“The Confines of Labels”: Hayden’s Rejection of the “Black Poet”

Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4th, 1913. He was raised by poor and uneducated foster parents. Extreme nearsightedness limited his participation in athletics, so he turned to literature.

“He loved books because they took him out of his environment, partly because they fed his imagination with experiences he had never know, but mostly, perhaps, because he was beginning to love the words themselves” (Hatcher 8-9).

Family relationships during his childhood were difficult due to the tension that he was not his adoptive parents’ real son, and that his artistic desires challenged their views of his masculinity. Later, as an adult and a poet, Hayden would reflect on how these experiences shaped his life.

Hayden enjoyed, studied, and was inspired by Countee Cullen, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Langston Hughes, as well as other aspiring poets of the time. He studied under the direction of W. H. Auden while pursuing his master’s degree.

Hayden was a professor of creative writing and English literature at Fisk University (Nashville, Tennessee) for 23 years, and then taught at the University of Michigan for 11 years.

Though often writing in poetic form, Hayden still managed to remain original. He employed many personas and voices, such as “black folk speech” and sparse yet brash diction, for an overarching chilling effect. His poetry is not considered confessional because it explores the larger implications of personal events.

Robert Hayden began associating with social justice writers in the late 1930s; during this time, he also began in-depth research on American and black history.

Even though most of his poetry relates to or draws from African American history and the black experience, Hayden distanced himself from the label of a “black poet,” which led to accusations that he was rejecting his racial heritage during the tumultuous 1960s. Hayden “became convinced that he could not work easily within the confines of labels” (Hatcher 13).

He fiercely believed that “the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-hayden).

Hayden felt that the label of “black poet” confined his poetry and restricted his identity. He wanted readers, critics, and the general public to think of him instead as an American poet.


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