A Poet Unafraid to Confront Art and Race

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


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.

In addition to his books of poetry and two children’s books, Cullen wrote One Way to Heaven (1932), a novel of manners — acclaimed as one of the few of that time that depicted both high and low characters — featuring a number of Harlem figures faintly disguised. He also hoped for a Broadway success and pursued it by working long and hard with Arna Bontemps on a musical, St. Louis Woman (1946), based on a novel by Bontemps. It enjoyed success but unfortunately opened a few months after Cullen passed away.

Charles Molesworth is professor emeritus of English at Queens College, City University of New York. In 2012 he edited the essays of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press), and published And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen.

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