Countee Cullen 1903–1946
(Born Countee Leroy Porter) American poet, novelist, critic, journalist, and dramatist.
Cullen was one of the foremost figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement of unprecedented creative achievement among black American writers, musicians, and artists centered in the Harlem section of New York City during the 1920s. While Cullen strove to establish himself as the author of romantic poetry on such universal topics as love and death, he also wrote numerous poems treating contemporary racial issues, and it is for these that he is best remembered.
The details of Cullen's early years are uncertain, and Cullen himself maintained a lifelong reticence about his youth. Nonetheless, scholars have determined that he was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and then raised in New York City by his paternal grandmother. Following her death in 1918, he was adopted by the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. In the home of his adoptive parents, Cullen was exposed to religious concerns as well as the political issues of the day through the work and influence of his adopted father. Reverend Cullen had helped found the National Urban League and served as president of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). An excellent student, Cullen attended De Witt Clinton High School, then New York's premier preparatory school, before enrolling at New York University in 1922. During high school and college Cullen's poems appeared in campus and national publications and won numerous literary prizes, including second place in the Witter Bynner Poetry Contest for undergraduates for The Ballad of the Brown Girl, a retelling of an English folk ballad. Color, Cullen's first volume of poetry, was published in 1925, the same year he graduated from New York University. Cullen matriculated to Harvard University and received his M.A. in 1926. Returning to New York where he was already considered a leading literary figure, Cullen began writing "From the Dark Tower," a column on literary and social issues for Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League. He published several volumes of poetry, including Copper Sun (1927) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and edited Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927).
In 1928 Cullen's editorial work on Opportunity in addition to his reputation as a poet earned him a Guggenheim
grant to study in France for one year. Prior to his departure, he married Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of the prominent black scholar and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, in an April ceremony that was the highlight of the African-American social community. The marriage rapidly deteriorated, however, so that by July of the same year, when Cullen departed for Paris, Yolande did not accompany him, remaining instead in the United States. They divorced in 1930 upon Cullen's return to New York, having lived apart for two years. During his time in Paris, Cullen wrote The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) which expressed the agony and pain of lost love and betrayal. Cullen's time in France was both invigorating and liberating, as he was able to escape the effects of racism and to mingle with writers, painters, and artists; the effect was not apparent in his published work, however, as The Black Christ and Other Poems received little critical approbation.
To help pay the bills, Cullen turned his attention to other forms of writing, and in 1932 he published One Way to Heaven, a novel that was praised for its accurate portrayal of Harlem life, and also published stories and verse for children. Cullen refused several academic teaching positions at various southern universities, not wanting to leave the more racially tolerant North, and in 1934 he accepted a position as a junior high French instructor at an all black school in New York. Teaching, writing, lecturing, and community projects occupied the remainder of his life. Cullen wrote little poetry during this period, instead contributing editorials to New York newspapers and collaborating with Arna Bontemps on the play St. Louis Woman (1945). The one exception to this was The Medea and Some Poems (1935), which, although it enjoyed some favorable reviews, was not as widely circulated as his earlier volumes. In 1940 Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson, with whom he enjoyed a happy relationship until his death. In the mid-1940s Cullen began preparing a definitive collection of those poems he considered his best: On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen was published posthumously in 1947.
Cullen contended that poetry consisted of "lofty thoughts beautifully expressed," and he preferred poetic forms characterized by dignity and control." Strongly influenced by Keats and other Romantic poets, Cullen wrote traditional poetry with formal structure full of religious imagery and classical allusions. Throughout his career, Cullen tried to downplay the influence of race on his poetry, preferring to be respected as a poet, not as a Negro poet. Still, race was not something he could escape, and Cullen was criticized by the African American community for his failure to write about black life and social issues. Today, his best-known poems—"Yet Do I Marvel," "Incident," and "Uncle Jim"—are those which address the issues of racial discrimination and the inequality between blacks and whites in American society. "Yet Do I Marvel" exemplifies Cullen's belief that blacks could write poetry as well as any other race or ethnic group, and that they were not limited in scope, subject, or language, which is why much of his poetry focuses on such universal themes as love, morality, faith, and doubt. "Yet Do I Marvel" challenges the perceived contradiction between his status as a member of an oppressed race and his poetic skill, asking how God could "make a poet black, and bid him sing!" Indeed, in Color (1925), as the title suggests, many of Cullen's poems express his anger at the unfair treatment of blacks, although his vociferations are markedly more low-key than those of Langston Hughes or Claude McKay due to Cullen's natural reserve and his traditional poetics. It is difficult to overlook his condemnation of racism in "Incident," which relates the experience of an eight-year-old child who is the object of a racial slur on a Baltimore bus, an adaptation of a personal experience.
