The Remarkable Life of Harlem Renaissance Poet Countee Cullen

The first 20 years of the 20th century brought tumultuous changes to the condition and location of African Americans. The triumph and travail of Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow and the “color line.” The Great Migration witnessed millions of Blacks seeking “the warmth of other suns,” moving away from the rural South to the urban South, North, and West. Large numbers of African Americans concentrated in urban areas not only fostered social, political, and economic changes but, most importantly, intellectual innovation.

The most important outgrowth of this era was the Harlem Renaissance — a literary, musical, and cultural outpouring of Black aesthetic expression in the 1920s. One of its leading luminaries was Countee Cullen, whose life and literary career embodied the tension between using art to achieve acceptance through artistic and professional excellence regardless of race, and the desire to protest social conditions such as Jim Crow. Cullen’s career swung like a pendulum between these poles. Cullen considered himself a raceless poet, yet his work contained many explicitly racial themes. He embodied the ageless struggle for Black acceptance, affirmation, and recognition of the ability to truly master one’s craft in a nation determined to deny Black intellectual ability and humanity.

Little is known about Countee Cullen’s early life. He was born on May 30, 1903, and adopted at age 15 by prominent minister Frederick A. Cullen, who was the pastor of one of Harlem’s largest churches, then known as Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. Countee attended Dewitt Clinton High School, a predominantly white high school in the Bronx. He developed an early interest in poetry, won a citywide poetry contest, and edited the school’s weekly newspaper. While a student at New York University, Cullen received several literary honors including The Witter Bynner Prize — an undergraduate poetry contest sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and Palms magazine — for his poem “Ballad of the Brown Girl.” He also published poetry in several national publications including Harpers, Crisis, and Opportunity. Cullen graduated from NYU in 1925 and was one of 11 students elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Cullen entered Harvard to work on a master’s degree in English and published his first collection of poetry, titled Color. Several of his most important and celebrated poems appeared in this collection including “Heritage,” and “Yet Do I Marvel.”

Cullen’s work reflected the perennial tension in the Black literary world between art as propaganda and racial advocacy, and art for the purpose of artistic and aesthetic expression.

Heritage” is an example of the European sonnet, which have 14 lines, are written in iambic pentameter, and have a specific rhyme scheme with a volta. Cullen also incorporated deep reflections on Black identity into his poetic expression. “Heritage” directly confronts one of the central issues of the Harlem Renaissance: African American’s identification with Africa. The poem’s first stanza captures the vibrant energy and lush tropical richness of the continent while simultaneously evoking its antiquity. The poem makes a tangible connection between Africa’s dispersed children in the Diaspora and the stability and tranquility of the African motherland.

What is Africa to me:/ Copper sun or scarlet sea,/ Jungle star or jungle track,/ Strong bronzed men, or regal black Women from whose loins I sprang /When the birds of Eden sang?/ One three centuries removed/ From the scenes his fathers loved,/Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,/What is Africa to me?

The poem’s powerful imagery debunks the idea of Africa as a dark continent and presents the “brightest Africa,” full of possibility and promise. Yet critics have argued the imagery is idealized. The poem seriously grapples with the romantic ideal of Africa as a virtual Eden and the struggle of its descendants to understand its role in shaping contemporary Black identity.

In another section of “Heritage,” Cullen grapples with the theme of religion and spiritual striving. A nod to double consciousness — the idea of two souls, one American and another African, warring within the African American psyche — is illustrated through an age-old religious quandary. African Americans are taught to worship a traditional Jesus and also the desire to fashion God in one’s own image. Doing so is not mere imitation, but what Cullen sees as a “human creed.” He describes this human desire to make religion uniquely personal and to mold and shape the image of God into one suited to the cultural needs of a racial or ethnic group. He simultaneously accounts for a universal need in humanistic and racial terms.

Another poem, “Yet Do I Marvel,” offers a framework similar to that of “Heritage.” Again, Cullen utilizes the sonnet to describe the inscrutable ways of God. God’s ways are mysterious and unknown, yet Cullen sees the beauty and supple nature of the smallest things in human existence and marvels. In this way, Cullen universalizes Blackness. From references to the little blind mole and the fate of Sisyphus, who is cursed to continually push a boulder up a hill, one does not understand but marvels. The universal, as well as the racially specific, fall under this wonderment in Cullen’s view: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:/ To make a poet Black, and bid him sing.” The apex of Cullen’s career occurred during the Harlem Renaissance. He worked as an editorial assistant for Opportunity, the journal of record for the Urban League; he produced a column called “Dark Tower,” and several collections of poetry in 1927 including Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun. Another collection, Black Christ and Other Poems, appeared in 1929. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Cullen spent time traveling between the US and France. He received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 and, in 1932, published his last poem with an explicitly racial theme, “Black Christ,” which compared lynching to the crucifixion of Christ.

By the 1930s, Cullen’s poetic production were largely nonracial, but not completely devoid of racial references. He taught English at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City for the remainder of his career and mentored aspiring Black writers, including a young James Baldwin. Cullen’s only novel, One Way to Heaven, was a social comedy which explored the lives of working class and middle class Black people in New York City. He also wrote two works for younger readers: The Lost Zoo, published in 1940, and 1942’s My Lives and How I Lost Them, an autobiography of Cullen’s cat. He also scored a musical titled St. Louis Woman with the Black Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps, and translated Medea, the Greek play by Euripides. Cullen died of high blood pressure and uremic poisoning in 1946.

Countee Cullen’s life and poetic production embody the complexity and dynamic striving of Black people. His career and production reflected the desire to be recognized as a human who is capable of a full range of endeavors, and of the right to articulate one’s cultural and racial heritage. Like many of his generation, Cullen negotiated this space by universalizing Black humanity and wove the strands of race and culture into his life and poetic practice. This seamless integration created a timeless tapestry of cultural production which reveals the multicultural and universal realities of the human experience.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.