Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
Countée Porter Cullen has been called the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in New York City, Cullen was reared in the parsonage of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in the middle of Harlem, where his father, the Reverend Frederick Cullen, was the pastor and an influential personality in the social, political, and cultural life of New York City. After his graduation from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York, Cullen entered New York University, from which he graduated in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key. In the fall of that year he entered Harvard University and studied for a master’s degree in English with the renowned educator and author George Lyman Kittredge. For most of the rest of his life, Cullen lived in New York City.
Harlem during the 1920’s was a vital cultural center. Community theater groups, weekly newspapers with a national circulation, and “racial uplift” associations flourished. Journals such as The Crisis, the house organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), showcased the work of young writers whose names soon became household words among black, and some white, Americans.
Cullen benefited from the “New Negro” movement and from the preferred position his excellent education gave him. His developing talent as a poet justified the interest in his work. When he was in high school, Cullen had won a citywide poetry contest with his poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life.” His first poem published in The Crisis also appeared while he was in high school. His first poem to be published in a white publication was “To a Black Boy” in Bookman. By the time he had been awarded his bachelor’s degree, Cullen had published poems in Century, Harper’s Magazine, The American Mercury, The Nation, Poetry Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Palms. In 1925, his senior year at New York University, Cullen was awarded first prize in the Intercollegiate Poetry Contest sponsored by the Poetry Society of America as well as the John Reed Memorial Prize offered by Poetry Magazine. Also that year, Color, Cullen’s first book of poems, was published. His second, Copper Sun, appeared in 1927. By this time he had seen individual poems appear in most American literary magazines.
No black American author had been so widely published previously. Walter F. White, assistant executive secretary of the NAACP, was particularly helpful in introducing Cullen to the power structure in American publishing. During this time, the apex of his productive years and the period in which he and his literary works were most popular, Cullen also edited a special issue of Palms and became assistant editor of Opportunity. On April 10, 1928, Cullen and Nina Yolande Du Bois, popular Baltimore schoolteacher and daughter of the scholarly editor of The Crisis, were married in the principal social event of the season before some three thousand guests at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church.
Cullen was most productive as a poet, although he did publish one novel for adults and adapted his translation of Euripides’ Medea for the stage. He also wrote a version of his novel One Way to Heaven for theatrical production. He worked with black author Arna Bontemps on an adaptation of Bontemps’s 1931 novel God Sends Sunday under the title St. Louis Woman. His first book for children, The Lost Zoo (a Rhyme for the Young, but Not Too Young), was published in 1940; the second, My Lives and How I Lost Them, appeared in 1942. For the last fifteen years of his life, Cullen taught English and French at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City. He worked diligently on what would become St. Louis Woman and had hoped to complete a final anthology of poems. He was unable to complete either of these projects, having been incapacitated by bouts with high blood pressure that had plagued him for several years. He died on January 9, 1946. Thousands of people attended his funeral at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. His father, who had resigned from the pastorate of the church, died the following May in New York City.
Although he wrote and published literally scores of poems, Cullen employed a fairly small number of themes consistently in his writing. Cullen compared the sufferings of black Americans with those of the ancient Hebrews. One of his earliest published poems, “Christ Recrucified,” enunciates these sufferings in a fine sonnet that was never reprinted in any of the collections of poems that Cullen published. It is a stinging attack on persecution of black Americans in the American South that begins, “The South is crucifying Christ again/ By all the laws of ancient role and rule.” The subject of the poem combines religion with social protest, as was characteristic of Cullen’s poetry. Indeed, Cullen’s most serious poetry carried on an argument with God for making blacks bear the suffering and injustice brought about by racial discrimination. Like fellow poets and preachers of the era, Cullen also used often the theme of “Ethio-pianism,” which attributed beauty and strength and dignity to black Americans by virtue of their lineage from Mother Africa. His long poem “Heritage” begins with the rhetorical question “What is Africa to me?” and rejects the practices of American culture as restrictions upon the more natural exercises of the mind, body, and spirit that one would find among the so-called heathen of Africa. In many other works as well, Cullen affirmed the guiding principle of the Harlem Renaissance—that “black is beautiful,” as a later generation would declare.
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