Countee Cullen

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Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941
Countee Cullen, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941
Born Countee LeRoy Porter
(1903-05-30)May 30, 1903
Died January 9, 1946(1946-01-09) (aged 42)
Occupation Writer
Nationality American
Alma mater New York University;
Harvard University
Period 1923–46
Genre Poetry
Literary movement Harlem Renaissance
Spouse Yolande Du Bois

Countee Cullen (May 30, 1903 – January 9, 1946), born Countee LeRoy Porter, was a prominent African-American poet, novelist, children's writer, and playwright during the Harlem Renaissance.[1]

Early life[edit]

Childhood[edit]

Countee LeRoy Porter was born on May 30, 1903,[2] but due to a lack of records of his early childhood, historians have had difficulty identifying his birthplace. Baltimore, Maryland, New York City, and Louisville, Kentucky have been cited as possibilities.[3] Although Cullen claimed to be born in New York City, he frequently referred to Louisville, Kentucky as his birthplace on legal applications.[3] Cullen was brought to Harlem at age nine by his paternal grandmother, who cared for him until her death in 1918.[4]

Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, Harlem's largest congregation, became the guardian of the 15-year-old Countee LeRoy Porter.[5] Frederick A. Cullen was a central figure in the young man's life, and the influential clergymen would become president of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[5] Countee later took his surname.

DeWitt Clinton High School[edit]

Cullen entered the DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx.[6] He excelled academically at the school while emphasizing his skills at poetry and won a citywide poetry contest[7] At DeWitt, he was elected into the honor society, editor of the weekly newspaper, and elected vice-president of his graduating class.[6] In January 1922, he graduated with honors in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and French.[8]

New York University and Harvard University[edit]

"Yet Do I Marvel"

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must someday die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

"Yet Do I Marvel" (1925) [9]

After graduating from high school, he entered New York University (NYU).[10] In 1923, he won second prize in the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry contest, which was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, with a poem entitled "The Ballad of the Brown Girl".[11] At about this time, some of his poetry was promulgated in the national periodicals Harper's, Crisis, Opportunity, The Bookman, and Poetry. The ensuing year he again placed second in the contest, but in 1925 he finally won. Cullen competed in a poetry contest sponsored by Opportunity and came in second with "To One Who Say Me Nay", while losing to Langston Hughes's poem "The Weary Blues". Sometime thereafter, Cullen graduated from NYU as one of eleven students selected to Phi Beta Kappa.[12]

Cullen entered Harvard in 1925, to pursue a masters in English, about the same time his first collection of poems, Color, was published.[12] Written in a careful, traditional style, the work celebrated black beauty and deplored the effects of racism. The book included "Heritage" and "Incident", probably his most famous poems. "Yet Do I Marvel", about racial identity and injustice, showed the influence of the literary expression of William Wordsworth and William Blake, but its subject was far from the world of their Romantic sonnets. The poet accepts that there is God, and "God is good, well-meaning, kind", but he finds a contradiction of his own plight in a racist society: he is black and a poet. Cullen's Color was a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance.[citation needed] He graduated with a master's degree in 1926.[13]

Sexuality[edit]

Cullen was first brought to the idea of his sexuality from the help of American writer Alain Locke. Locke wanted to introduce a new generation of African American writers, like Countee Cullen. Locke sought to present the authentic natures of sex and sexuality through writing, thus creating relationships with those that felt the same. Locke helped Cullen accept his sexuality, exposing him to gay-affirming material, like the work of Edward Carpenter. In March 1923, Cullen had written in a letter to Locke: "It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural".[14]

Relationships[edit]

