“Poet Laureate” of the Harlem Renaissance

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The contributions of Countée Cullen to African American literature are well established. He was one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance—he is sometimes labeled its poet laureate—and in fact most of his major poetry was written during the 1920’s. In his day, Cullen was the most popular African American poet since Paul Laurence Dunbar, but since that time, his works have been viewed as too derivative and too locked into white, bourgeois perceptions of art—a criticism often launched against Dunbar as well.

There is a certain simplicity in the lyricism of Cullen, showing his indebtedness to William Wordsworth’s “language of the common man.” His poetry is also shaped by his admiration of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, other significant British Romantics. His diction is sometimes imprecise, sometimes sentimental and unoriginal. Nevertheless, at his best, Countée Cullen is an outstanding poet worthy of admiration and deserving of much more serious critical attention than he has received. While Cullen’s poetry is derived from the Western lyrical heritage, it raises a number of important and interesting questions about the poet and about race, spirituality, the outcasts of society, and the meaning of Africa for African Americans. Critics consider his most important poems those that reflect his own experiences as an African American, though he wrote many poems that have little or nothing to do with race. These poems deal...

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A Stunning Debut

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen published his first collection of poetry, Color, which is still considered his finest work. The central theme of the collection, race, reflects the “race consciousness” generally associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Included in the collection is the frequently anthologized and important poem “Yet Do I Marvel.” This poem uses the sonnet form for which Cullen is best known and introduces two central and interconnected themes of Cullen’s work: the theme of race and the theme of spirituality. The speaker of the poem, presumably Cullen himself, ponders a series of questions concerning the nature of God. Using a rather Blakean and Romantic mode, Cullen raises questions about the motivation God might have had in making “a poet black” and bidding “him sing” in a world that is fundamentally racist and that does not readily accept the creative work of African Americans. His conclusion is that God is too complex for the human mind to comprehend, though he raises questions about whether God is indeed “good, well-meaning, kind” in making the world as it is and making an African American poet.

Another important poem in this collection, “A Brown Girl Dead,” reflects on the ambiguity and irony of dressing a dead African American girl in the colors of her oppressors: “With two white roses on her breasts,/ White candles at head and feet,/ Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;/ Lord Death has found her sweet.” Her mother has to sell her wedding ring in order to see to it that her daughter is dressed in white, and the poet writes that the girl would be proud to see herself in this attire were she alive to do so. She is a “Dark Madonna” in that she represents childhood innocence and purity that were not destroyed by a racist society. Ironically, she died perhaps believing, like her mother, that white is superior. To the poet, however, it is clear that the girl and her mother fail to recognize the degree to which they have allowed the white, racist society to alter their perceptions of themselves.

“Black Magdalens” perhaps influenced such later poets as Gwendolyn Brooks to write about social outcasts, including prostitutes. It deals with the inverse of the white Madonna figure of Western culture symbolized by the Virgin Mary. Rather than allow their human dignity to be destroyed by those who judge them, the “black Magdalens” hide their pain and “wrap their wounds in pride.” Unlike Mary Magdalene, they do not have Christ to defend them against the self-righteous, judgmental “chaste clean ladies,” so they must fend for themselves. Nevertheless, those who consider themselves worthy of Christ’s kingdom find it easy to “cast the first hard stone.” This poem, like many other Cullen works, demonstrates his sympathy and identification with the outcast...

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Cullen’s Sophomore Effort

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cullen’s second collection, Copper Sun, which appeared in the same year as the long poem “The Ballad of the Brown Girl,” did not receive the acclaim his first one did. Mark Van Doren, a friend, warned Cullen not to publish a second collection so soon after the first, but he ignored the advice. Admittedly, few poems in this collection are of major importance, and some have argued that this is because only seven poems in the collection deal with race. The collection does, however, include one of Cullen’s best and most influential poems, “From the Dark Tower.” After receiving a bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1925 and a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1926, Cullen wrote a column on literary criticism for Opportunity titled “The Dark Tower” for nearly two years. In the poem, one of his greatest sonnets, he reflects on the experience of African Americans and suggests that the time has come for them to stop suffering: “We were not made eternally to weep.”

