Robert Hayden was the nation’s first Black Poet Laureate, a honor that most believe was first bestowed on Rita Dove in 1993. But Hayden’s achievement occurred 17 years earlier in 1976, and he served in the post for two years.
Hayden was born August 4, 1912 as Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Mich. When his parents split before he was born, Hayden entered the foster care system under the guidance of Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden. Growing up in Detroit’s poor Paradise Valley district, Hayden endured a tough childhood replete with arguments between his caretakers.
Battling depression and too small and nearsighted to enjoy outdoor sports, Hayden developed a strong love for reading. After graduating high school, he entered Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) and left school in 1936 to work for the Federal Workers’ Project that was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Hayden studied African-American history and culture during his time with the program.
Hayden’s first book of poetry, Heart-Shape In The Dust, was published in 1940. That year he also married Erma Inez, converting to her Baha’i faith as well. The influences of his studies and his new religion inspired his poetry.