One of America’s finest poets, Robert Hayden, was born in Detroit in 1913. Before his second birthday his parents’ marriage broke up, and he was raised by a neighbor couple in Black Bottom, an impoverished district near the Detroit River. Named in colonial times for its dark fertile soil, Black Bottom was ethnically mixed at the time, with black and white migrants from the Deep South crowded into rickety wooden houses alongside immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, and Germany.

Bullied by other children for his slight stature and coke-bottle glasses, Hayden might not have survived had it not been for his foster parents—who did their duty by him, despite the bitterness of their lives and what he later called “the chronic angers of that house.” We know this from his most famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays”:

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

Hayden’s struggles began early and lasted long. In 1966, when his poetry was just beginning to attract notice, he said to a gathering of black writers at Fisk University, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it

Subscribe for access This article is reserved for subscribers.