Cullen married Yolande Du Bois on April 9, 1928, the only surviving child of W.E.B. Du Bois.[15] It is said that they were introduced by Cullen’s close friend Harold Jackman.[16] Cullen and Yolande met in the summer of 1923 when Yolande was attending Fisk University and Cullen was enrolled at New York University.[17] Cullen’s parents owned a summer home in Pleasantville, New Jersey and Yolande and her family were likely vacationing in the Pleasantville area when they first met.[17] While at Fisk University, Yolande had a romantic relationship with jazz musician, Jimmie Lunceford.[18] However, her father disapproved of Jimmie and the relationship ended when Yolande accepted her father’s wishes of a marriage to Cullen.[18] The wedding was the social event of the decade. Cullen, along with W.E.B. Du Bois planned the details of the wedding with little input from Yolande.[15] Every detail of the wedding, including the rail car used for transportation and Cullen receiving the marriage license four days prior to the wedding day, was considered big news and was presented to the public by the African American press.[15] On the day of the wedding, the church was overcrowded being that 3,000 people came to witness the ceremony.[15] After the newly wedded couple had a short honeymoon, Yolande did not join Cullen on a trip to Paris with his father and best man, Harold Jackson.[19] A few months after their wedding, Cullen had written a letter to Yolande confessing his love for men.[20] W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a letter to Cullen where he expressed his belief that Yolande’s lack of sexual experience was the reason the marriage did not work out.[21] The couple then divorced in 1930 and was negotiated between Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois.[15][22]

With an exception to his first marriage, Cullen was a shy person and was not flamboyant with any of his relationships.[20] It was rumored that Cullen developed a relationship with Harold Jackman, "the handsomest man in Harlem", which contributed to Cullen and Du Bois’ divorce.[20] The young, dashing Jackman was a school teacher and, thanks to his noted beauty, a prominent figure among Harlem's gay elite. According to Thomas Wirth, author of Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, there is no concrete proof that they ever were lovers, despite newspaper stories and gossip suggesting the contrary.[20]

Jackman's diaries, letters, and outstanding collections of memorabilia are held in various depositories across the country, such as the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. At Cullen's death, Jackman requested that the name of the Georgia accumulation be changed from the Harold Jackman Collection to the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection in honor of his friend. When Jackman, himself, succumbed to cancer in 1961, the collection was renamed the Cullen-Jackman Collection to honor them both.[23]

Harlem Renaissance[edit]

The Harlem Renaissance movement was centered in the cosmopolitan community of Harlem, in New York City. During the 1920s, a fresh generation of writers emerged, although a few were Harlem-born. Other leading figures included Alain Locke (The New Negro, 1925), James Weldon Johnson (Black Manhattan, 1930), Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, 1928), Hughes (The Weary Blues, 1926), Zora Neale Hurston (Jonah's Gourd Vine, 1934), Wallace Thurman (Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life, 1929), Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923) and Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1935). The movement was accelerated by grants and scholarships and supported by such white writers as Carl Van Vechten.

Cullen’s participation in the Harlem Renaissance was influenced by a movement called Negritude which represents “the discovery of black values and the Negro’s awareness of his situation”.[24] Cullen saw Negritude as an awakening of a race consciousness and black modernism that flowed into Harlem. Cullen’s poetry “Heritage” and “Dark Tower” reflect ideas of the Negritude movement. These poems examine African roots and intertwine them with a fresh aspect of African American life.

Countee Cullen’s work intersects with the Harlem community and amongst the prominent figures of the Renaissance such as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. Ellington admired Cullen for confronting a history of oppression and shaping a new voice of “great achievement over fearful odds”.[25] Cullen maintained close friendships with two other prominent writers, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. However, Hughes critiqued Cullen, albeit indirectly, and other Harlem Renaissance writers, for the “desire to run away spiritually from [their] race”.[26] Hughes condemned “the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”[26] Though Hughes critiqued Cullen, he still admired his work and noted the significance of his writing.