The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), one of Cullen's more popular works, revises a traditional English folk ballad that tells the story of Lord Thomas, who must choose between a white maiden and a "brown girl." In Cullen's version, which earned him second prize in the prestigious Witter Bynner Poetry Contest for undergraduates, the choice the man must make reflects the tension between blacks and whites, and the brown girl seeks to avenge the insult to her blackness by the white maiden. This poem was publicly praised by Harvard University's recognized expert on ballads, Irving Babbit, increasing Cullen's reputation and standing as a poet with cross-cultural appeal. This issue of racial identity appears in other examples of Cullen's love poems, most notably "A Song of Praise," in which Cullen examines the differences between loving a black woman and loving a white one.
Religious themes also prevail in Cullen's work, reflecting his Romantic inclination to write about spirituality, love, and idealism. "The Black Christ" (1929) for example, recounts the lynching and resurrection of a Southern black man. "Heritage"—deemed by Langston Hughes to be the most beautiful poem he knew—reflects the tension Cullen felt between his identification with Christian values and traditions and his desire to claim an African heritage.
While some critics have praised Cullen's skill at traditional versification, others suggest that his restrained, controlled style was not suited to the treatment of such emotionally charged matters as contemporary racial issues and that his adherence to conventional forms resulted in poems that are insincere and unconvincing. Nevertheless, "Heritage" and "The Ballad of the Brown Girl," two poems by Cullen that address racial inequality, are among his major successes. Despite the controversy surrounding his traditional poetic style and his ambivalence toward racial subject matter in art, Cullen can still be considered a representative voice of the Harlem Renaissance.
It is felt by some that Cullen never fully realized the potential displayed in his earliest works, his traditional and conservative verse forms not being suited to contemporary social issues. The critically acclaimed collections Color (1925) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Other Poems (1927) came early in Cullen's career and showed mature lyricism and mastery of verse forms. Subsequent collections, Copper Sun (1927) and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), garnered critical reaction that was mixed at best. Copper Sun perhaps would have fared better if it were Cullen's first collection instead of his second: after the stunning debut of Color, the poems contained in Copper Sun appeared pale and Cullen displayed little, if any, literary growth. "The Black Christ" is considered to be Cullen's least successful poem, due in part to his failed attempt to combine religious and romantic themes: Christ's crucifixion and resurrection and the romantic image of the death of spring. Attempting to recount the lynching and resurrection of a black man, the poem fails to recreate the horror of the subject or to forge any believable link between the concrete subject and the religious metaphor.
Cullen too felt his early poems were among his best, as just prior to his death, he began compiling the poems for which he wanted to be remembered and included many from Color and his other early works. On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (1947) was published one year after his death and contained such racially charged poems as "Heritage," "For a Lady I Know," and even the unpopular "The Black Christ." All of the poems in the collection represented his traditional lyricism and what Gwendolyn Brooks call his "careful talent." Despite the relatively small volume of his work, Cullen is the most-often anthologized black poet.
The Ballad of the Brown Girl: An Old Ballad Retold 1927
Copper Sun 1927
The Black Christ, and Other Poems 1929
The Medea, and Some Poems 1935
On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen 1947
My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance 1991
Other Major Works
Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets [editor] (poetry) 1927
One Way to Heaven (novel) 1932
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Babette Deutsch (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "Let It Be Allowed," in The Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. 121, No. 3156, December 30, 1925, pp. 763-64.
[In the following review, Deutsch asserts that Color represents the voice of the African-American people and declares Cullen a poet with great potential.]
These lyrics [Color] by the youngest of the Negro poets—Countee Cullen is just past his majority—are likely to be considered less as the work of a gifted individual than as the utterance of a gifted, and enslaved, people. And indeed Mr. Cullen's poems are intensely race-conscious. He writes out of the pain of inflamed memories, and with a wilful harking back to the primitive heritage of...
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Alain Locke (essay date 1926)
SOURCE: "Color—A Review," in Opportunity, Vol. 4, No. 37, January, 1926, pp. 14-15.
[In the following assessment of Color, Locke proclaims Cullen a rare talent whose verse is firmly rooted in poetic tradition and in the African-American experience.]
Ladies and gentlemen! A genius! Posterity will laugh at us if we do not proclaim him now. Color transcends all the limiting qualifications that might be brought forward if it were merely a work of talent. It is a first book, but it would be treasurable if it were the last; it is a work of extreme youth and youthfulness over which the author later may care to write the apology of "juvenilia," but it...
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George H. Dillon (essay date 1926)
SOURCE: "Mr. Cullen's First Book," in Poetry, Vol. 28, No. 1, April, 1926, pp. 50-3.
