To begin with, it should be noted that poet, children’s writer, anthologist, novelist, playwright and translator, Countee Cullen is something of a mysterious figure. He was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, at 30 of March 1903, but it has been difficult for researches to place exactly where he was born or with whom and where he spent the earliest years of his childhood. Sometime before 1918, Cullen was adopted by the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the main pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the Harlem’s largest congregations (Molesworth, 34). Frederick Cullen was a pioneer black activist minister. The two men were very close, usually traveling abroad together. These relations made a big influence on the worldview of Countee Cullen. He was inspired by conservative and strong Christian training and the attraction of some pagan inclinations.
It should be noted that in view of America’s racial climate during the 1920s-1930s, Harlem was scarcely a serene place. However, it was an enormously stimulating milieu for Afro-American social activists and intellectuals. The hopes of the black community for equality and acceptance had turned to serious disillusionment at the end of the World War, when returning black soldiers often experienced unemployment and were mistreated. Resentment pulsated through black city centers like Harlem, which had particularly burgeoned during the war as many black workers migrated there to fill some jobs temporarily vacated by the diversion of other white laborers into the military. Black urban consciousness conducive to the significant flowering of the arts was developing for the first time in Afro-American history. From Harlem, one of the largest new, densely populated black urban communities, Cullen was learning much information of Afro-American arts known as the Harlem Renaissance.
While Cullen’s informal education was intensively shaped by his exposure to black ideas, his formal education derived from totally white influences. This unusual dichotomy heavily influenced his creative work in poetry and his criticism, particularly because he did well at the white-dominated institutions he attended. What is more, he had won the approbation of white academia. He liked the romantic and sometimes dreamy style of poetry, especially that ofJohnKeatsand Edna St. Vincent Millay. Cullen used universal themes in his poems like equality, faith, love and issues of racism that can apply to those who felt oppressed in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Probably more than any other writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen carried out the intentions of black American intellectual leaders such as James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. DuBois. These men had nothing but the highest praise for Countee Cullen. He wrote many of his poems in the form of the Shakespearean sonnet that is why critics often discuss the influence of such English Romantic poets, as William Blake and William Wordsworth on his verse. In such a way, Cullen brought a legitimacy to the movement of Harlem Renaissance, providing it like a part of white culture, which he tried to convert to his own radical use. It should be noted that his sonnet “The Black Christ”, written in a traditional sonnet form, compares a black man who is lynched, to Christ. Such mixture of irreverence toward and celebration of tradition provided an extremely unique tone to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
At the same time, Cullen was different from most of the Harlem Renaissance writers because he wrote more conventionally. It should be mentioned that much of his subject matter focused on the black experience, but his poetry also mirrored the English-language literary tradition. According to Gerald Early, Countee Cullen believed that African American writers should follow and study the traditions of English verse. Cullen wrote many sonnets in the British romantic style, similar to Claude McKay’s style. They both expressed Afro-American ideas in traditional English poetry.
Without any doubts he was a very influential and talented individual. He wrote a lot of poetry that both White and Black people enjoyed. It should be highlighted, that despite the popular critical interpretation of his activities, the Blacks were condemning of his later works because according to their opinion he did not write enough about Blacks and their struggles. Cullen said that he prefer to be known as a poet, not a “Negro poet.” It should be highlighted that this did not affect his popularity, despite the fact that some Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Langston Hughes, who interpreted this as a deny of black race. The truth is that Countee Cullen wanted a broad audience that was not just for Blacks. Researches show that he wanted his poetry to be for everyone, indifferent of race and color. In poems such as “Atlantic City Waiter” and “Heritage” Cullen reflects the urge to reclaim African arts as a phenomenon called “Negritude”, which was one of the motifs of the Harlem Renaissance. It should be highlighted that the cornerstone of his aesthetic was the call for black-American poets to write conservatively, as he did, within English conventions. An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets seems to reflecthis belief in the essential oneness of art. There is no distinction between white poetry and black poetry there, and it assumes there is only poetry.
The other main topic of Cullen’s poems is death, which was shaped by his early encounters with the deaths of his brother, grandmother and parents, as well as by a premonition of his premature demise. In “Nocturne” and “Works to My Love”, death is accepted as a natural element of life.
Countee Cullen also fought against the idea of Western religion, because he felt that a white God was totally unable to understand the sufferings of a black people. One of his work, named “Black Christ,” was devoted to explication of these ideas, but finally he was faithful to his families Methodist lifestyle. Countee Cullen would remain loyal to country and family although he did explore Communism for a short time.
Countee Cullen’s poetry not only sympathized with humans, but also animals. In his poetic book, named “The Lost Zoo”, he writes about animals who perished in the great Flood. He has briefly written about his cat, dedicating an autobiography to it.
It should be noted that Cullen had a profound effect on the Harlem Renaissance movement (Huggins, 173). Cullen shared in the common goal of movement’s writers and artists, but he embodied it in a unique way. Through this style, he expressed a new idea, which told that poetry of the Harlem Renaissance should not have to simply be defined by race. He could express universal themes and do it in a conventional style. Countee Cullen also provided the movement with formal, traditional poetry that gave a new birth to the Afro-American culture.
Early, Gerald. “About Countee Cullen’s Life and Career”. Modern American Poetry. 2001. Web. March. 4, 2014.
Huggins, Nathan. 2007. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press.Print.
Molesworth, Charles. 2012. And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countee Cullen. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. Print.
Countee Cullen: Online Poems. Modern American Poetry. 2001. Web. March. 4, 2014.