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American National Biography Online
Countee Cullen, 1941. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42529).
Cullen, Countee (30 May 1903?-9 Jan. 1946), poet and playwright,
was the son of Elizabeth Thomas Lucas. The name of his father
is not known. The place of his birth has been variously cited
as Louisville, Kentucky, New York City, and Baltimore, Maryland.
Although in later years Cullen claimed to have been born in New
York City, it probably was Louisville, which he consistently
named as his birthplace in his youth and which he wrote on his
registration form for New York University. His mother died in
Louisville in 1940.
In 1916 Cullen was enrolled in Public School Number 27 in the
Bronx, New York, under the name of Countee L. Porter, with no
accent on the first "e." At that time he was living with Amanda
Porter, who generally is assumed to have been his grandmother.
Shortly after she died in October 1917, Countee went to live
with the Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist
Episcopal Church in Harlem, and his wife, the former Carolyn
Belle Mitchell. Countee was never formally adopted by the Cullens,
but he later claimed them as his natural parents and in 1918
assumed the name Countee P. (Porter) Cullen. In 1925 he dropped
the middle initial.
Cullen was an outstanding student in every school he attended.
He entered the respected, almost exclusively white, Dewitt Clinton
High School for boys in Manhattan in 1918. He became a member
of the Arista honor society, and in his senior year he received
the Magpie Cup in recognition of his achievements. He served
as vice president of the senior class and was associate editor
of the 1921 Magpie, the school's literary magazine, and editor
of the Clinton News. He won an oratorical contest sponsored by
the film actor Douglas Fairbanks and served as treasurer of the
Inter-High School Poetry Society and as chairperson of the Senior
Publications Committee. His poetry appeared regularly in school
publications and he received wider public recognition in 1921
when his poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Life," won first prize
in a citywide contest sponsored by the Empire Federation of Women's
Clubs. At New York University, which Cullen attended on a New
York State Regents scholarship, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa
in his junior year and received a bachelor's degree in 1925.
His poems were published frequently in the school magazine, The
Arch, of which he eventually became poetry editor. In 1926 he
received a master's degree from Harvard University and won the
Crisis magazine award in poetry.
When Cullen's first collection of poetry, Color, was published
in 1925 during his senior year at New York University, he had
already achieved national fame. His poems had been published
in Bookman, American Mercury, Harper's, Century, Nation, Poetry,
Crisis, the Messenger, Palms, and Opportunity. He had won second
prize in 1923 in the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Contest
sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. He placed second
in that contest again in 1924 but won first prize in 1925, when
he also won the John Reed Memorial Prize awarded by Poetry magazine.
Color received universal critical acclaim. Alain Locke wrote
in Opportunity (Jan. 1926): "Ladies and Gentlemen! A genius!
Posterity will laugh at us if we do not proclaim him now. COLOR
transcends all of the limiting qualifications that might be brought
forward if it were merely a work of talent." The volume contains
epitaphs, only two of which could be considered racial; love
poems; and poems on other traditional subjects. But the significant
theme--as the title implies--was race, and it was the poems dealing
with racial subjects that captured the attention of the critics.
Cullen was praised for portraying the experience of African Americans
in the vocabulary and poetic forms of the classical tradition
but with a personal intimacy. His second volume of poetry, Copper
Sun, published in 1927 also by Harper and Brothers (the publisher
of all his books), won first prize in literature from the Harmon
Foundation. There are fewer racial poems in this collection than
in Color, however, they express an anger that was not so pronounced
in the earlier volume. The majority of the poems in Copper Sun
deal with life and love and other traditional themes of nineteenth-century
Cullen edited the October 1926 special issue of Palms devoted
to African-American poets, and he collected and edited Caroling
Dusk in 1927, an anthology of poetry by African Americans. Cullen
was by this time generally recognized by critics and the public
as the leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Gerald
Early in My Soul's High Song (1991), Cullen's collected writings,
said, "He was, indeed, a boy wonder, a young handsome black Ariel
ascending, a boyish, brown-skinned titan who, in the early and
mid-twenties, embodied many of the hopes, aspirations, and maturing
expressive possibilities of his people."
Cullen said that he wanted to be known as a poet, not a "Negro
poet." This did not affect his popularity, although some Harlem
Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes, interpreted this
to mean that he wanted to deny his race, an interpretation endorsed
by some later scholars. A reading of his poetry reveals this
view to be unfounded. In fact his major poems, and most of those
still being printed in anthologies, have racial themes. Cullen
expounded his view in the Brooklyn Eagle (10 Feb. 1924): If
I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not
NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists
among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race.
That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot
at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this
is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean
is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose
of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of
course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro
is strong, I express it. But that is another matter.
From 1926 to 1928, Cullen was assistant editor to Charles S.
Johnson of Opportunity (subtitled "A Journal of Negro Life")
for which he also wrote a feature column, "The Dark Tower." On
the one hand, in his reviews and commentaries, he called upon
African-American writers to create a representative and respectable
race literature, and on the other insisted that the African-American
artist should not be bound by race or restricted to racial themes.
The year 1928 was a watershed for Cullen. He received a Guggenheim
Fellowship to study in Paris, the third volume of his poetry,
The Ballad of a Brown Girl, was published, and, after a long
courtship, he married Nina Yolande Du Bois. Her father, W. E.
B. Du Bois, the exponent of the "Talented Tenth" concept, rejoiced
at bringing the young genius into his family. The wedding, performed
by Cullen's foster father, was the social event of the decade
in Harlem. After a brief honeymoon in Philadelphia, Cullen left
for Paris and was soon joined by his bride. The couple experienced
difficulties from the beginning. Finally, after informing her
father that Cullen had confessed that he was sexually attracted
to men, Nina Yolande sued for divorce, which was obtained in Paris in 1930.
