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Countee Cullen was one of the foremost poets 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.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Adoption and Introduction to American Racial Politics
Countee LeRoy Cullen was born on May 30, 1903. Little is known about Cullen before his adoption in 1918. Even his place of birth is uncertain, though it is generally considered to be Louisville, Kentucky. The boy’s mother, Elizabeth Lucas, named him Countee LeRoy Porter and then passed him over to his grandmother, who looked after him until her death. The fifteen-year-old Countee Porter was then adopted by a minister and his wife, Frederick and Carolyn Cullen of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem.
In his adopted father’s home, Cullen came under the influences that would shape his poetry, for the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church was a nerve center of local action. Here he heard discussions about racial injustice and the many other problems concerning the black community. His adopted father, Reverend Cullen, was an active member of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later served as its chapter president.
Writing during the Harlem Renaissance
Already writing some poetry before being adopted, Cullen was encouraged to develop his talent. At the largely white De Witt Clinton High School in New York he joined the local poetry group. He also edited the school magazine, which in 1921 published his poem ”I Have a Rendezvous with Life.” He graduated from high school in 1922.
Cullen won writing prizes during college years, including awards for his 1923 Ballad of the Brown Girl. Hegraduated with a BA from New York University, was accepted to a master’s degree program at Harvard, and had his first book of poems, Color, published by the well-known trade publisher Harper & Row. Many of Cullen’s best-known poems appeared in Color. The book collects seventy-three poems arranged in three sections—”Color,” ”Epitaphs,” and “Varia”—and it deals with the major themes that were to dominate his work. The theme of racial injustice is movingly expressed in such poems as ”Incident” and ”Atlantic City Waiter.” ”Atlantic City Waiter” also emphasized African origins and a romantic nostalgia for the old days in Africa, a theme repeated in ”Heritage” and many other poems in Color. Cullen enjoyed great success with Color, which received excellent reviews and was awarded the Harmon Foundation’s first gold medal for literature two years later.
After completing his master’s degree from Harvard in 1926, Cullen worked as assistant editor at Opportunity magazine, for which he wrote a column called ”The Dark Tower.” In 1928 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, allowing him to travel, and he spent much of the next six years in France. Prior to leaving, he married Nina Du Bois, the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, a well-known leader of the African American intellectual community. The wed ding was Harlem’s social event of the year, though the marriage failed almost immediately. Cullen had a happier second marriage, in 1940, to Ida Robertson.
By the end of the 1920s, Cullen published three more poetry collections, The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), Copper Sun (1927), and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Although he later published several more collections, Cullen is remembered for these earlier works.
Cullen’s writing emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, a period that grew out of the frustrated expectations the black community experienced following World War I. World War I( 1914-1918) produced over forty million casualties during trench warfare mostly occurring in Europe and resulted in large-scale disillusionment with technology and the idea of progress. Black soldiers who had risked their lives in the war could not even find jobs when they returned home. They thronged the cities looking for work, and the injustice was expressed by the intellectuals, many of whom voiced their protest through their art. This came hand in hand with the expansion of middle-class black communities in the northern part of the country, especially in New York City. This led to the development of music, literature, dance, and art that arose from distinctly African-American roots. Notable figures of the Harlem Renaissance include activist Du Bois, author Zora Neale Hurston, musician Duke Ellington, and singer Billie Holiday. The artistic achievements of members of the Harlem Renaissance extended far beyond their own neighborhood, shaping the development of literature and music in mainstream American culture throughout much of the twentieth century.
Writing for Children and Early Death
In 1932 Cullen published his only novel, One Way to Heaven, but he was more successful with his stories for children. After returning from France in 1934, he taught at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York, and to help inspire sound values in young people he wrote two collections of stories: The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942). Cullen had also been trying his hand at writing for the theater; his most noted effort being the musical ”St. Louis Woman,” based on fellow writer Arna Bontemps’s first novel. Objections raised about the work being demeaning to blacks delayed the show’s production, and Cullen never lived to see it staged. He died of uremic poisoning in New York on January 9, 1946, three months before the show opened in New York.
Works in Literary Context
Cullen produced most of his writing during a time when many African-American artists were considering how race should or should not influence art. Cullen’s work both participated in a new racial artistic identity and at the same time challenged it by following traditional literary forms.
