The early life of Countée Cullen is shrouded in mystery. His birthplace was probably Louisville, Kentucky, but New York City and Baltimore have also been suggested. He may have been raised by his paternal grandmother, but at age fifteen, he was adopted by the Reverend and Mrs. F. A Cullen, though the adoption may never have been made official. Reverend Cullen was minister of Salem Methodist Episcopalian Church, a large congregation in Harlem, New York.
Cullen attended DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City, a school famous for its excellence. In 1922, he entered New York University. In 1925, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, won first prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry Contest, published Color (an impressive volume of poems), and entered Harvard University. In 1926, he completed a Master of Arts degree at Harvard and accepted a position as assistant editor at Opportunity, a magazine for which he wrote a regular poetry column.
Some critics argue that Cullen’s later works did not fulfill the promise of his early writings, but he published widely and regularly: Copper Sun (1927); The Ballad of the Brown Girl: An Old Ballad Retold (1927); Caroling Dusk (1927); The Black Christ, and Other Poems (1929); One Way to Heaven (1932); The Medea, and Some Poems (1935); The Lost Zoo (A Rhyme for the Young, but Not Too Young) (1940); My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942).
In 1934, he accepted a teaching position at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City, where he taught primarily African American children, including James Baldwin, who himself became a well-known writer two decades later.
Like his early life, Cullen’s personal life was mysterious. In 1928, he married Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of distinguished intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, but soon after the marriage he traveled to France without his wife. The couple divorced in 1930. Some scholars suggest that Cullen may have had a homosexual relationship with fellow writer Harold Jackman, but no substantiation of this observation exists. In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson. In 1946, he died of uremic poisoning.