Cullen continued to write and publish after 1928, but his works
were no longer universally acclaimed. The Black Christ and Other
Poems, completed under the Guggenheim Fellowship, was published
in 1929 while he was abroad. His only novel, One Way to Heaven,
was published in 1932, and The Medea and Some Poems in 1935.
He wrote two books for juveniles, The Lost Zoo (1940) and My
Lives and How I Lost Them (1942). His stage adaptation of One
Way to Heaven was produced by several amateur and professional
theater groups but remained one of his several unpublished plays.
Critics gave these works mixed reviews at best.
Cullen's reputation as a writer rests on his poetry. His novel
is not an important work, and it received little attention from
the critics. He rejected so-called jazz and free-style as inappropriate
forms of poetic expression. He was a romantic lyric poet and a great
admirer of John Keats and Edna St. Vincent Millay. While
his arch traditionalism and lack of originality in style had
been seen in Color as minor flaws, they came to be viewed as
major deficiencies in his later works.
Cullen's fall from grace with the critics had little effect
on his popularity. He remained much in demand for lectures and
readings by both white and black groups. In 1931 alone he read
his poetry and lectured in various institutions in seventeen
states and Canada. Some of his poems were set to music by Charles
Marsh, Virgil Thomson, William Schuman, William Lawrence, Margaret
Bonds, Clarence Cameron White, Emerson Whithorne, and Noel DaCosta.
However, even though he continued to live with his foster father,
royalties and lecture fees were insufficient income for subsistence.
He searched for academic positions and was offered professorships
at Sam Huston College (named for an Iowa farmer, not the Texas
senator), Dillard University, Fisk University, Tougaloo College,
and West Virginia State College. There is no clear explanation
of why he did not accept any of the positions. In 1932 he became
a substitute teacher in New York public schools and became a
full-time teacher of English and French at Frederick Douglass
Junior High School in 1934, a position he held until his death
(caused by complications of high blood pressure) in New York
City, and where he taught and inspired the future novelist and
essayist James Baldwin.
Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson in 1940, and they apparently
enjoyed a happy married life. Cullen's chief creative interest
during the last year of his life was in writing the script for
St. Louis Woman, a musical based on Arna Bontemps's novel God
Sends Sunday. With music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny
Mercer, St. Louis Woman opened on Broadway on 30 March 1946.
Although the production was opposed by Walter White of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People and some other
civil rights activists as an unfavorable representation of African
Americans, it ran for four months and was revived several times
by amateurs and one professional group between 1959 and 1980.
On These I Stand, a collection of poems that Cullen had selected
as his best, was published posthumously in 1947. The 135th Street
Branch of the New York Public Library was named for Cullen in
1951, and a public school in New York City and one in Chicago
also bear his name. For a few brief years Cullen was the most
celebrated African-American writer in the nation and by many
accounts is considered one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
Countee Cullen's personal papers (1921-1969, c. 4,400 manuscripts
and photographs and thirty-nine volumes) are in the Amistad Research
Center at Tulane University; microfilm copies of that collection
are in other repositories. The James Weldon Johnson Collection
in Beinecke Library at Yale University contains more than 900
letters written by and to Cullen and other writings by and about
him. One of the best biographies is Michael L. Lomax, "Countee
Cullen: From the Dark Tower" (Ph.D. diss., Emory Univ., 1984).
Also valuable is the biographical introduction to My Soul's High
Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the
Harlem Renaissance, ed. Gerald Early (1991). This volume contains
reprints of all Cullen's published books except Caroling Dusk,
The Lost Zoo, My Lives and How I Lost Them, and On These I Stand;
it also contains some of Cullen's uncollected poems, speeches,
and essays. See also Blanche E. Ferguson, Countee Cullen and
the Negro Renaissance (1966); Margaret Perry, A Bio-Bibliography
of Countee P. Cullen, 1903-1946 (1971); and Alan R. Shucard,
Countee Cullen (1984), for biographical studies. For critical
studies of Cullen's poetry, see Houston A. Baker, Jr., "A Many-Colored
Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen," in his Afro-American
Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic (1988),
pp. 45-87; Isaac William Brumfield, "Race Consciousness in the
Poetry and Fiction of Countee Cullen" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of
Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, 1977); Nicholas Canaday, Jr., "Major
Themes in the Poetry of Countee Cullen," in The Harlem Renaissance
Remembered, ed. Arna Bontemps (1972), pp. 103-25; Eugenia W.
Collier, "I Do Not Marvel, Countee Cullen," in Modern Black Poets,
ed. Donald B. Gibson (1973), pp. 69-83; Arthur P. Davis, "The
Alien-and-Exile Theme in Countee Cullen's Racial Poems," Phylon
14 (Fourth Quarter 1953): 390-400; Robert E. Fennell, "The Death
Figure in Countee Cullen's Poetry" (M.A. thesis, Howard Univ.,
1970); and David Kirby, "Countee Cullen's Heritage: A Black Waste
Land," South Atlantic Bulletin 4 (1971): 14-20. Of value also
is James Baldwin, "Rendezvous with Life: An Interview with Countee
Cullen," Magpie 26 (Winter 1942): 19-21. For an extensive discussion
of Cullen's impact on Baldwin, see David Leeming, Baldwin (1994).
Obituaries and related articles are in the New York Herald Tribune,
10 Jan. 1946; the New York Times, 10 and 12 Jan. 1946, and the
Negro History Bulletin 14 (Feb. 1946): 98.
Clifton H. Johnson
From the Academy of American Poets.
Clifton H. Johnson. "Cullen, Countee";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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