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Countee Cullen

Countee LeRoy Cullen
May 30, 1903 – January 9, 1946
Notable: Poet, author, & playwright
Nationality: American

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While Countee LeRoy Porter’s date of birth is known, his place of birth is unclear. Most sources cite Louisville, Kentucky as being most likely but New York City and Baltimore, Maryland are also possibilities. Details about the identity of his parents are also unclear though it is believed that they along with his brother died. By the age of nine, Porter was living in New York City under the care of Amanda Porter, who is believed to have been his paternal grandmother. When she died in 1917 or 1918, Porter was unofficially adopted by Carolyn Belle and Frederick Asbury Cullen.

Frederick was a reverend, pastor of the local Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, and president of the Harlem NAACP branch. Carolyn was a classically trained singer and musician. Upon becoming a member of the Cullen family, Countee joined the ranks of Harlem’s Black middle class. His adoptive parents were conservative racially conscious people deeply involved with local Black politics and culture.

The couple found Cullen to be a pleasant and well-behaved young man who showed early signs of potential. While the Cullen household and Salem’s environments were conservative and religious, they offered Cullen a foundation of stability that allowed him to thrive. He was given access to the reverend’s library as he was expected to study but also had the opportunity to explore literature.

Cullen was enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School, a well-respected, predominantly White, all-boys public school where he distinguished himself as a great student. Good grades resulted in Cullen becoming a member of the honor society and his writing skills helped him as editor of the school’s newspaper and magazine. His burgeoning talent as a poet won a citywide poetry competition.

Cullen continued his academic excellence as an undergrad at New York University. During that time his poems were regularly published in magazines such as The Crisis, Opportunity, and Harper’s. He placed first or second in several local and national poetry competitions. 1925 was a significant year as Cullen completed his bachelor’s degree with honors, won the national Witter Bynner Poetry Contest, and published Color his first volume of poetry.

Color was released during the Harlem Renaissance and received a great deal of praise. But it stood apart from the work of other Black poets of the time. Cullen adhered to the more traditional forms of poetry while other poets were influenced by the rhythm and flow of jazz. He was also part of the school of thought that Black art should reflect Black people in the most positive and presentable light. At times Cullen shied away from and recommended that other Black artists shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of Black life.

In a sense, Cullen straddled two different worlds. He came of age in Harlem, the Black mecca of the time. But received his formal education at predominantly White institutions. Many of the poems within Color focused on race and racial issues but Cullen wished to be viewed as “a poet and not a Negro poet”. Yet he commended and in turn, received praise from some of his Black contemporaries.

Cullen’s views on art, particularly poetry, were heavily influenced by his time in White environments and his study of White artists. He believed art could be a tool for bringing the races together but that Black artists should work within the traditional framework of English poetry. His rationale was that as the Black American poetry tradition took shape it would benefit more from English and American traditions rather than any African influences.

In 1926, Cullen obtained an MA in English from Harvard and accepted an editorial position at Opportunity magazine. Two years later, Cullen won a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed him to live and work in France. This coincided with Cullen’s marriage to W.E.B. DuBois’ daughter, Nina Yolande. The union of members of two of Harlem’s most elite families resulted in a spectacular wedding. Unfortunately, the marriage barely lasted a year.

Over the next few years, Cullen published additional volumes of poetry though they would be criticized for lacking the energy of his first. By the mid-1930s, Cullen’s poetry output slowed and his star dimmed. He found work teaching French at a junior high school. But Cullen continued to write expanding beyond poetry to a novel and St. Louis Woman, a musical that showed some promise.

Unfortunately, plans for the musical’s Broadway and movie productions were temporarily derailed. In an ironic twist, Walter White, then head of the NAACP criticized the play for negatively depicting unpleasant aspects of Black life. This mirrored Cullen’s earlier criticisms of Black poets who were doing the same.

Countee Cullen died on January 9, 1946, from uremia and high blood pressure. Three months after his death, St. Louis Woman made its debut and propelled Pearl Bailey into stardom. Cullen was survived by his second wife, Ida Roberson, though it is believed that he might have been gay.

Sources

  1. “Countee Cullen.” 2022. Poets.Org. Academy of American Poets. June 29, 2022. https://poets.org/poet/countee-cullen.
  2. “Countee Cullen.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/countee-cullen.
  3. “Countee Cullen: Biography, Poet, Playwright, Life, Facts.” 2023. Biography.Com. Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. August 16, 2023https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/countee-cullen.
  4. “Cullen, Countee 1903–1946.” 2023. Encyclopedia.Com. Encyclopedia.com. November 30, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/american-literature-biographies/countee-cullen.
  5. Singh, Amardeep. n.d. “Countee Cullen: Biography and a Collection of Poems.” African American Poetry (1870-1927): A Digital Anthology. Accessed November 29, 2023. https://scalar.lehigh.edu/african-american-poetry-a-digital-anthology/countee-cullen-author-page.
  6. Summers, Martin. 2020. “Countee Cullen (1903-1946).” Blackpast.Org. December 4, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/cullen-countee-1903-1946-0/.

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