[In the following review of Color, Dillon notes the tendency of Cullen's verse to become "stilted and prosy" and finds the poet most successful when he is "spare and direct. "]
This first volume of musical verses [Color] offers promise of distinction for its author, shows him to be a young poet of uncommon earnestness and diligence. Serious purpose and careful work are apparent in all of his poems. One feels that he will cultivate his fine talent with intelligence, and reap its full harvest. He has already developed a lyric idiom which is not, perhaps, very unusual or...
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Robert T. Kerlin (essay date 1926)
SOURCE: "Singers of New Songs," in Opportunity, Vol. 4, No. 41, May, 1926, pp. 162-64.
[In the following excerpt, Kerlin maintains that Cullen's poems in Color contain particular insights and wisdom that are absent from the works of Caucasian poets.]
In 1923 a Negro student in New York University won second place among the seven hundred undergraduates of American colleges who competed for the Witter Bynner prize in poetry. The next year he was still second, and in 1925 he was first. This was Countee Cullen, aged 23. On the publication of "The Ballad of the Brown Girl" I wrote, in The Southern Workman, that it placed Mr. Cullen by the side of the best...
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Herbert S. Gorman (essay date 1927)
SOURCE: "Countee Cullen Is a Poet First and a Negro Afterward," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1927, pp. 5, 17.
[In the following excerpt, Gorman states that Cullen's poetry transcends racial boundaries.]
Countee Cullen's Copper Sun is his second volume and it is encouraging to observe that it reveals a profounder depth than Color. Any exploration of his substance of being will immediately reveal inborn negro impulses disciplined by culture and an awareness of restraint and the more delicate nuances of emotionalized intellect. A primitive naïveté underlies his work, yet, curiously enough, the surface values are sophisticated enough. There...
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E. Merrill Root (essay date 1927)
SOURCE: "Keats in Labrador," in Opportunity, Vol. 5, No. 9, September, 1927, pp. 270-71.
[In the following review of Copper Sun, Root contends that Cullen's poetry demonstrates a vitality that sets it apart from the predominantly intellectual and lifeless verse of the day.]
Modern American poetry has had two chief faults: a hard clear technique; a hard objective content. With brilliant exceptions, like Edna Millay (that tiger, tiger burning bright), or like the grace notes of Robert Frost (that eaglesized lark), it has seldom been poetry that sings and that shines. If it shone—as in Amy Lowell's scissor-blades and patchwork, it did not sing; if it sang—as in...
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Poetry (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: "Mr. Cullen's Second Book," in Poetry, Vol. 31, No. 5, February, 1928, pp. 284-86.
[In the following review, the critic states that Copper Sun is of mixes quality yet the best poems of the collection are memorable.]
Countee Cullen's second book [Copper Sun] has evidently suffered somewhat from the effort to pad the pages with poems written during his formative period. If the book's reputation were to stand on the quality of the more important poems about which it has been built, then it would take its place as a more mature volume than Color. Unfortunately readers and critics are apt to judge by the worst as well as by the best, and the...
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Bertha Ten Eyck James (essay date 1930)
SOURCE: "On The Danger Line," in Poetry, Vol. 24, No. 5, February, 1930, pp. 286-89.
[In the following review, James examines poetic style in The Black Christ, and Other Poems.]
[The Black Christ, and Other Poems] proves again that Countee Cullen is an accomplished poet, but it shows also the danger in being an accomplished poet. He writes well, he uses the proper subjects, the strong verbs, rare adjectives and inverted order of modern verse, but the polished results seem to lack that lyric freshness that makes this type of verse worth while. To give an example, here is "Nothing Endures":
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Mildred Boie (essay date 1935)
SOURCE: "The Proof of the Poet," in Opportunity, Vol. 13, No. 12, December, 1935, pp. 381-82.
[In the following excerpt, Boie offers a generally positive assessment of the verse in The Medea, and Some Poems.]
"Some Poems" [in The Medea, and Some Poems] include a number of sonnets which are moving in the blending of emotion with thought, and almost perfect in form. The sonnet beginning "These are no wind-blown rumors," for example, contains phrases of inevitable beauty, of turns that charge remembered feelings with fresh intensity—"I know … That spring is faithless to the brightest bird." Its images are original and striking—
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Arna Bontemps (essay date 1947)
SOURCE: "The Harlem Renaissance," in The Saturday Review, Vol. XXX, No. 12, March 22, 1947, pp. 12-13, 44.
[In the following excerpt, Bontemps contrasts Cullen with Langston Hughes, a fellow Harlem Renaissance poet, and offers a reminiscence of Cullen that subsequently became under-quoted.]
New books of poems by Langston Hughes and Countée Cullen have appeared this year [Fields of Wonder and On These I Stand, respectively]. Some readers, no doubt, will be reminded of the shy, disarming bows made by these new writers before literary circles back in the twenties, when neither of them had yet finished college. In the case of Cullen, who died a year ago...