Professional career[edit]


What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

From "Heritage" [27]

The social, cultural, and artistic explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance was the first time in American history that a large body of work was contributed to American literature by African Americans. Countee Cullen was at the epicenter of this new-found surge in literature. Cullen considered poetry to be raceless.[28] However, his poem "The Black Christ" took on a racial theme which analyzed a black youth convicted of a crime he did not commit. "But shortly after in the early 1930's, his work was almost completely [free] of racial subject matter. His poetry instead focused on idyllic beauty and other classic romantic subjects."[28]

He worked as assistant editor for Opportunity magazine, where his column, "The Dark Tower", increased his literary reputation. Cullen's poetry collections The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) and Copper Sun (1927) explored similar themes as Color, but they were not so well received. Cullen's Guggenheim Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write abroad. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen traveled back and forth between France and the United States. By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. The title poem of The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) was criticized for the use of Christian religious imagery - Cullen compared the lynching of a black man to the crucifixion of Jesus.

The grave of Countee Cullen in Woodlawn Cemetery

As well as writing books himself, Cullen promoted the work of other black writers. But by 1930 Cullen's reputation as a poet waned. In 1932 appeared his only novel, One Way to Heaven, a social comedy of lower-class blacks and the bourgeoisie in New York City. From 1934 until the end of his life, he taught English, French, and creative writing at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City. During this period, he also wrote two works for young readers: The Lost Zoo (1940), poems about the animals who perished in the Flood, and My Lives and How I Lost Them, an autobiography of his cat. Along with Herman W. Porter, he also provided guidance to a young James Baldwin during his time at the school.

In the last years of his life, Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre. He worked with Arna Bontemps to adapt Bontemps's 1931 novel God Sends Sunday into St. Louis Woman (1946, published 1971) for the musical stage. Its score was composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white. The Broadway musical, set in poor black neighborhood in St. Louis, was criticized by black intellectuals for creating a negative image of black Americans. Cullen also translated the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, which was published in 1935 as The Medea and Some Poems with a collection of sonnets and short lyrics. Cullen shortly after died from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946.[29] He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.[30]

The Countee Cullen Library, a Harlem branch location of the New York Public Library, bears Cullen's name. In 2013, he was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.

Literary influences[edit]

Due to Cullen's mixed identity, he developed an aesthetic that embraced both black and white cultures.[5] He was a firm believer that poetry surpassed race and that it could be used to bring the races closer together.[4] Although race was a recurring theme in his works, Cullen wanted to be known as a poet not strictly defined by race.

Countee Cullen developed his Eurocentric style of writing from his exposure to Graeco-Roman Classics and English Literature, work he was exposed to while attending prestigious universities like New York University and Harvard.[31] In his collection of poems To the Three for Whom the Book Cullen uses Greek methodology to explore race and identity and writes about Medusa, Theseus, Phasiphae, and the Minotaur.[31] Although Cullen's continued to develop themes of race and identity in his work, Cullen found artist inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman literature..

Cullen was also influenced by the Romantics and studied subjects of love, romance, and religion.[31] John Keats and Edna St. Vincent Millay both influenced Cullen's style of writing.[31] In Caroling Dusk, an anthology edited by Cullen, he expands on his belief of using a Eurocentric style of writing. He writes, "As heretical as it may sound, there is the probability that Negro poets, dependent as they are on the English language, may have more to gain from the rich background of English and American poetry than form the nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance."[31] Countee Cullen believed that African-American poets should work within the English conventions of poetry to prove to white Americans that African Americans could participate in these classic traditions.[5] He believed using a more traditional style of writing poetry would allow African-Americans to build bridges between the black and white communities.[4]

Major works[edit]

Color[edit]

