctions were rare. Soon after he was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, Hayden was adopted by the Haydens, neighbors of his birth parents. A sufferer of extreme myopia as a child, Hayden was separated from his peers into a “sight conservation” class; although his handicap kept him from participating in most sports, the resulting time alone allowed him to read (especially poetry, which demanded less of his vision), write, and play the violin, thereby developing rhythmical and tonal sensitivities that would well serve his eventual vocation.
Several fortuitous events and encounters in Robert Hayden’s life supported his choosing texts in African American history, especially the narratives of rebellious slaves, as fruitful subjects for his verse. After attending Detroit City College (which later became Wayne State University), Hayden, in 1936, began working for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration; he was assigned to research “Negro folklore.” Two major figures encouraged his ensuing interest in African American history. The first, Erma Inez Morris, a pianist and a teacher in Detroit’s public schools, became Hayden’s wife and, for a time, his financial support. She also introduced her new husband to Countée Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance poet who admired Hayden’s first...
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