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Countee Cullen: Biography and a Collection of Poems
Countee Cullen (1903-1946) had a somewhat non-traditional upbringing, largely in Harlem, New York City. Born Countee LeRoy Porter, he was raised by his grandmother, Amanda Porter, until she passed away in 1917. The Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, a prominent minister in the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, adopted him and mentored him. Cullen started writing poetry in high school, and continued to develop and publish his work in national venues once he joined New York University in 1921. Cullen completed an M.A. at Harvard in 1926.
Cullen began writing and publishing poetry in the early 1920s while still a college undergraduate, and published widely in both African American oriented magazines and mainstream venues like Poetry. His first published book of poetry, Color, was published in the fall of 1925, and contains several landmark poems, including "Heritage," Incident," and "Yet Do I Marvel." The collection was very well-received by both the African American and mainstream white press. The illustrations in later editions of this book, and in other books of poetry by Countee Cullen published in the 1920s, were by Charles Cullen, a white graphic artist of no relation to Countee Cullen.
Notably, in 1925 Cullen also won two important literary prizes sponsored by African American magazines. In May 1925, Cullen was awarded second prize for Opportunity's poetry contest (for "For One Who Said Me Nay"). Later, Cullen would join the editorial staff of Opportunity, and publish a regular column there on arts and literature (1925-1927). In October 1925, Cullen also won first prize in the Spingarn Prize competition sponsored by The Crisis. As part of that contest, two of Cullen's poems were printed in the October, 1925 issue of the magazine along with a photograph of the young poet.
After Color, Cullen soon published The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), Copper Sun (1927), and The Black Christ (1929); these works are presently still in copyright. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928, which allowed him to travel back and forth between France and the U.S. between 1928 and 1934. (In this respect his career bears some similarities to writers like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, who also traveled extensively in Europe early in their careers.) Cullen also published an important anthology of poetry by Black writers in 1927, Caroling Dusk: an Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, which contained poems by a large range of emerging writers, some of whom were too young to have appeared in earlier Harlem Renaissance anthologies.
Cullen is thought to have been gay, though he was married to women twice and the documentation of his relationships with men is somewhat sketchy. Cullen married Yolande Du Bois, daughter of the noted scholar and author W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1928, but the marriage was unsuccessful and the two were divorced in 1930. Later, Cullen married Ida Roberson.
Poems by Countee Cullen in "The New Negro" (1925)
TO A BROWN GIRL
What if his glance is bold and free,
His mouth the lash of whips?
So should the eyes of lovers be,
And so a lover’s lips.
What if no puritanic strain
Confines him to the nice?
He will not pass this way again
Nor hunger for you twice.
Since in the end consort together
Magdalen and Mary,
Youth is the time for careless weather;
Later, lass, be wary.
TO A BROWN BOY
That brown girl’s swagger gives a twitch
To beauty like a queen;
Lad, never dam your body’s itch
When loveliness is seen.
For there is ample room for bliss
In pride in clean, brown limbs,
And lips know better how to kiss
Than how to raise white hymns.
And when your body’s death gives birth
To soil for spring to crown,
Men will not ask if that rare earth
Was white flesh once, or brown.
Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day
The sable pride of night.
From lowered blinds the dark folk stare
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.
Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
This is not water running here,
These thick rebellious streams
That hurtle flesh and bone past fear
Down alleyways of dreams.
This is a wine that must flow on
Not caring how or where,
So it has ways to flow upon
Where song is in the air.
So it can woo an artful flute
With loose, elastic lips,
Its measurement of joy compute
With blithe, ecstatic hips.
SHE OF THE DANCING FEET SINGS
And what would I do in heaven, pray,
Me with my dancing feet,
And limbs like apple boughs that sway
When the gusty rain winds beat?
And how would I thrive in a perfect place
Where dancing would be sin,
With not a man to love my face,
Nor an arm to hold me in?
The seraphs and the cherubim
Would be too proud to bend
To sing the faery tunes that brim
My heart from end to end.
The wistful angels down in hell
Will smile to see my face,
And understand, because they fell
From that all-perfect place.
A BROWN GIRL DEAD
With two white roses on her breasts,
White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;
Lord Death has found her sweet.
Her mother pawned her wedding ring
To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing
To see herself to-night.
FRUIT OF THE FLOWER
My father is a quiet man
With sober, steady ways;
For simile, a folded fan;
His nights are like his days.
My mother’s life is puritan,
No hint of cavalier,
A pool so calm you’re sure it can
Have little depth to fear.
And yet my father’s eyes can boast
How full his life has been;
There haunts them yet the languid ghost
Of some still sacred sin.
And though my mother chants of God,
And of the mystic river,
I’ve seen a bit of checkered sod
Set all her flesh aquiver.
Why should he deem it pure mischance
A son of his is fain
To do a naked tribal dance
Each time he hears the rain?
Why should she think it devil’s art
That all my songs should be
Of love and lovers, broken heart,
And wild sweet agony?
Who plants a seed begets a bud,
Extract of that same root;
Why marvel at the hectic blood
That flushes this wild fruit?
IN MEMORY OF COLONEL CHARLES YOUNG
Along the shore the tall, thin grass
That fringes that dark river,
While sinuously soft feet pass,
Begins to bleed and quiver.
The great dark voice breaks with a sob
Across the womb of night;
Above your grave the tom-toms throb,
And the hills are weird with light.
The great dark heart is like a well
Drained bitter by the sky,
And all the honeyed lies they tell
Come there to thirst and die.
No lie is strong enough to kill
The roots that work below;
From your rich dust and slaughtered will
A tree with tongues will grow.