Cullen, Countee 1903–1946
Countee Cullen 1903–1946
Writer, editor, and educator
A prodigal poet of articulate manner and exceptional academic ability, Countee Cullen emerged in the 1920s as the most famous black writer in America. Apart from winning the immediate praise of critics, Cullen’s poems found a devout following within Harlem’s literary salons and bohemian circles. Inspired by European sonnet form, works of classical antiquity, and Biblical imagery, Cullen sought to create poetry that transcended the boundaries of race. “If I am going to be a poet at all,” stated Cullen in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1924, “I am going to be Poet and not Negro Poet.” Although unable to escape the reality of race in life or art, Cullen’s universal vision yielded poetry imbued with both inner torment and beauty, which addressed the black artist’s search for expression in the modern Western World.
Countee Leroy Porter was born on May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky; some sources suggest that he was born in New York City or Baltimore, Maryland. Raised by Mrs. Porter, a woman thought to be his grandmother, Countee moved to New York City around the age of nine, taking up residence in a Harlem apartment not far from the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. When Mrs. Porter died in 1918, a member of Salem’s congregation urged the church’s pastor, Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, to adopt Countee. Impressed by the precocious and well-mannered child, the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen adopted Countee and gave him a room in Salem’s quiet 14-room parsonage.
Although the adoption was never legalized, Cullen became deeply devoted to his new parents. Provided with a sense of physical and emotional security, he quickly adapted to the quiet religious atmosphere of “Mother Salem.” In his adoptive father’s library, Cullen began to explore the world of books and literature. Though his early years were spent in rigorous study, Cullen enjoyed the family’s summer trips to Maryland and New Jersey.
On February 4, 1918, Cullen enrolled in Dewitt Clinton High School, a highly regarded, predominately white, boy’s school. An excellent student—he was elected to the school’s honor society, Arista—Cullen worked on the school’s literary magazine, Magpie, eventually becoming the associate editor. He studied Latin and read the works of nineteenth-century English poets Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, and African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Cullen’s “Song of the Poets,” published in Magpie in 1918, emerged as a tribute to the great American and English poets. Another high school
Born Countee (first name pronounced “Coun-tay”) Leroy Porter, May 30, 1903, in Louisville, KY (some sources say New York, NY, or Baltimore, MD); died of uremic poisoning, January 9, 1946, in New York, NY; buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York, NY; no record of natural parents; adopted by Frederick Asbury (a minister) and Carolyn Cullen; married Nina Yolande DuBois, April 9, 1928 (divorced, 1930); married Ida Mae Roberson, September 27, 1940. Education: New York University, B.A., 1925; Harvard University, M.A., 1926.
Poet, columnist, editor, novelist, playwright, children’s writer, and educator; began writing poetry in the early 1920s; Opportunity: journal of Negro Life, editor and writer, 1926-28; Frederick Douglas Junior High School, New York, NY, teacher, 1934-45.
Awards: Witter Bynner Prize for “Poems,” 1925; John Reed Memorial Prize for “Threnody for a Brown Girl, Poetry magazine, 1925; Amy Spingarn Award for “Two Moods of Love,” Crisis magazine, 1925; Palm Poetry Contest second prize winner for “Wisdom Cometh With the Years,” 1925; Crisis Poetry Contest second prize winner for “Thoughts in a Zoo,” 1926; Harmon Foundation Literary Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for “distinguished achivement in literature by a Negro,” 1927; Guggenheum Foundation fellowship, 1928-30.
Member: New York Civic Club, Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Delta Phi.
poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Life”—based upon Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”—earned him first prize in a citywide poetry contest sponsored by the Empire Federation of Women’s Clubs.
A popular student, Cullen served as class vice president, treasurer of the Inter-High School Poetry Association, and was a member of the debating society. In 1922 Cullen graduated from Dewitt Clinton and entered New York University on a State Regents Scholarship. Outside his regular academic studies in Latin, Greek, English, French, math, physics, geology, and philosophy, Cullen dedicated himself to writing poetry.