Color is Countee Cullen's first published book and color is "in every sense its prevailing characteristic."[32] Cullen discusses heavy topics regarding race and the distance of ones heritage from their motherland and how it is lost. It has been said that his poems fall into a variety of categories: those that with no mention were made of color. Secondly the poems that circled around the consciousness of African Americans and how being a "Negro in a day like this" in America is very cruel.[32] Through Cullen's writing, readers can view his own subjectivity of his inner workings and how he viewed the Negro soul and mind. He discusses the psychology of African Americans in his writings and gives an extra dimension which forces the reader to see a harsh reality of Americas past time. "Heritage" is one of Countee Cullen's best-known poems published in this book. Although it is published in Color, it originally appeared in The Survey, March 1, 1925.[33] Count Cullen wrote Heritage during a time when African American artists were dreaming of Africa.[34] During the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen, Hughes, and other poets were using their creative energy trying fuse Africa into the narrative of their African American lives. In Heritage, Countee Cullen grapples with the separation of his African culture and history created by the institution of slavery.[34] To Cullen, Africa was not a place of which he had personal knowledge. It was a place that he knew through someone else's description, passed down through generations.[35] Africa was a place of heritage. Throughout the poem, he struggles with the cost of the cultural conversion and religious conversion of his ancestors when they were away torn from Africa.[35]

The Black Christ[edit]

The Black Christ was published at the height of Cullen's career in 1929. The poems examine the relationship of faith and justice among African Americans. In some of the poems, Cullen equates the suffering of Christ in his crucifixion and the suffering of African Americans.[36] This collection poems captures Cullen's idealistic aesthetic of race pride and religious skepticism.[37] The Black Christ also takes a close look at the racial violence in America during the 1920s.[36] By the time Cullen published this book of poetry, the concept of the Black Messiah was prevalent in other African American writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude Mackay, and Jean Toomer.[37]

Copper Sun[edit]

Copper Sun is a collection of poetry published in New York in 1927. The collection examines the sense of love, particularly a love or unity between white and black people. In some poems,love is ominous and leads to death. However, in general, the love extends not only to people but to natural elements like plants, trees, etc. Many of the poems also link the concept of love to a Christian background. Yet, Cullen was also attracted to something both pagan as well as Christian. in one of his poems "One Day We Played a Game" , the theme of love appears. The speaker calls ""First love! First love!" I urged". (the poem portrays that the love is necessary to continue in life and that is basic to life as the corner stone or the fundamental of building home ). Similarly, in "Love's Way", Cullen's poem portrays a love that shares and unifies the world. The poem suggests that "love is not demanding, all, itself/ Withholding aught; love's is nobler way/ of courtesy" . In the poem, the speaker contends that "Love rehabilitates unto the end." Love fixes itself, regrows, and heals.[38]

The Medea and Some Poems[edit]

Poetry collections[edit]

  • Color, Harper & Brothers, 1925; Ayer, 1993, ISBN 978-0-88143-155-1 (includes the poems "Incident," "Near White," "Heritage," and others), illustrations by Charles Cullen
  • Copper Sun, Harper & Brothers, 1927
  • Harlem Wine (1926)
  • The Ballad of the Brown Girl, Harper & Brothers, 1927, illustrations by Charles Cullen
  • The Black Christ and Other Poems, Harper & Brothers, 1929, illustrations by Charles Cullen
  • Tableau (1925)
  • One Way to Heaven, Harper & Brothers, 1932
  • Any Human to Another (1934)
  • The Medea and Some Other Poems (1935)
  • On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947
  • Gerald Lyn Early (ed.), My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Doubleday, 1991, ISBN 9780385417587
  • Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, Library of America, 2013, ISBN 978-1-59853-083-4

Prose[edit]

  • One Way to Heaven (1931)
  • The Lost Zoo, Harper & Brothers, 1940; Modern Curriculum Press, 1991, ISBN 9780813672175
  • My Lives and How I Lost Them, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942

Drama[edit]

  • St. Louis Woman (1946)

As editor[edit]

  • Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties: Anthology of Black Verse. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Early, Gerald. "About Countee Cullen's Life and Career". Modern American Poetry. Retrieved May 12, 2017. 
  2. ^ "Countee Cullen". poets.org. Retrieved May 16, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b Early, Gerald. "About Countee Cullen's Life and Career". Modern American Poet. Retrieved May 16, 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c Williams, Jasmin K (April 11, 2012). "Countee Cullen: A renaissance poet". The New York Amsterdam News. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Countee Cullen". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved May 16, 2017. 
  6. ^ a b Perry: 4; cf. Shucard: 10.
  7. ^ Shucard: 10; cf. Perry: 4.
  8. ^ Perry: 5.
  9. ^ Cullen, "Yet Do I Marvel", Poetry Foundation.
  10. ^ Perry: 5 cf. Shucard: 7.
  11. ^ Perry: 6.
  12. ^ a b Perry: 7.
  13. ^ Shucard: 7.
  14. ^ Beemyn, Genny (2015). A Queer Capital: A History of Gay Life in Washington. New York: Taylor & Francis. pp. 57–58. ISBN 1317819381. 
  15. ^ a b c d e Wintz, Cary D.; Finkelman, Paul (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: A-J. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781579584573. 
  16. ^ Wintz, Cary (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Taylor & Francis Books. p. 273. ISBN 1579584578. 
  17. ^ a b Summers, Martin (2004). Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 188. 
  18. ^ a b Ogbar, Jeffrey (2010). The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 49. 
  19. ^ English, Daylanne (2004). Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 57. 
  20. ^ a b c d Molesworth, Charles. "Countee Cullen's Reputation". Transition. No. 107: 68–69. 
  21. ^ English, Daylanne (2004). Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 58. 
  22. ^ Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G. (2010-05-28). The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801894619. 
  23. ^ CULLEN, COUNTEE (1925). Color by COUNTEE CULLEN. United States: Harper & Brothers. 
  24. ^ Rabaka, Reiland (2015). The Negritude Movement. Lexington Books. p. 31. 
  25. ^ Molesworth, Charles (2012). And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countee Cullen. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. p. 2. 
  26. ^ a b Jackson, Major (2013). Countee Cullen Collected Poems. The Library of America. 
  27. ^ Cullen, "Heritage" Archived 2013-12-21 at the Wayback Machine., Poetry Foundation.
  28. ^ a b Jaynes, Gerald (2005). "Cullen, Countee" Encyclopedia of African American Society. Thousand Oaks, California 91320: SAGE. p. 241. ISBN 0-7619-2764-6. 
  29. ^ Philip Bader (2004). African-American Writers. Infobase Publishing. p. 57. ISBN 9781438107837. 
  30. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 10591). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  31. ^ a b c d e Cueva, Edmond Paul (July 2013). "The Classics and Countee Cullen". Interdisciplinary Humanities. 30 Issue: 24–36. 
  32. ^ a b Du Bois, W.E.B. (1926). "Our Book Shelf" The Crisis. New York, NY: NAACP. p. 238. 
  33. ^ "UNZ.org - Periodicals, Books, and Authors". 
  34. ^ a b PHILLIPS, CARYL (Winter 2015). "What Is Africa to Me Now?". Research in African Literatures. 46 (4): 10–12. 
  35. ^ a b Holloway, Jonathan. "African American History: From Emancipation to the Present". Open Yale courses. Retrieved May 25, 2017. 
  36. ^ a b Hansen, Kelli (February 19, 2014). "The Black Christ by Countee Cullen with illustrations by Charles Cullen". Libraries University of Michigan. Retrieved May 18, 2017. 
  37. ^ a b Sundquist, Eric J (1993). To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Harvard University Press. p. 594. 
  38. ^ Cullen, Countee (1991). My Soul's High Song. New York: Doubleday. p. 137. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Huggins, Nathan (2007). Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506336-3. 
  • Molesworth, Charles (2012). And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-53364-6. 
  • Perry, Margaret (1971). A Bio-bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Corporation. ISBN 0-8371-3325-4. 
  • Shucard, Alan R. (1984). Countee Cullen. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7411-4. 

External links[edit]