Cuney, William Waring 1906–1976
William Waring Cuney 1906–1976
William Waring Cuney, or Waring Cuney—as he was commonly known—was a prominent poet of the 1920s’ Harlem Renaissance. Cuney’s concise, rhythmic verse influenced black poetry and music, and he pioneered the blues-based poetry of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote the protest lyrics for one of musician Josh White’s most popular albums. Poets and musicians today still recite and record his most famous poem—“No Images.”
Though it is known that he was born on May 6, 1906, in Washington, D.C., other information about his early life is scarce. He and his twin, Norris Wright Cuney, were raised by racially-mixed parents, Madge Louise Baker and Norris Cuney II, both from prominent Washington, D.C., families. Waring Cuney prepared for a singing career while his brother studied piano. Norris Cuney became a printer and sometimes printed his brother’s poems.
Cuney attended public schools and Howard University in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Lincoln University near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a school of some 400 black students and an all-white faculty. Cuney studied voice and sang with a quartet and the school glee club.
While on the street car one day, Cuney noticed a picture of Langston Hughes in the newspaper, publicizing his first book of poetry. Cuney looked up and recognized Hughes sitting across from him. They immediately began discussing their poetry. Cuney recommended Lincoln University to Hughes, who subsequently enrolled there. The two became good friends. Eventually Hughes, Cuney, Allyn Hill, and Edward Silvera became known as the Lincoln University poets.
After graduation Cuney studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and at the conservatory in Rome. However in those early years of the Harlem Renaissance, when black writers were respected and nurtured, Cuney became a poet rather than a professional singer.
Cuney wrote “No Images” in 1924 when he was 18: “She does not know/Her beauty,/She thinks her brown body/Has no glory.//If she could dance/Naked,/Under palm trees/And see her image in the river/She would know.//But there are no palm trees/On the street/And dish water gives back no images.” The poem shared first and second prizes in the 1926 Opportunity magazine literary contest. A translation appeared in 1928 in Der Hammer, a Yiddish communist literary journal, under the title “How Beautiful She Is.”
By the time that singer Nina Simone began performing and recording the poem (as “Images”) in the 1960s, it was already one of the most anthologized poems in black literature. It became an anthem of the “black is beautiful” movement during the 1960s. “No Images” continued to be recorded and performed by singers and
At a Glance…
Born on May 6, 1906, in Washington, DC; died on June 30, 1976; son of Madge Louise Baker and Norris Cuney II. Education: Lincoln University, PA, BA, 1920s; studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, 1920s; studied at the Rome Conservatory, 1920s; studied at the Columbia University, special music student, 1920s. Military Service: U.S. Army, World War II, South Pacific, 1940s.
Awards: Witter Bynner Prize, honorable mention for undergraduate poetry, 1926; Opportunity magazine, tied for first and second place for “No Images,” 1926, Alexander Pushkin section, second honorable mention for “A Traditional Marching Song/” general poetry section, third honorable mention for “De Jail Blues Song/” 1927; U.S. Army, Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon, three Bronze Stars.
poets, including Maya Angelou, at the turn of the century. A verse from the poem is included in the 1996 Columbia World of Quotations.
Cuney’s poem, “The Death Bed,” was published in 1926 in the first and only issue of Fire!!, edited by Langston Hughes and others: “All the time they were praying/He watched the shadow of a tree/Flicker on the wall.//There is no need of prayer,/He said,/No need at all.//… And all the time it worried him/That they were in there praying/And all the time he wondered/What it was they could be saying.” Ironically most copies of the magazine were destroyed in a basement fire.
Cuney contributed poems and literary criticism to numerous periodicals, including Harlem Quarterly, Negro Quarterly, Black World, and Crisis. He also was an art and music critic for Crisis. As a favorite among his contemporaries, Cuney’s poetry appeared in countless anthologies.
Although usually focusing on the common black man, Cuney’s subject matter was universal. He utilized both standard and colloquial English, often in free verse. Like other poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Cuney combined conventional, popular black, and folk styles.
His poetry could be funny, moralistic, or political. In “Colored” Cuney wrote: “You want to know what it’s like/Being colored?//Well,/It’s like going to bat/With two strikes/Already called on you—//… The only way to know/Is to be born colored.”
A 1929 anthology of black American poetry translated into German included “The Radical:” “Men never know/What they are doing./They always make a muddle/Of their affairs;/They always tie their affairs/Into a knot/They cannot untie./Then I come in/Uninvited.//They do not ask me in;/I am the radical,/The bomb thrower,/! untie the knot/That they have made,/And they never thank me.”
Cuney’s first poetry collection, Chain Gang Chant, was published in 1930, as were two of his most famous poems, “Threnody” and “Finis.” The latter is a poignant ode to the end of a love affair. During the depression Cuney worked as a researcher and compiler of New York City’s black history, for the Federal Writers Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA).
Cuney’s poetry incorporated the sounds and rhythms of black religious and secular music, especially the blues. He wrote tributes to blues and ragtime, and to jazz musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker. His poem “Beale Street” opens with: “Did you know/That Beale Street/In Memphis,/Has a grave yard/At one end,/A river,/At the other?//No wonder/They say the blues/Began on Beale Street.”
