African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Note on "Judas iscariot" by Countee Cullen

Originally published in the collection Color in 1925, this poem by Countee Cullen deals with Judas Iscariot, a figure in the New Testament who is thought to have betrayed Christ. The story, recounted fairly closely in Cullen's poem, is that when officers came to arrest Christ, Judas kissed him and said "Rabbi" to indicate to the officers the identity of the person they were looking for. (In the poem, see the lines: "So Judas took the sorry part / Went out and spoke the word.")

In some Gospels, he received 30 silver coins for his actions, and later died by suicide after coming to regret the part he had played. (In the poem: "Where, bright and damned, the monstrous weight / Of thirty white coins lay.") The non-canonical Gnostic Gospel of Judas also indicates he may have engaged in the betrayal at Christ's own direction; this is also suggested in Cullen's poem.

Cullen's version of Judas in this poem clearly aims to humanize Judas and his actions, and underlines the possibility that Judas was acting at Christ's own direction and therefore might likely have achieved salvation. The larger picture is that of saintly devotion to Christ's demands -- even if the world may misintepret and come to "scorn your name." 

--Amardeep Singh 

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