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.
Further Reading on Countee Cullen
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).