Countee Culllen

Countee Cullen  photographed by Carl Van Vechten 1941 

Countee Cullen, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941

Countee Cullen (1903 – January 9, 1946) was an black poet who was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Early life

Countee Cullen was possibly born on May 30, although due to conflicting accounts of his early life, a general application of the year of his birth as 1903 has been accepted as reasonable.  He was either born in New YorkBaltimore, or Lexington, Kentucky, but his widow being convinced he was born in Lexington.  Cullen was possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a woman named Mrs. Porter, who was probably his paternal grandmother.  Porter brought young Countee to Harlem when he was nine.  She died in 1918.  No known reliable information exists of his childhood until 1918 when he was taken in, or adopted, by Reverend and Mrs Frederick A. Cullen of Harlem, New York City.  The Reverend was the local minister, and founder, of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church.

 Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen

At some point, Cullen entered the DeWitt Clinton High School in Manhattan. He excelled academically at the school while emphasizing his skills at poetry and in oratorical contest.  At DeWitt, he was elected into the honor society, editor of the weekly newspaper, and elected vice-president of his graduating class.  In January 1922, he graduated with honors in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and French from New York University and later Harvard University with a degree in English.

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 brains compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”

After graduating high school, he entered New York University (NYU).  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”.  At about this time, some of his poetry was published in national periodicals -  Harper'sCrisisOpportunityThe Bookman, and Poetry.  The ensuing year he again placed second in the Witter Bynner contest, finally winning it in 1925.  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 “The Weary Blues”.  Sometime thereafter, Cullen graduated from NYU as one of eleven students selected to Phi Beta Kappa

Cullen entered Harvard in 1925, to pursue a masters in English, about the same time his first collection of poems, “Color”, was published.  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.  He graduated with a masters degree in 1926.

Professional career

The 1920s artistic movement produced the first large body of work in the United States written by African Americans.  However, Cullen considered poetry raceless, although his poem "The Black Christ" took a racial theme - lynching of a black youth for a crime he did not commit.  

Countee Cullen  

Countee Cullen

The movement was centered in the cosmopolitan community of Harlem, in New York City. During the 1920s, a fresh generation of writers emerged. Some leading figures were 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 worked as assistant editor for Opportunity magazine, where his column, "The Dark Tower", increased his literary reputation.  His poetry collections “The Ballad of the Brown Girl” (1927) and “Copper Sun” (1927) explored similar themes as “Color”, but they were not nearly as well received.  Cullen's Guggenheim Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write abroad.  He met Nina Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading black intellectual of the time.  At that time Yolande was involved romantically with a popular band leader.  Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen traveled back and forth between France and the United States.

 Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen

 Cullen married Yolande Du Bois in April 1928. It was the social event of the decade, attracting lots of attention in the black community, but the marriage did not fare well, and the pair divorced in 1930.  It is rumored that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman (‘the handsomest man in Harlem’), was a significant factor in the divorce.  The young, dashing Jackman was a school teacher and, thanks to his noted beauty, a prominent figure among Harlem's gay elite.  Van Vechten had used him as a character model in his novel “Nigger Heaven” (1926).

It's very possible that the conflicted Cullen was in love with the homosexual Jackman, but Thomas Wirth, author of “Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent”, says there is no concrete proof that they ever were lovers, despite newspaper stories and gossip suggesting the contrary.  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 in Georgia.  At Cullen's death, Jackman requested that the name of the Georgia archive be changed from the Harold Jackman Collection to the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection in honor of his friend.  When Jackman himself succombed to cancer in 1961, the collection was renamed the Cullen-Jackman Collection to honor both men.

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 crucification of Jesus.

 The grave of Countee Cullen in Woodlawn Cemetery

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 pieces 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.  In the last years of his life, Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre.  He worked with Arna Bontemps to adapt his 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.

In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson, whom he had known for ten years.

Bibliography

Poetry

  • "I Have a Rendezvous With Life" (1920s, poem)
  • ColorHarper & 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
  • The Ballad of the Brown GirlHarper & 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)
  • The lost zoo, Harper & brothers, 1940, Illustrations by Charles Sebree
  • My lives and how I lost them, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942
  • On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947
  • My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen(1991)
  • Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, Library of America, 2013 (forthcoming),ISBN 978-1-59853-083-4

 Prose

  • One Way to Heaven(1931)
  • The Lost Zoo(1940)
  • My Lives and How I Lost Them(1942)

 Drama

  • St. Louis Woman (1946)

 

 

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