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.