Studying under English scholar Hyder E. Rollins, Cullen acquired a passion for the nineteenth-century English poet John Keats. The romantic ballad-style of Keats had a profound impact on Cullen’s career. Writer Arna Bontemps recalled years later, in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, that when he first met Cullen, he told “me that John Keats was his god.”
At New York University, Cullen began his distinguished career as a poet. In 1923 and 1924, he won second prize in the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry contest, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. At this time, Cullen’s poems began to appear in the pages of leading American periodicals, including Opportunity, Crisis, the Bookman, Poetry, Harper’s, Nation, and American Mercury. In 1925 Cullen won first prize in the Witter Bynner contest and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from NYU. Published in the same year, Cullen’s first collection of poems, Color, won the Harmon Foundation Literary Award.
Critically acclaimed in white and black literary circles, Color made Cullen the most nationally celebrated African-American poet since Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Divided into three sections, Color contains 74 poems, one-third of which deal with racial themes. Rooted in traditional sonnet form, the book’s poems reveal what S.P. Fullinwinder described in The Mind and Mood of Black America, as a struggle between “myth and modernity”—an inner struggle between the fundamentalist faith of his adoptive father and the pagan impulse of his poetic vision. One of the finest and most famous poems of the volume, “Heritage,” represents this struggle between faith and racial identity. The line “So I lie…” appears five times, a recurrent phrase intended to illustrate the mystical images of Christ and Africa and the true search for spirituality and ancestral heritage.
Unlike other Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, Cullen did not utilize the rhythms of jazz or modern, free verse style. Cullen wrote in Opportunity that “I wonder if jazz poems really belong to that dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expression we call poetry.” As Gerald Early pointed out in My Soul’s High Song, Cullen’s criticism of jazz poetry stemmed from the fact that he “believed jazz to be an insufficiently developed, insufficiently permanent art form to use as an aesthetic for poetry.”
Determined to become a poet of high literary tradition, Cullen entered Harvard University in 1925, to study literature. His most influential instructor, Robert S. Hillyer, taught Cullen by assigning him exercises in writing traditional forms of English verse. After receiving a master’s degree from Harvard in 1926, Cullen took a job as assistant editor for the Urban League’s publication Opportunity. At the magazine Cullen also wrote the column “Dark Tower,” in which he reviewed the works of African-American authors, poets, and playwrights.
In 1927 Cullen published Caroling Dusk, an anthology of 38 black poets from Paul Lawrence Dunbar to 18-year-old Lula Lowe Weeden. In committing himself to the elevation of African-American art, Cullen stated in the book’s introduction that, “I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse.” In an effort to promote the universal consciousness in the art of the black poet, Cullen added that, “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 from any nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance.” The year 1927 also saw the publication of Cullen’s Copper Sun and Ballad of a Brown Girl. Although Copper Sun won the general approval of critics, many agreed that it lacked the intensity of Color.
Cullen dedicated Copper Sun to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of famous National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founder and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. Introduced to Yolande in the summer of 1923, Cullen’s courtship greatly pleased her father. But despite her prestigious social position, Yolande was, according to historian David Levering Lewis, “a kind” yet “plain women of modest intellectual endowment,” who, as it was well known among Harlem circles, was infatuated with jazz band leader Jimmie Lunceford. Nevertheless, Yolande and Cullen were married by Reverend Cullen on April 9, 1928, in the Salem Methodist Church. The ceremony became a grand showing of African-American wealth and talent from around the country. Among the ushers were the famous black poets Ama Bontemps and Langston Hughes.
Not long after the wedding, Cullen traveled to France on a Guggenheim fellowship. Leaving his wife, who was to join him later in Paris, Cullen departed for Europe on June 30 with his father and close friend Harold Jackman. Taking up residence in a small hotel in the Trianon on the Avenue du Maine, Cullen found Paris to be an exciting and colorful city. In Paris he often met with a group of African-American artists, including writer Eric Walrond and sculptor Augusta Savage.