In 1941 Cuney collaborated with gospel, blues, and folk musician Josh White, on an album of 78-rpm protest songs called Southern Exposure. White and Cuney discussed the themes. Cuney wrote the lyrics and White adapted them to his voice and guitar. Elijah Wald quoted from Richard Wright’s original liner notes for the album: “Southern Exposure contains the blues, the wailing blues, the moaning blues, the laughing-crying blues, the sad-happy blues. But it contains also the fighting blues….” Wald called this “the first full-fledged Civil Rights record album, and there would never be another with so much popularity or impact.” It was one of the first blues recordings ever reviewed in the New York Times.
The title song to Southern Exposure, sung to the tune of “Careless Love,” was quoted by Wald: “Well, I work all the week in the blazin’ sun/Can’t buy my shoes, Lord, when my payday comes.//I ain’t treated no better than a mountain goat,/Boss takes my crop and the poll takes my vote.” “Hard Time Blues” became one of the album’s best-known songs: “Went to the Boss/at the Commissary Store,/Folks all hungry/Please don’t close the door,/Want more food, little time to pay./Boss Man laughed/and walked away.//Great-God-A-Mighty/Folks feeling bad,/Lost all they ever had.”
The United States had just entered the Second World War and the songs on Southern Exposure were controversial. “Defense Factory Blues,” as quoted by Wald, attacked segregation in the defense industry: “I’ll tell you one thing, that bossman ain’t my friend/If he was, he’d give me some democracy to defend.” Wald also quoted from “Uncle Sam Says,” a Cuney-White collaboration protesting segregation in the armed forces: “Airplanes flying ‘cross the land and sea,/Everybody flying but a Negro like me./Uncle Sam says, ‘Your place is on the ground,/When I fly my airplanes, don’t want no Negro ‘round.’//The same thing for the Navy, when ships go to sea,/AH they got is a mess boy’s job for me./… If you ask me, I think democracy is fine,/I mean democracy without the color line./Uncle Sam says, ‘We’ll live the American way,’/Let’s get together and kill Jim Crow today.” Soon Cuney found himself serving in the South Pacific, while Josh White sang their songs in a private concert for President Franklin Roosevelt.
After his discharge from the army Cuney settled in the Bronx and studied music as a special student at Columbia University. During the 1950s some of his poems were translated and published in German and Dutch anthologies.
In 1960, at the outset of the new American black arts movement, a Dutch society published Cuney’s collection Puzzles. He had updated his poem, “The Neighbors Stood on the Corner,” to address the effects of World War II on black Americans. In this poem, although a suicide is attributed to a failed marriage, Cuney implied that the after-effects of war were contributing factors.
By 1963 Cuney had cut his ties with the black literary community and become a recluse. He was not heard from again until 1970 when John O. Killens wrote an article in Black World entitled “Another Time When Black was Beautiful.” He wrote—as quoted by Lucy Kelly Hayden in the Dictionary of Literary Biography —that Cuney’s oft-reprinted short poem “Conception,” part of his “My Jesus” trilogy, was “humorous, irreverent, and idiomatic.” In March of 1971 Cuney replied in Black World: “A quick reading… will show that the poems are idiomatic, not humorous, and not irreverent.”
Three years before Cuney’s death, on June 30, 1976, Paul Breman published a collection of Cuney’s poems entitled Storefront Church. Many of the collection’s 18 poems were from Cuney’s early career, musically-infused and religious. In recent years Cuney’s poetry has formed the basis for several musical works.
Four Lincoln University Poets, Lincoln University, 1930.
(Editor with Langston Hughes and Bruce McM. Wright) Lincoln University Poets: Centennial Anthology, 1854-1954, Fine Editions, 1954.
Puzzles, DeRoos, 1960.
Storefront Church, P. Bremen, 1973.
“No Images,” Opportunity, June 1926; Carolina, May 1927.
“Grave,” Palms, October 1926.
“The Death Bed,” Fire!!, November 1926.
“Once Bad Girl,” “’Aint Nobody but You,” “De Jail Blues Song,” “Suicide,” Carolina, May 1928.
“Uncle Sam Says,” Cavalcade, October 1941.
“Letterto J. O. Killens,” Black World, March 1971, p. 98.
(With Josh White) Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues, Keynote Records, 1941; (CD) Pearl, 1999.
Anthology of Negro Poets in the U.S.A.: 200 Years (LP), Arna Bontemps, compiler, Folkways Records, 1955.
Harlem Renaissance: The Black Poets (videorecording), 1971.
Cuney’s poems have also appeared in a number of important anthologies, including: American Negro Poetry, Hill and Wang, 1963; The New Negro Renaissance, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975; Voices from the Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1976, 1995; The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Viking, 1994; Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, Rutgers University Press, 2001; and Blues Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Harris, Trudier, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, Gale, 1987, pp. 46-53.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Knopf, 1940; Reprint, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1986, p. 219.
Smethurst, James Edward, The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Art Journal, Summer 2001.
Black World, November 1970, pp. 20-36, 52-58.
“Brian Gilmore on Waring Cuney,” Beltway: A Poetry Quarterly, www.washingtonart.com/beltway/cuney.html (January 17, 2004).
“Josh White and the Protest Blues,” Elijah Wald Web Site, www.elijahwald.com/joshprotest.html (February 8, 2004).
“1920s: Harlem Renaissance in Selected Anthologies,” Rudolph Fisher Newsletter, www.fishernews.org/anthologies/htm (February 8, 2004).
“William Waring Cuney,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 14, 2004).
“William Waring Cuney,” The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s, www.dclibrary.org/blkren/bios/cuneyww.html (January 17, 2004).
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