Cullen was an American poet and 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, 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.
Countee Cullen was very secretive about his life. According to different sources, he was born in Louisville, Kentucky or Baltimore, Maryland. Cullen was possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a woman named Mrs. Porter, who was probably his paternal grandmother. Cullen once said that he was born in New York City, but may not have meant it literally. Porter brought young Countee to Harlem when he was nine. She died in 1918. At the age of 15, Cullen was adopted by the Reverend F.A. Cullen, minister of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the largest congregations of Harlem. Later Reverend Cullen became the head of the Harlem chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His real mother did not contact him until he became famous in the 1920s.
As a schoolboy, Cullen won a city-wide 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. After graduating, he entered New York University (NYU), 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. The movement was centered in the cosmopolitan community of Harlem, in New York City. During the 1920s, a fresh generation of writers emerged, although a few were Harlem-born. Other leading figures included Alain Locke (The New Negro, 1925), 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) and Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1935). The movement was accelerated by grants and scholarships and supported by such white writers as Carl Van Vechten.
A brilliant student, Cullen graduated from New York University Phi Beta Kappa. He attended Harvard, earning his masters degree in 1926. He worked as assistant editor for Opportunity magazine, where his column, "The Dark Tower", increased his literary reputation. Cullen's poetry collections The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) and Copper Sun (1927) explored similar themes as Color, but they were not so well received. Cullen's Guggenheim Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write abroad. He met 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. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen travelled back and forth between France and the United States.
By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. The title poem 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 the crucification of Jesus.
Cullen married Yolanda DuBois in April 1928. The marriage was the social event of the decade, but the marriage did not fare well, and he divorced in 1930. It is widely said that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman was a significant factor in the divorce. Jackman was a teacher whom Van Vechten had used as a model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson, whom he had known for ten years.
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. In 1932 appeared his only novel, One Way to Heaven, 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 New York City. During this period, he also wrote two works for young readers, The Lost Zoo (1940), poems about the animals who perished in the Flood, and My Lives and How I Lost Them, an autobiography of his cat. In the last years of his life, Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre. He worked with Arna Bontemps to adapt his 1931 novel, God Sends Sunday into St. Louis Woman (1946, publ. 1971) for the musical stage. Its score was composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white. The Broadway musical, set in poor black neighborhood in St. Louis, was criticized by black intellectuals for creating a negative image of black Americans. Cullen also translated the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, which was published in 1935 as The Medea and Some Poems with a collection of sonnets and short lyrics.
Burial: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, Bronx County, New York, USA
Although gay social networks played an important role in the construction of the Harlem Renaissance, they were carefully hidden. Most of its writers, like most other middle-class African-Americans, endeavored to keep their homosexuality a secret from the straight world. Even Bruce Nugent, the most audacious of the circle, published his story under the name Richard Bruce to avoid embarassing his parents. Countee Cullen, who had begun to identify himself as gay before he turned twenty and was involved in several long-term relationships with men, twice married women in search of respectability. His first wedding, to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, was one of the major social events of 1928, but their marriage quickly foundered. Yolande appears to have cooperated in making sure that the Harlem press reported Cullen was infatuated with another woman, but she confided to her father that Cullen's homosexuality was the problem. Cullen married again twelve years later, even though he was romantically involved with another man. As Reimonenq has shown, Cullen became increasingly concerned in the 1930s and 1940s to hide his homosexual liaisons, using codes to refer to them in his letters to friends and signing letters to his beloved with a pseudonym. Cullen had quickly become one of the most celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance and had no illusions about what the revelation of his homosexuality could do to his career. --Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George ChaunceyFurther Readings:
The New Negro : Voices of the Harlem Renaissance by Alain Locke
Paperback: 452 pages
Publisher: Touchstone (March 1, 1999)
Amazon: The New Negro : Voices of the Harlem Renaissance
An interpretative anthology that acted as a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance defines the artistic and social goals of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s.
Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Blacks in the Diaspora) by A.B. Christa Schwarz
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Indiana University Press (July 18, 2003)
Amazon: Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Blacks in the Diaspora)
"Heretofore scholars have not been willing -- perhaps, even been unable for many reasons both academic and personal -- to identify much of the Harlem Renaissance work as same-sex oriented.... An important book." -- Jim Elledge
This groundbreaking study explores the Harlem Renaissance as a literary phenomenon fundamentally shaped by same-sex-interested men. Christa Schwarz focuses on CountÃ©e Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent and explores these writers' sexually dissident or gay literary voices. The portrayals of men-loving men in these writers' works vary significantly. Schwarz locates in the poetry of Cullen, Hughes, and McKay the employment of contemporary gay code words, deriving from the Greek discourse of homosexuality and from Walt Whitman. By contrast, Nugent -- the only "out" gay Harlem Renaissance artist -- portrayed men-loving men without reference to racial concepts or Whitmanesque codes. Schwarz argues for contemporary readings attuned to the complex relation between race, gender, and sexual orientation in Harlem Renaissance writing.
Countee' Cullen's Secret Revealed by Miracle Book: A Biography of His Childhood in New Orleans by Shirley Washington
Paperback: 60 pages
Publisher: AuthorHouse (January 21, 2008)
Amazon: Countee' Cullen's Secret Revealed by Miracle Book: A Biography of His Childhood in New Orleans
The mystery of Countee' Cullen's childhood has finally been solved. He was born into an 'elite' African-American family in 1906. His birthplace was New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, James S. Carter, Sr., was the first licensed African-American dentist in Louisiana. His mother was a well-educated Christian lady, Gussie Yeager Carter, from Natchez, Mississippi. James S. Carter, Jr. was Countee' Cullen's birth name signed by him in the book, "Color", which he sent to his mother in 1925. This book that I have written reveals why he changed his identity forever. I am his neice, Shirley Porter Washington, his youngest sister's (Clyde Carter Porter) daughter. I have the 'Miracle Book' and his 'Secret Revealed'.
W. E. B. Du Bois, 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century by David Levering Lewis
Paperback: 752 pages
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (September 1, 2001)
Amazon: W. E. B. Du Bois, 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century
This monumental biography--eight years in the research and writing--treats the early and middle phases of a long and intense career: a crucial fifty-year period that demonstrates how Du Bois changed forever the way Americans think about themselves.