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by Bamber Gascoigne

Countee Cullen (1903 - 1946) - born Countee LeRoy Porter


American poet, a leading figure with Langston Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance. This 1920s artistic movement produced the first large body of work in the United States written by African Americans. However, Countee Cullen considered poetry raceless, although his 'The Black Christ' took a racial theme, lynching of a black youth for a crime he did not commit.

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning,

And did He stoop to quibble could tell

The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must someday

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!

('Yet Do I Marvel', in My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, edited and with an introduction by Gerald Early, Doubleday, 1991, p. 79)

Countee Cullen was very secretive about his life. According to different sources, he was born in Louisville, Kentucy or Baltimore, Md. Cullen was possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a woman named Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, who was probably his paternal grandmother. His real mother did not contact him until he became famous in the 1920s. Cullen once said that he was born in New York City – perhaps he did not mean it literally. Porter, who died in 1918, brought the young Countee to Harlem when he was nine. At the age of 15, Cullen was adopted unofficially by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen and his wife, Carolyn. Later Reverend Cullen, founder and minister of the Salem M.E. Church, one of the largest congregations of Harlem, became the head of the Harlem chapter of NAACP.

As a schoolboy, Cullen won second prize in a citywide poetry contest and saw his winning stanzas widely reprinted. With the help of Reverend Cullen, he attended the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School in Manhattan. "He was a very energetic extrovert with a fairly high academic standing," one of his former classmates recalled. (A Bio-bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946 by Margaret Perry, 1971, p. 5) Many of Cullen's early poems appeared in the school literary magazine, The Magpie, including 'I Have a Rendezvous with Life.' During the summers Cullen worked as a bus boy at the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City. "It is by no means a position, just a job," he said, "but it gives me time to study some of the vermin of the race, and since three-fourths of every race is vermin, I am in with the masses." (A Bio-bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946 by Margaret Perry, 1971, p. 6)

After graduating, Cullen entered New York University, where his works attracted critical attention. Cullen's first collection of poems, Color (1925), was published in the same year he graduated from NYU. 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, launched by Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925). "Negro life is not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul," said Locke in his foreword to the book. "We have, as the heralding sign, an unusual outburst of creative expression. There is a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart." The movement was centered in the cosmopolitan community of Harlem, in New York City. Only a few writers of the new generation were Harlem-born. Among these emerging literary talents were James Weldon Johnson (Black Manhattan, 1930), Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, 1928), Langston 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), Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1935), and of course Countee Cullen, a leading voice of the period. – The Harlem Renaissance was accelerated by grants and scholarships and supported by such white writers as Carl Van Vechten. Locke was one of Cullen's most reliable backers; they also opened  their private lives to one other.

A brilliant student, Cullen graduated from New York University Phi Beta Kappa. He attended Harvard, earning his masters degree in 1926. Cullen's column 'The Dark Tower' in the Opportunity magazine, where he worked as assistant editor, increased his literary reputation.

Cullen's Guggenheim Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write abroad. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen travelled back and forth between France and the United States. Prior to his departure to France he married in April 1928 Nina Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois, the leading black intellectual. At that time Yolande was involved romantically with a popular band leader. To his close friend Harold Jackman he said after meeting her for the first time: "No, she is not beautiful but one is drawn to her by some indefinable magnetism of refinement and soulful honesty." (And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth, 2012, p. 47) The wedding, which was one of the most important social events of the Harlem Renaissance, had sixteen bridesmaids and over 1,300 invited guests.

Shortly after the honeymoon in Philadelphia, a little more than a weekend, Cullen went to Paris with Jackman. The marriage lasted only for a year. "I knew something was wrong physically, but being very ignorant and inexperienced I couldn't be sure what," Yolande wrote to his father. "When he confessed things he'd always known that he was abnormal sexually as far as other men were concerned theN many things became clear." (And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth, 2012, p. 141) A divorce was granted to Mrs. Cullen in 1930. "For a long time I've had enough of love, enough of marriage. If I am wise, I won't take that up again," Cullen stated in his notebook. (A Bio-bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946 by Margaret Perry, 1971, p. 11)

Harold Jackman was a teacher whom the writer Carl Van Vechten had used as model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). With a keen aesthetic sense and a deep appreciation of arts and culture Jackman later became an important patron and collector of theater memorablia. He never produced any writing of his own, but he loved books. Another close friend was Alain Locke, writer, philosopher, and educator, the so-called "Dean of the Harlem Renaissance". Locke was a closeted homosexual throughout his life. During his Guggenheim year in Paris, Cullen stayed at the home of Stephen and Sophie Victor Green, using one of their rooms as a studio. The couple had good connections with the Parisian world of the high bourgeoisie and they partied frequently.

Cullen recorded in his diaries many of the cultural events he attended. He saw Josephine Baker, and wrote of her in his 'Dark Tower' column (February 1927), heard the Jubilee Singers at the Theatre Champs-Elysées, visited the Rodin Museum with Hale Woodruff, and went to see with him Abel Gance's film Napoleon. Mostly he preferred the company of black expatriates like the blues singer Alberta Hunter, the sculptor Augusta Savage, and the painters Ossawa Tanner, Palmer Hayden, and Woodruff, who became his most closest friend during his stay in Paris. Cullen purchased the portrait Woodruff painted of him. He also met the sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, and later interviewed her for a feature article.

By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. Copper Sun (1927) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) explored similar themes as Colour, but they were not so well received.  The title piece 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 Christ's crucification.