Aside from writing, Cullen enrolled at the Sorbonne to study French literature. When Yolande joined Cullen in July of 1928, the couple decided to end their relationship. After Yolande returned to America, Cullen stayed in Paris and completed The Black Christ and Other Poems. One of the many poems dedicated to the painful break-up with his wife, “Foolish Heart” was a poignant example of Cullen’s painful reflection: “Be still, heart, cease those measured strokes;/Lie quiet in your hollow bed;/This moving frame is but a hoax;/To make you think you are not dead.”
Published in 1930, The Black Christ, “hopefully dedicated to white America,” failed to win the favor of critics. Many complained that the book’s 47 poems lacked intensity and the proud defiant mood of his earlier work. The title poem deals with two brothers in the South, who are told by their mother to keep their faith in God. After the rebellious brother Jim kills a man, he is murdered by a lynch mob, symbolizing the crucifixion of Christ and the tragic death of spring. The unsuccessful attempt to fuse these two themes, however, led critics to dismiss the poem as inappropriate, confused, and unrealistic.
Confronted by this harsh criticism of his work, Cullen returned to the United States in 1930. Divorced from his wife in the same year, he soon set out to write the novel One Way to Heaven. Based upon his conflicting views of religion, the book, published in 1932, is a satirical work portraying the lives of both black folks and members of Harlem’s African-American elite. The book is centered around the love affair and religious conversion of Sam Lucas, a religious trickster, and Mattie Johnson, who works as a maid for a wealthy black Harlem family. As Gerald Early explained in My Soul’s High Song, the book reveals Cullen’s strong sense of individuality by condemning “orthodoxy and mindless uniformity as the worst sort of deception.”
Although he was offered a position at Dillard University in New Orleans, Cullen took a job as French teacher at Frederick Douglas Junior High School in 1934. While teaching at Frederick Douglas over the next decade, Cullen continued to write and attend public lectures. Cullen’s The Medea, and Some Poems, published in 1935, contained his translation of Euripides’s classical Greek play Medea as well as 18 verses. Included was the protest poem “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song,” dedicated to nine black youths wrongly accused of the rape of two white women in Alabama.
In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson and moved into a comfortable suburban home in Tuckahoe, New York. During the same year, he published a collection of children’s poems entitled The Lost Zoo. This work, like Cullen’s My Lives and How I Lost Them, published in 1942, is based on the adventures of his cat Christopher, who, according to Cullen, helped author the two stories.
During 1942 Cullen was interviewed in his former alma mater’s publication, Magpie, by young Dewitt Clinton high school student James Baldwin, who would himself become a brilliant writer. In his summation of the condition of the black artist in America, Cullen told Baldwin that “in this field one gets pretty much what he deserves…. If you’re really something, nothing can hold you back. In the artistic field, society recognizes the Negro as an equal and, in some cases, as a superior member.”
Though Cullen’s career as a poet had long since faded by the mid-1940s, he left behind a lifetime of works that, as Gerald Early wrote in My Soul’s High Song, contributed to “entire concept of the Harlem Renaissance and the formation of a national black culture.” Quoted in J. Saunders Redding’s To Make a Black Poet, Cullen stated that “the essential quality of good poetry is utmost sincerity and earnestness of purpose. A poet untouched by his times, by his environment, is only half a poet.” Given the enduring impact of Cullen’s work, he remains a true voice of his time and an American poetic genius.
One Way to Heaven, Harper, 1932.
The Lost Zoo (A Rhyme for the Young, But Not Too Young), Harper, 1940.
My Lives and How I Lost Them, Harper, 1947.
(With Arna Bontemps) St. Louis Women, first produced at Martin Beck Theatre, New York, March 20, 1946; published in Black Theatre, edited by Lindsay Patterson, Dodd, 1971.
Color, Harper, 1925.
Copper Sun, Harper, 1927.
The Black Christ, and Other Poems, Harper, 1929.
The Medea, and Some Poems, Harper, 1935.
On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, Harper, 1946.
The Ballad of a Brown Girl: An Old Ballad Retold, Harper, 1925.
Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, Harper, 1927.
Baker, Houston, Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic, University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Bontemps, Arna, ed., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, 1972.
