Celebrate Black History
Poet, anthologist, novelist, translator, children’s writer, and playwright, Countee Cullen is something of a mysterious figure. He was born 30 March 1903, but it has been difficult for scholars to place exactly where he was born, with whom he spent the very earliest years of his childhood, and where he spent them. New York City and Baltimore have been given as birthplaces. Cullen himself, on his college transcript at New York University, lists Louisville, Kentucky, as his place of birth.
Cullen was reared in New York City by his paternal grandmother until 1918, when he was adopted by the Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen. This was a turning point in his life, for he was now introduced into the very center of black activism and achievement. Cullen displayed his talent early; already in high school he was writing poetry, and in his sophomore year at NYU he was awarded second prize in the nationwide Witter Bynner Poetry Contest for “The Ballad of the Brown Girl.” Encompassing themes that would remain salient for the remainder of his career, Cullen’s first major poem also revealed his unabashed reverence for the works of John Keats. Cullen was firmly convinced that traditional verse forms could not be bettered by more modern paradigms. It was, therefore, the task of any aspiring writer, he felt, to become conversant with and part of a received literary tradition simply because such a tradition has the virtue of longevity and universal sanction.
Cullen’s first volume Color established him as a writer with an acute spiritual vision. Especially noteworthy in this respect is “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks,” a work that eloquently makes use of Matthew 27:32 in order to suggest an analogue between blacks and Simon, the man who was compelled to bear the cross of Christ on his back. Sublimity was not Cullen’s only strong point. In “Incident,” the reader is brusquely catapulted into the all-too-realistic world of an impressionable eight-year-old as he experiences overt racism for the first time on a heretofore memorable ride through the history-filled streets of Baltimore.
In 1927, Cullen edited a significant anthology of black poetry, Caroling Dusk, and published two collections of his own, The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun. Representative of Cullen’s philosophical development in this period is the multifaceted “Heritage,” a poem that summarizes his ambivalent relationship with Christian and pagan cultural constructs.
The 1930s and 1940s saw a change of direction in Cullen’s work. His poetry output almost totally ceased as he turned his attention to the novel, theater, translation, teaching, and children’s literature. The 1932 novel One Way to Heaven was Cullen’s response to Carl Van Vechten’s 1926 Nigger Heaven, a controversial and notorious work exploring the seamy underbelly of Harlem.
Cullen was also at the center of one of the major social events of the Harlem Renaissance: On April 9, 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.
For many years after his death in 1946, 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.
This Day In Black History (Feb. 7):
1. PRESIDENT JEAN-CLAUDE DUVALIER FLEES HAITI (1945) – Twenty-eight years of one-family rule end in Haiti, when President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier flees the Caribbean nation.
2. BIRTH OF CHRIS ROCK (1967) – Christoper Julius Rock III, better known as Chris Rock was born on this day in Andrews, South Carolina. Rock would become a leading standup comedian, actor often tackling subjects most would shy away from.
3. FIRST ELECTED HAITIAN PRESIDENT (1991) – Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is sworn in.