Early lifeCountee Cullen was possibly born on May 30, although due to conflicting accounts of his early life, a general application of the year of his birth as 1903 is reasonable. He was either born in New York, Baltimore, or Lexington, Kentucky, with his widow being convinced he was born in Lexington. Cullen was possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a woman named Mrs. Porter, who was probably his paternal grandmother. Porter brought young Countee to Harlem when he was nine. She died in 1918. No known reliable information exists of his childhood until 1918 when he was taken in, or adopted, by Reverend and Mrs Frederick A. Cullen of Harlem, New York City. The Reverend was the local minister, and founder, of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church.
DeWitt Clinton High SchoolAt some point, Cullen entered the DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx. He excelled academically at the school while emphasizing his skills at poetry and in oratorical contest. At DeWitt, he was elected into the honor society, editor of the weekly newspaper, and elected vice-president of his graduating class. In January 1922, he graduated with honors in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and French.
New York University and Harvard UniversityAfter graduating high school, he entered New York University (NYU). In 1923, he won second prize in the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry contest, which was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, with a poem entitled The Ballad of the Brown Girl. At about this time, some of his poetry was promulgated in the national periodicals Harper's, Crisis, Opportunity, The Bookman, and Poetry. The ensuing year he again placed second in the contest and finally winning it in 1925. Cullen competed in a poetry contest sponsored by Opportunity. and came in second with To One Who Say Me Nay, while losing to Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues. Sometime thereafter, Cullen graduated from NYU as one of eleven students selected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Cullen entered Harvard in 1925, to pursue a masters in English, about the same time his first collection of poems, Color, was published. 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. He graduated with a masters degree in 1926.
Professional careerThis 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 poem "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. His real mother did not contact him until he became famous in the 1920s.
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), 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.
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. Du Bois, the leading black intellectual. At that time Yolande was involved romantically with a popular band leader. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen traveled back and forth between France and the United States.
When Cullen married Yolande Du Bois in April 1928, it was the social event of the decade, but the marriage did not fare well, and he divorced in 1930. It is rumored that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman ("the handsomest man in Harlem"), was a significant factor in the divorce. The young, dashing Jackman was a school teacher and, thanks to his noted beauty, a prominent figure among Harlem's gay elite. Van Vechten had used him as a character model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926).
It's very possible that the conflicted Cullen was in love with the homosexual Jackman, but Thomas Wirth, author of Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, says there is no concrete proof that they ever were lovers, despite newspaper stories and gossip suggesting the contrary.
Jackman's diaries, letters, and outstanding collections of memorabilia are held in various depositories across the country, such as the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. At Cullen's death, Jackman requested that the name of the Georgia accumulation be changed from the Harold Jackman Collection to the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection in honor of his friend. When Jackman, himself, succumbed to cancer in 1961, the collection was renamed the Cullen-Jackman Collection to honor them both.
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 crucifixion of Jesus.
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, published 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.
In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson, whom he had known for ten years.
Cullen died from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946.
- Color Harper & brothers, 1925; Ayer, 1993, ISBN 978-0-88143-155-1 [includes the poems "Incident," "Near White," "Heritage," and others], illustrations by Charles Cullen
- Copper Sun, Harper & brothers, 1927
- Harlem Wine 1926
- The Ballad of the Brown Girl Harper & Brothers, 1927, illustrations by Charles Cullen
- The Black Christ and Other Poems, Harper & brothers, 1929, illustrations by Charles Cullen
- Tableau (1925)
- One way to heaven, Harper & brothers, 1932
- Any Human to Another (1934)
- The Medea and Some Other Poems (1935)
- On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947
- Gerald Lyn Early (ed). My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen Doubleday, 1991, ISBN 9780385417587
- Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, Library of America, 2013, ISBN 978-1-59853-083-4
- One Way to Heaven (1931)
- The Lost Zoo, Harper & Brothers, 1940; Modern Curriculum Press, 1991, ISBN 9780813672175
- My Lives and How I Lost Them, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942
- St. Louis Woman (1946)
Countee Cullen, in full Countee Porter Cullen (born May 30, 1903—died January 9, 1946), American poet, one of the finest of the Harlem Renaissance.
Reared by a woman who was probably his paternal grandmother, Countee at age 15 was unofficially adopted by the Reverend F.A. Cullen, minister of Salem M.E. Church, one of Harlem’s largest congregations. He won a citywide poetry contest as a schoolboy and saw his winning stanzas widely reprinted. At New York University (B.A., 1925) he won the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Major American literary magazines accepted his poems regularly, and his first collection of poems, Color (1925), was published to critical acclaim before he had finished college.
Cullen received an M.A. degree from Harvard University in 1926 and worked as an assistant editor for Opportunity magazine. In 1928, just before leaving the United States for France (where he would study on a Guggenheim Fellowship), Cullen married Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois (divorced 1930). After publication of The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), Cullen’s reputation as a poet waned. From 1934 until the end of his life he taught in New York City public schools. Most notable among his other works are Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1928), and The Medea and Some Poems (1935). His novel One Way to Heaven (1932) depicts life in Harlem.
Cullen’s use of racial themes in his verse was striking at the time, and his material is always fresh and sensitively treated. He drew some criticism, however, because he was heavily influenced by the Romanticism of John Keats and preferred to use classical verse forms rather than rely on the rhythms and idioms of his black American heritage.
