Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1976 to 1978 and was the first African-American appointed to the position. His poetry has been set by several American composers, including T. J. Anderson, Tom Cipullo, Anthony Davis, Robert Di Domenica, and Frederick Tillis.

Photo: Robert Hayden, public domain

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Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in a poor part of Detroit, Robert Hayden was raised by foster parents, who lived next door to his biological parents. His childhood was tumultuous, and he found solace in poetry. His impaired vision secluded him further from his peers, since he could not play sports.

He studied at Detroit City College and then at the University of Michigan, studying with W. H. Auden. In the 1930s, Hayden conducted extensive historical research on American and black history while working for the Federal Writer’s Project in Detroit. His first volume of poetry, Heart-Shape in the Dust was published in 1940.

William Meredith wrote of Hayden:
“Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. There is scarcely a line of his which is not identifiable as an experience of black America, but he would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.”

Hayden is considered “the most outstanding craftsman of Afro-American poetry” because he could write about topics such as the Middle Passage and Ku Klux Klan murders in formal poetry. He also wrote about black historical figures, such as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Cinquez.

–Christie Finn
Sources: Poetry Foundation website and

Related Information



Sheet Music

America 1968

Composer(s): Tom Cipullo

Song(s): 1. Monet's Water Lilies
2. Hey Nonny No
3. The Point
4. The Whipping
5. Those Winter Sundays
6. Frederick Douglass

Buy via Classical Vocal Reprints

Climbing: Poems by African-Americans

Composer(s): Tom Cipullo

Buy via Classical Vocal Reprints

Flowers of Darkness

Composer(s): Dorothy Rudd Moore

Voice Type: tenor

Buy via American Composers Alliance

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