MI Black History: The Poet Laureate from Paradise Valley

Q: Which African-American poet who served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1976-8 often wrote about his youth growing up in an all-black neighborhood of Detroit known as Paradise Valley?

A: Robert Hayden. Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit in 1913 to parents who split up before he was born, he grew up with the Hayden family that lived next door. Hayden witnessed domestic violence and neglect in the home, and was ostracized among his peers because of his very poor eyesight. He attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) but left one credit short of finishing his degree. During the Great Depression, he worked for the Federal Writer’s Project, an arm of the New Deal, where he researched black history and culture. Hayden enrolled in the University of Michigan in 1941 and won the university’s Hopwood Award for writing. He then taught at the University of Michigan between 1941-6 and then at Fisk University for 23 years. He returned to teach at the University of Michigan in 1969. While many black artists of the time were embracing or considering black separatism, Hayden didn’t. He was a follower of the Baha’i Faith, which teaches the unity of mankind. He went on to serve as the nation’s poet laureate for two years, and died in Ann Arbor in 1980.

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