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Beulah Reimherr (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Race Consciousness in Countee Cullen's Poetry," in Susquehanna University Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, June, 1963, pp. 65-82.
[In the following excerpt, Reimherr argues that race is thematically central to Cullen's poetry.]
The theme of race consciousness is one of several themes that run through the poetry of Countee Cullen. Nature, classical mythology, love, death, religion, the animals that failed to reach Noah's ark, even cats, captured his pen. Although Cullen stoutly defended his right to deal with any subject that interested him, James Weldon Johnson felt that the best of Cullen's poetry was motivated by race….
In Cullen's poetry, the...
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David F. Dorsey, Jr. (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Countee Cullen's Use of Greek Mythology," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 1, September, 1969, pp. 68-77.
[In the following excerpt, Dorsey argues that Cullen often invented the circumstances of Greek myths when incorporating them into his poetry in order to create irony and to achieve originality.]
In The Crisis for November, 1929, Countee Cullen reviewed Claire Goll's novel, Le Nègre Jupiter Enlève Europe. Regarding the title, the review contains the following criticism:
The mythical allusion does not seem to me altogether well-chosen, for Europa was a young and beautiful maiden whom Jupiter, who never...
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Eugenia W. Collier (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "I Do Not Marvel, Countee Cullen," in Modern Black Poets, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973, pp. 69-83.
[In the following excerpt, Collier cites Cullen's "From the Dark Tower" as a poem that expresses "the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance."]
Literary historians and critics have a way of saying that the Negro poet faces a dilemma: Should he write as a Negro, or should he write as an American? They seem to mean, should he write poetry of social protest, or is he free to write of love and nature and God? I am convinced that this dilemma is only a straw man, created by the critics themselves.
Of course, Negro poets write of other subjects than social...
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James H. Smylie (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Countee Cullen's 'The Black Christ,'" in Theology Today, Vol. 38, No. 2, July, 1981, pp. 160-73.
[In the following excerpt, Smylie analyzes Cullen's poem "The Black Christ."]
Cullen was not the first to relate crucifixion and lynching, nor did he compose his song ["The Black Christ"] in a theological vacuum. Fundamentalists and Modernists of various grades were locked in abrasive public combat in the 1920s, and heirs of the "social gospel" were interpreting the benefitsof Christ's atoning work in terms of an oppressive economic system. The black community, including Cullen's minister father, could not help but be influenced by the doctrines blowing in the wind...
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Gary Smith (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Black Protest Sonnet," in American Poetry, Vol. 2, No. 41, Fall, 1984, pp. 2-12.
[In the following excerpt, Smith comments on Cullen's use of the sonnet as a vehicle for protest.]
To more than one commentator on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, the central paradox of the movement, as a literary phenomenon, is the discrepancy between theory and practice: what the poets proposed in theory and what they actually accomplished in their poetry. This paradox appears in poets like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, who considered themselves poets first and blacks second, yet their most memorable poetry draws its strength from racial identity. In matters of...
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Alan R. Shucard (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Countee Cullen and the Harlem Renaissance" and "The Racial Poet," in Countee Cullen, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 1-12, 13-24.
[In the following excerpt, Shucard argues that Cullen naturally created race dominated poetry despite his intellectual intent to place artistry above all other concerns.]
It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark...
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Michael L. Lomax (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Countee Cullen: A Key to the Puzzle," in The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, AMS Press, 1987, pp. 213-22.
[In the following excerpt, Lomax alleges that Cullen's attitude toward race ultimately stunted his artistic development]
Color and Cullen did not entirely escape negative criticism … and significantly it was white reviewers who pointed to Cullen's arch-traditionalism and lack of stylistic originality as major flaws in his work. Locke's review had mentioned Cullen's rhyming, but glossed over it by invoking Pope as the model for what he euphemistically termed "this strange modern skill of sparkling couplets" [Opportunity, January, 1926]. The...
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James W. Tuttleton (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Countee Cullen at The Heights,'" in The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989, pp. 101-37.
[In the following excerpt. Tuttleton attempts to demonstrate that Cullen's college experience was a source of considerable influence on his poetry]
The present work undertakes to describe the undergraduate career of Countee Cullen at New York University between 1922 and 1925 and to present an edited text of his most significant surviving piece of undergraduate critical prose, the senior honors thesis he presented to the Department of English on May 1, 1925: "The Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay: An Appreciation." In both biographical and...
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Canaday Jr., Nicholas. "Major Themes in the Poetry of Countee Cullen." In The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps, pp. 103-25. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972.
Section on Cullen examines his most significant themes as represented in selected poems.
Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960. Washington: Howard University Press, 1974, 306 p.
Contains essays on African American literature in the twentieth century; chapter on Cullen.
Gibson Donald B. "Introduction." In...
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