Race Writing and the Harlem Renaissance
Believing that good literature transcends race, Cullen stated that he wanted to be recognized as a poet, not a ”Negro poet.” Nevertheless, critics have asserted that he often seemed uncertain about the purpose of his poetry. As Alan R. Shucard has suggested, Cullen often appeared ”to vacillate between playing the pure aesthete and the racial spokes man.” Cullen himself reflected in an interview,
In spite of myself… I find that I am actuated by a strong sense of race consciousness. This grows upon me, I find, as I grow older, and although I struggle against it, it colors my writing, I fear, in spite of everything I can do. His success in a largely white culture at school and university made him resent being later classified by color. This was his theme in his well-known poem ”Yet Do I Marvel”: ”Yet do I marvel at this curious thing / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
Traditional Forms of Poetry
Cullen believed that poetry consisted of ”lofty thoughts beautifully expressed,” and he preferred poetic forms characterized by dignity and control. He wrote a number of sonnets and used quatrains, couplets, and conventional rhyme, frequently incorporating religious imagery and classical allusions. While some critics have praised his skill at traditional versification, others suggest that Cullen’s style was not suited to the treatment of contemporary racial issues and that his adherence to conventional forms resulted in poems that are insincere and unconvincing. Despite the controversy surrounding his traditional poetic style and his ambivalence toward racial subject matter in art, Cullen remains an important figure in black American literature.
Because Cullen was determined to bridge the gap between black and white writers, he did not find it inconsistent to take the English poet John Keats as his model. The “Epitaphs” section of Color contains poems on Keats as well as on the nineteenth-century African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, while the “Varia” section includes the well-known poem ”To John Keats, Poet. At Springtime.”
Works in Critical Context
Not until Houston A. Baker Jr.’s short book on Cullen’s work, A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen (1974), was there really a sustained and sound study of the body of Cullen’s poetry. In the 1920s, black and white critics alike had tended to heap uncritical praise on him, though there had been a growing admission, as his collections came outover time, that he was not growing as a poet. If the early critics were too gentle with Cullen for nonpoetic reasons, for nonpoetic reasons, too, the African American critics of the 1960s were too harsh with him. Creating the militant new black aesthetic of the 1960s, and conditioned by it, Don
Lee (Haki Madhubuti) and others overlooked the exploration of the racial theme in Cullen, overlooked the protest and the pain. Looking for a direct political message in Cullen but not finding it, they condemned Cullen as a sort of racial pacifist. Lee even referred to him as ”a well-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance period [who] refused to acknowledge that he was a ‘negro’ or Black poet.”
“The Black Christ”
While most critics prefer Cullen’s more praised poems like ”Heritage,” Quiana Whitted gives a sustained reading of ”The Black Christ” saying that Cullen ”modernizes Christ’s resurrection” within the context of a lynching. She writes,
Of ultimate importance to Cullen, and arguably to the legions of black American writers and artists who take up the black Christ metaphor, is the affect of terror and the way in which black communities of faith negotiate the questions of moral evil and diving justice that are central to the Book of Job.
Cullen’s first collection of poems, Color, was extremely well received by contemporary critics and remained one of his greatest artistic achievements. Prominent Harlem Renaissance voice Alain Locke in 1926 called Cullen ”a genius,” stating that the collection comes out of the ”intimate emotional experience of race” but at the same time transcends race by appealing to ”the universally human moods of life.” In 1963, Beulah Reimherr argues that race is actually quite central to Cullen’s work, stating that Color is ”impregnated with race consciousness” and that fully one-third of the poems address racial issues directly. Michael Lomax, in 1987, proposes a kind of middle ground regarding race and Cullen’s work; he contends that Cullen’s poetry deals with race in a similarly divided fashion as Cullen did in his own life. Lomax writes that ”the volume as a whole and several poems in particular are haunted by the unresolved conflict of Cull-en’s perception of himself as simultaneously a black man and a culturally assimilated . . . Westerner.”
- Baker, Houston A., Jr. A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974.
- Ferguson, Blanche E. Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance. New York: Dodd, 1966.
- Hutchinson, George, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Lomax, Michael. ”Countee Cullen: A Key to the Puzzle.” In The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined. New York: AMS Press, 1987.
- Shucard, Alan. Countee Cullen. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
- Tarver, Australia, and Paula C. Barnes, eds. New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.
- Turner, Darwin T. In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
- Dorsey, David F. ”Countee Cullen’s Use of Greek Mythology.” College Language Association Journal 13 (1970): 68-77.
- Kuenz, Jane. ”Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Harlem Renaissance: The Case of Countee Cullen.” Modernism/Modernity 14, no. 3 (2007): 507-515.
- Locke, Alain. ”Color: A Review.” Opportunity 4, no. 37 (January 1926): 14-15.
- Reimherr, Beulah. ”Race Consciousness in Countee Cullen’s Poetry.” Susquehanna University Studies 7, no. 2 (1963): 65-82.
- Whitted, Quiana. ”In My Flesh Shall I See God: Ritual Violence and Racial Redemption in ‘The Black Christ.”’ African American Review 38, no. 3 (2004): 379-393.
- org site. Countee Cullen. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/55.
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