As well as writing books himself, Cullen promoted the work of other black writers. But in the late 1920s Cullen's reputation as a poet waned. His only novel, One Way to Heaven (1932), was 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 the New York City. During this period he also wrote two works for young readers. The Lost Zoo (1940), poems about the animals, among them The-Snake-That-Walked-Upon-His-Tail, who perished in the Flood. The poems taught certain lessons: "Hard exercise, indeed! You shake / Your head, and think, "When did a snake / A creature sleepy and inert / Content to slumber in the dirt, / Or lie in caverns dank and dark, / Exhibit such a worthy spark?"" (Ibid., Follett Publishing Company, 1969 p. 74) My Lives and How I Lost Them was an "autobiography" of Cullen's own feline, Christopher Cat, in his ninth life.

In 1940 Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson; they had known each other for ten years. In the last years of his life Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre. He also translated the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, which was published in The Medea, and Some Poems (1935), with a collection of sonnets and short lyrics. With Arna Bontemps he adapted her novel, God Sends Sunday (1931) for the musical stage. Entitled St. Louis Woman (1946, publ. 1971), its score was composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white. Before the show opened, Mercer's masterful ballad, 'Come Rain or Come Shine', was recorded by Capitol, and sung by Margaret Whiting. Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra recorded the song for RCA Victor.

St. Louis Woman was closed after 113 performances. Cullen died just a few days before the rehearsals started. Rouben Maumolian was brought in to save the troubled production – too late. During the pre-production, the leader of the NAACP criticized the musical for "offering roles that detract from the dignity of our race." Moreover, Lena Horne withdrew from the cast, announcing that she had no intention to play Delia, "a flashy lady of easy virtue. (America's Songs II: Songs from the 1890s to the Post-War Years by Michael Lasser, 2014, pp. 205-206) 

As a poet Cullen was conservative: he did not ignore racial themes, but based his works on the Romantic poets, especially John Keats, and often used the traditional sonnet form. "Not writ in water nor in mist, / Sweet lyric throat, thy name. / Thy singing lips that cold death kissed / Have seared his own with flame." ('2. For John Keats, Apostle of Beauty') Cullen once said that "John Keats was his god and Edna St. Vincent Millay his goddess." (Remembering the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cary D. Wintz, 1996, p. 252)

However, Cullen also enjoyed Langston Hughes's black jazz rhythms, but more he loved "the measured line and the skillful rhyme" of the 19th century poetry. After the early 1930s Cullen avoided racial themes. "I want to be known as a poet not as a Negro poet," he once told  a reporter from the New York World. (Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes by Jean Wagner, 1973, p. 306) Following the Harlem riot of 1935, in which three people died, Cullen was appointed on a committee to investigate the causes the riot and to suggest solutions for the situation. The riot marked symbolically the end of the happy life of the Harlem Renaissance.

Cullen's later publications include On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee (1947), a collection of his favorite poems, and the play The Third Fourth of July (publ. 1946). Cullen died of uremic poisoning in New York City on January 9, 1946. Private about his life, he left behind no autobiography. Cullen's widow devoted her life after his death to the task of collecting material about Cullen and other black writers. "If you asked his family and friends about Countée," his friend and collaborator Owen Donaldson wrote, "they would tell you that he was faithful, loyal, quiet, tender." (A Bio-bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946 by Margaret Perry, 1971, p. 19)

For further reading: The New Negro by Alain Locke (1925); Cullen and the Negro Renaissance by B. Fergusson (1966); Native Sons by E. Margolies (1968); A Bio-Bibliography of Countee P. Cullen 1903-1946 by Margaret Perry (1971); Black Poets of the United States by J. Wagner (1973); The Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen by H.A. Baker, Jr. (1974); Black Poetry in America by B. Jackson and L. Rubin (1974); Harlem Renaissance by M. Perry (1982); Countee Cullen by Alan R. Shucard (1984); Countee Cullen by A. Shucard (1984); Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance by Houston A. Baker Jr (1987); 'Countee Cullen: A Careful Talent,' in Great Black Writers by Steven Otfinoski (1994); Critical Essays: Achebe, Baldwin, Cullen, Ngugi, and Tutuola by Sydney E. Onyeberechi (1999); African-American Poets: Phillis Wheatley through Countee Cullen, ed. Harold Bloom (2002); The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, edited George Hutchinson (2007); And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countee Cullen by Charles Molesworth (2012); Harlem Renaissance, edited by Christopher Allen Varlack (2015); Countee Cullen: Poet by Rana Tahir (2017; juvenile literature); Countee Cullen: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance by Samuel Willard Crompton and Charlotte Etinde-Crompton (2018; juvenile literature)  

Selected works:

  • Color, 1925
  • Copper Sun, 1927
  • The Ballad of the Brown Girl, 1927
  • Caroling Dusk, 1927 (ed.)
  • 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: by Christopher Cat in Collaboration with Countee Cullen, 1942 (with drawings by Robert Reid Macguire)
  • St. Louis Woman, 1946 (from A. Bontemps's novel God Sends Sunday, with A. Bontemps)
  • The Third Fourth of July, 1946 (with O. Dodson)
  • On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, 1947 (selected by himself and including six poems never before published)
  • My Soul's High Song; the Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, 1991 (edited and with an introduction by Gerald Early)
  • Collected Poems, 2013 (edited by Major Jackson)
  • Copper Sun, 2023 (Dover edition; with decorations by Charles Cullen)

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