A Poet Unafraid to Confront Art and Race

Countée Cullen was an unsung artist who valued poetic tradition even while addressing the issues.

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(The Root) -- We may never know for sure when and where Countée Cullen was born. He listed his birth date as May 30, 1903, and his birthplace variously as Louisville, Ky., and New York City. It was likely the former, however, since his mother, Elizabeth Lucas, died in Louisville in 1940. Cullen attended her funeral but by all accounts never mentioned her to any of his friends.

Census records for 1910 show that he lived in New York City with a couple who were almost certainly his grandparents. By his 16th birthday, in any case, Cullen was adopted into the home of the Rev. Frederick A. Cullen, then the pastor of the Salem Methodist Church, one of Harlem's largest. He later enrolled in a New York City public high school, DeWitt Clinton, then located in midtown Manhattan.

A diligent student and an aspiring poet, he impressed his classmates, almost all of whom were white, and befriended them with his shy manners. The classmates took reflected pleasure in all the poetry contests -- some of them national in scope -- in which he won prizes. His prize winning continued throughout his days at New York University, and his fame spread beyond Harlem to the country at large.

His first book of poems, Color, appeared to widespread reviews in 1925. That year he graduated from NYU and went on to a year's study at Harvard. The title of the book was a clear signal that Cullen meant never to hide his racial identity, and he later pointed out that each of his subsequent books included a section of poems dedicated to questions of race.

Cullen decided early on to confront the tangled issues of art -- which many felt had to be universal, and thus "beyond" the artist's specific identity -- and race, which he acknowledged as one of his unignorable subjects. In fact, he took pride in his identity and wrote poems -- such as "Heritage," "Incident" and "The Dark Tower" -- that recorded with acidic detail the depredations and insults caused by racist attitudes.

However, Cullen also deeply valued poetic tradition, feeling that lyric poetry, in fact, contained universal themes. This led some to see him as an apologizer. Even Langston Hughes, his friend and fellow poet, accused him of wanting to be white (without specifically naming Cullen).

That perception led some to regard him as the antipode to Hughes, and would, especially after his death, diminish his reputation. Still, a famous Harlem literary salon was called the Dark Tower after Cullen's poem, and its entranceway had that poem painted on the wall, opposite a poem by Hughes.

"The Dark Tower" was also the title of Cullen's much-noticed column for Opportunity magazine, where he was an associate editor under Charles S. Johnson, a fervent supporter. Similar support came from many notables, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson. The high point of his success may have come when he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to spend a year in Paris (1928-1929), a city he greatly admired and to which he would return almost every summer.

One of his most famous poems, "Heritage" (1925), opens with the line, "What is Africa to me?" Richly ambiguous about his emotional ties, Cullen's poem has been read as a struggle against acknowledging the race's origins, while some have read it as a celebration, although conflicted, of powerful imaginings. "The Shroud of Color" (1924) deals with similar conflicts and ambiguities and uses the traditional form of a Romantic poet engaged in a dreamlike quest that transcends earthly solutions.

Cullen's struggle with religious issues also forms the heart of "The Dark Christ" (1929), a folklike narrative with an unusual view of lynching; he used this as the title poem of his third volume. He became the first African American to translate a classical Greek tragedy, which he published in The Medea and Some Poems (1935), his final book of poetry.