In some sense, “From the Dark Tower” can be labeled a protest poem, with apocalyptic overtones suggesting the possibility that African Americans will no longer stand by as they are abused and exploited. Nevertheless, they do “hide the heart that bleeds,/ And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.” These last lines indicate the effects of living in a world where African Americans are outcasts, forced to mask their pain and wait for the day when complete liberation of the mind and spirit will come through overcoming racial barriers. The masking motif common to much African American literature implies that the pain is hidden as an attempt to triumph over the oppression of racist whites.

In “Threnody for a Brown Girl,” another memorable poem from Copper Sun, Cullen again...

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Later Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cullen’s next collection, The Black Christ, and Other Poems, which was published in 1929, contains few memorable poems other than the title poem. By this point, Cullen had begun to move closer to his traditional Christian upbringing and to a large degree away from his pagan inclinations. “The Black Christ” demonstrates his commitment to a Western religious heritage at the same time it illustrates his desire for reconciliation with his African self. Concerned with the lynching of a black man, the poet again shows his propensity to protest racial oppression. Jim, the main character in this narrative poem, rebels against God and clashes with his mother, who blindly follows her Western religious (and Christian) heritage. While superficially the poem concerns a lynching, a number of critics, most notably Jean Wagner, see it as “a masterly reconstruction of the poet’s inner drama,” the conflict between disbelief and faith. Wagner argues that the poem reflects Cullen’s own reconciliation with Christianity. Jim dies but is resurrected, like Christ, and he is portrayed as a Christ figure. There are many parallels with the Passion story of Christ as well. The poem illustrates Cullen’s movement toward Christian mysticism, and some critics have argued that therein lies its major weakness.

Cullen’s last collection, other than his collected poems, was entitled The Medea, and Some Poems. It includes a retelling of the classical Euripides tragedy Medea (431 b.c.); Cullen emphasizes the racial differences of Medea and her alien status. The poems most memorable in this collection are “Medusa” and “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song.” In the former work, Cullen, who often uses allusions to Greek mythology (an aspect of his paganism), addresses in sonnet form the mythic figure of Medusa. Unlike most of the poems for which he is known, “Medusa” does not concern race but reflects Cullen’s fascination with Greek mythology. The poem’s speaker...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baker, Houston A., Jr. A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974. In this important but brief study, Baker emphasizes Cullen’s Romantic heritage and places him within the context of African American poetry up through the Harlem Renaissance. There are useful analyses of individual poems, especially those from Color. The notes and bibliography, though somewhat dated, may be useful for finding other materials on Cullen.

Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers (1900 to 1960). Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. A general but useful overview of the life and career of Cullen. Davis emphasizes the dual nature of Cullen as both pagan and Christian and suggests that he seems to have reconciled himself to his Christian side after his first volume of poetry. A select bibliography of primary and secondary material is included.

Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939. Although Redding’s book concentrates on African American poetry before the Harlem Renaissance, his perceptive remarks concerning Cullen, though brief, may be of use even today. Redding calls Cullen the “Ariel of Negro poets” and mentions Cullen’s reluctance to be labeled a Negro poet and his confusion about race. Nevertheless, to Redding, Cullen is best when writing about racial issues.

Turner, Darwin T. In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. A short but useful discussion of Cullen’s life and work. Turner stresses that Cullen was a Romantic poet who allowed his emotional inclinations to interfere with his intellectual abilities; as a result, Turner argues, Cullen was a failure after his first collection of poetry. A select bibliography, mostly containing articles on Cullen, is included.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Translated by Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. By far the most complete and excellent discussion of Cullen’s life and career, this work includes biographical information not included elsewhere and offers analyses of Cullen’s spiritual and racial poetry. Includes an effective section on Cullen’s use of Africa in his works and a lengthy analysis of “The Black Christ.” There is a useful bibliographical appendix and a bibliographical supplement.