Early, Gerald, ed., My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of the Harlem Renaissance, Anchor Books, 1991.
Ferguson, Blanche E., Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance, Dodd, 1966.
Fullinwinder, S. P., The Mind and Mood of Black America, Dorsey Press, 1969.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Redding, Saunders J., To Make a Poet Black, McGrath, 1968.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 10, 1924.
The Magpie, Winter 1942.
"Cullen, Countee 1903–1946." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cullen-countee-1903-1946
"Cullen, Countee 1903–1946." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cullen-countee-1903-1946
The American Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was one of the most widely heralded African American poets of the Harlem renaissance, though he was less concerned with social and political problems than were his African American contemporaries. He is noted for his lyricism and his artful use of imagery.
Countee Cullen, whose real surname was Porter, was born May 30, 1903. Nothing is known about where he was born, and little is known of his parents. An orphan in New York City, he was adopted by the Reverend Frederick A. and Mrs. Carolyn Cullen, whose name he took. Following graduation from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he won a high school poetry contest, he attended New York University. In 1925 he took a baccalaureate degree, and his first book of poems, Color, was published. His metrical skill reminded many readers of the English poet Algernon Swinburne. He earned a master's degree at Harvard and then became assistant editor of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, which printed the fugitive pieces of African American writers and gave publicity to the African American artists who contributed so much to the cultural awakening of the 1920s.
Cullen knew what was going on in African American life, but he was not deeply involved. Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun, both published in 1927, contain mostly personal Keatsian lyrics, which, generally speaking, show no advance and no development from the poems in his first volume. The piece entitled "Heritage" is a noteworthy exception. In a critical preface to the collection of African American poetry, Caroling Dusk (1927), which he edited, Cullen argues that "Negro poetry … must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own." Though he later claimed that his poetry "treated of the heights and depths of emotion which I feel as a Negro," he did not want to be known as an African American poet.
Even after his marriage in 1928 to Yolande, the only daughter of the African American radical and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, Cullen stayed aloof from action and affirmative argument about race. His marriage lasted only through the first year of a 2-year visit to France, where he completed the long, narrative, parabolic poem "The Black Christ," which became the title poem of his fourth volume. The Medea and Some Poems (1935) was his last book of verse. From 1934 to 1945 he taught French in a New York public school.
Cullen's poetry is traditional in structure. His output in prose suffers from an absence of genuine commitment and is undistinguished. His novel, One Way to Heaven, satirizes upper-class African American life. The Lost Zoo and My Nine Lives and How I Lost Them are children's books. Cullen collaborated on a musical play, St. Louis Woman (1946), but whatever emotional power and integrity it had was supplied by Arna Bontemps. The play opened on March 31, 1949. Cullen had died earlier, on Jan. 9, 1946. On These I Stand, his own selection of his best poems, was published in 1947.
The only full-length work on Cullen is Blanche E. Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance (1966). Stephen H. Bronz, Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, the 1920's: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors (1964), discusses Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay. Cullen is appraised in such anthologies and critical works as James Weldon Johnson, ed., The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922; rev. ed. 1931); Alain L. Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925); J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939); Margaret Just Butcher, The Negro in American Culture: Based on Materials Left by Alain Locke (1956); and Herbert Hill, ed., Soon, One Morning: New Writings by American Negroes, 1940-62 (1963). □
"Countee Cullen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/countee-cullen
"Countee Cullen." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/countee-cullen
Countee Cullen (koun´tē´), 1903–46, American poet, b. New York City, grad. New York Univ. 1925, M.A. Harvard, 1926. A major writer of the Harlem Renaissance—a flowering of black artistic and literary talent in the 1920s—Cullen wrote poetry inspired by American black life. His technique was conventional, modeled on that of John Keats, and his mood passed from racial pride and optimism in the 1920s to sadness and disappointment in the 1930s. Among his volumes of verse are Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and On These I Stand (1947).
See biographies by A. R. Chucard (1984) and C. Molesworth (2012); bibliography by M. Penny (1971).
"Cullen, Countee." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cullen-countee
"Cullen, Countee." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cullen-countee