Sometime before 1918, Cullen was adopted by the Reverend Frederick A. and Carolyn Belle (Mitchell) Cullen. It is impossible to state with certainty how old Cullen was when he was adopted or how long he knew the Cullens before he was adopted. Apparently he went by the name of Countee Porter until 1918. By 1921 he became Countee P. Cullen and eventually just Countee Cullen. According to Harold Jackman, Cullen's adoption was never “official.” That is to say it was never consummated through proper state-agency channels. Indeed, it is difficult to know if Cullen was ever legally an orphan at any stage in his childhood.
Frederick Cullen was a pioneer black activist minister. He established his Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in a storefront mission upon his arrival in New York City in 1902, and in 1924 moved the Church to the site of a former white church in Harlem where he could boast of a membership of more than twenty-five hundred. Countee Cullen himself stated in Caroling Dusk (1927) that he was “reared in the conservative atmosphere of a Methodist parsonage,” and it is clear that his foster father was a particularly strong influence. The two men were very close, often traveling abroad together. But as Cullen evidences a decided unease in his poetry over his strong and conservative Christian training and the attraction of his pagan inclinations, his feelings about his father may have been somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, Frederick Cullen was a puritanical Christian patriarch, and Cullen was never remotely that in his life. On the other hand, it has been suggested that Frederick Cullen was also something of an effeminate man. (He was dressed in girl's clothing by his poverty-stricken mother well beyond the acceptable boyhood age for such transvestism.) That Cullen was homosexual or of a decidedly ambiguous sexual nature may also be attributable to his foster father's contrary influence as both fire-breathing Christian and latent homosexual.
Cullen was an outstanding student at DeWitt Clinton High School (1918–1921). He edited the school's newspaper, assisted in editing the literary magazine, Magpie, and began to write poetry that achieved notice. While in high school Cullen won his first contest, a citywide competition, with the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life”, a nonracial poem inspired by Alan Seeger's “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”. At New York University (1921–1925), he wrote most of the poems for his first three volumes: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). If any event signaled the coming of the Harlem Renaissance, it was the precocious success of this rather shy black boy who, more than any other black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure. Here was a black man with considerable academic training who could, in effect, write “white” verse—ballads, sonnets, quatrains, and the like—much in the manner of Keats and the British Romantics (albeit, on more than one occasion, tinged with racial concerns) with genuine skill and compelling power. He was certainly not the first Negro to attempt to write such verse but he was first to do so with such extensive education and with such a complete understanding of himself as a poet. Only two other black American poets before Cullen could be taken so seriously as self-consciously considered and proficient poets: Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. If the aim of the Harlem Renaissance was, in part, the reinvention of the native-born Negro as a being who can be assimilated while decidedly retaining something called “a racial self-consciousness,” then Cullen fit the bill. If “I Have a Rendezvous with Life” was the opening salvo in the making of Cullen's literary reputation, then the 1924 publication of “Shroud of Color” in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury confirmed the advent of the black boy wonder as one of the most exciting American poets on the scene. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU, Cullen earned a master's degree in English and French from Harvard (1925–1927). Between high school and his graduation from Harvard, Cullen was the most popular black poet and virtually the most popular black literary figure in America. One of Cullen's poems and his popular column in Opportunity inspired A'Leila Walker—heiress of Madame C. J. Walker's hair-care products fortune and owner of a salon where the black and white literati gathered in the late 1920s—to name her salon “The Dark Tower”.
Cullen won more major literary prizes than any other black writer of the 1920s: first prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry contest in 1925, Poetry magazine's John Reed Memorial Prize, the Amy Spingarn Award of the Crisis magazine, second prize in Opportunity magazine's first poetry contest, and second prize in the poetry contest of Palms. In addition, he was the second black to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Cullen was also at the center of one of the major social events of the Harlem Renaissance: On 9 April 1928 he married Yolande Du Bois, only child of W. E. B. Du Bois, in one of the most lavish weddings in black New York history. This wedding was to symbolize the union of the grand black intellectual patriarch and the new breed of younger Negroes who were responsible for much of the excitement of the Renaissance. It was an apt meshing of personalities as Cullen and Du Bois were both conservative by nature and ardent traditionalists. That the marriage turned out so disastrously and ended so quickly (they divorced in 1930) probably adversely affected Cullen, who remarried in 1940. In 1929, Cullen published The Black Christ and Other Poems to less than his accustomed glowing reviews. He was bitterly disappointed that The Black Christ, his longest and in many respects most complicated poem, was considered by most critics and reviewers to be his weakest and least distinguished.
From the 1930s until his death, Cullen wrote a great deal less, partly hampered by his job as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High. (His most famous student was James Baldwin.) But he wrote noteworthy, even significant work in a number of genres. His novel One Way to Heaven, published in 1934, rates as one of the better black satires and is one of the three important fictional retrospectives of the Harlem Renaissance, the others being Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring and George S. Schuyler's Black No More. Cullen's The Medea is the first major translation of a classical work by a twentieth-century black American writer. Cullen's contributions to children's literature, The Lost Zoo and Christopher Cat, are among the more clever and engaging books of children's verse, written at a time when there was not much published in this area by black writers. He also completed perhaps some of his best, certainly some of his more darkly complex, sonnets. He was also working on a musical with ArnaBontemps called St. Louis Woman (based on Bontemps's novel God Sends Sunday) at the time of his death from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on 9 January 1946.
For many years after his death, Cullen's reputation was eclipsed by that of other Harlem Renaissance writers, particularly Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and his work had gone out of print. In the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in Cullen's life and work and his writings are being reissued.