Among the most accomplished of the ambiguous poems is Countee Cullens elegant and fussy "Tableau", which celebrates the sight of a black boy and a white boy crossing the street, arm in arm, followed by disapproving glances. The poem offers a perfectly harmonized counterpoint of the two themes, sexuality and race, in a manner which, while saying nothing explicitly gay to the inattentive reader, nevertheless broaches the scandalous topic of homosexual miscegenation without subterfuge or disguise. To be so discreetly indiscreet is an excellent feat of anti-homophobic irony only rarely achieve in the pre-Stonewall conditions which provoked it. No amount of paraphrase can do it justice. The poem manages to negotiate its passage between safety and risk in a manner which seems almost as light as it is actually solid and secure.
From Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. New York: Haworth Press, 1993.
Contemporary identity politics is a confusing and complicated game, played in deadly earnest. Once we have begun to consider how Countee Cullen articulated his poetry with regard to race, we inevitably hear the following footsteps . . . "Race, class, gender." And we want to know how Cullens poetry is implicated in other sorts of politics than those out in the open in Harlem dialogues over the "New Negro." A reasonably complete accounting of Cullens work to satisfy such demands will have to wait for a study with great biographical and historical scope, one which focuses on his intentions and specifically on his formalist poetics as they shape and are shaped by his ideas about race politics, and the covert politics of homosexuality in a milieu anxious at once for (or about) independence from and acceptance by wider white audiences. But gender politics in his work does demand attention even so, given recent claims of Cullens homosexuality.
Considering Cullens poetics as a matter of queer gender politics as well as one of race politics adds a notable dimension to our reading of his poems. An excellent example that poses the issues pointedly is "Tableau."
We should read this poem three times. In our first reading, the shock to the sensibilities of the "fair folk" and "dark folk" is summed up in the way the visual sign, the two boys walk arm in arm, the lightning, precedes the thunder of their actions reverberations. In our second reading, queer politics makes us wonder about certain details: Both boys are attractive, "golden splendor" and "sable pride." The adjective "indignant" is ambiguous in its application: are the staring dark folk or the talking white folk indignant? Or both? If both, could they be indignant more at the display of male to male affectionate touching, the arm in arm walk, only compounded in its outrage by the crossing of the racial line? And then does the "path of thunder" suggest something of the electric connection between two lovers as much as the shock their collocation delivers to the viewers? In our third reading, we should realize that the hints toward a queer plot in the poem are small indeed. In fact the possibility of an intended double audience, an inside story for the queer audience and a more obvious story for those not sensitive to the queer possibility, is the most we can do toward "queering" this poem. Thus, the "queer" meaning of the poem does not undercut but rather supplements the "straight" "black" meaning, which itself hints only distantly at debates among Harlem Renaissance cultural contributors over double-audience (black/white) address of the work of artby the single allusion to W. E. B. Duboiss The Souls of Black Folk, with the single word "folk," repeated perhaps to draw attention to it and the allusion. (And especially considering that the case argued for Cullens homosexuality is hinged fundamentally on the swift and "surprising" failure and annulment of Cullens marriage to Duboises daughter.)
Similarly, were we to undertake to nuance Cullens debate with Langston Hughes over what constitutes a "proper" African American poetics, while we would need to untangle how Cullens sexual preferences might inform his thinking, we would have the same task to do with Hughes, for the same attribution has been made about his identification. Thus, we could not easily attribute either Hughes essentialist black poetics or Cullens African American formalism to sexual difference, since both presumably faced the same difficulties in advancing a black homosexual identity in a Harlem Renaissance literary milieu.
from Vital Rhythms: Formalist Impulses in American Poetry, Chapter 4 "Agonizing Seeds: Countee Cullens African American Formalism"
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
"Tableau" (1925, 12) is a three quatrain poem about a bond of a golden white youth and a dark black youth, metaphorically day and night, and as deeply linked together. Their homoerotic, cross-racial love and/or friendship crosscuts many social assumptions and fixed groups. As the second quatrain tells us, both the spying and gossiping black and white detractors are scandalized at their concord. Answering the charge of an unnatural relationship, the poem works on stable natural metaphors in conventional phrases; lightning/thunder and day/night as tropes for their bond have the effect of justifying the relationship, for these natural twains are well known, unquestionably paired, and linguistically unremarkable.
The poem, a rich and determined statement, offers a political allegory, a spiritual allegory, a sexual and poetic allegory. The cross-race love (or friendship) evokes their critical violation of socially mandated paths and the actual subcultural spaces of cross-race, same-sex sexual meeting coded as marginal (as it may evoke a higher spiritual way with the word "cross"). Their Christological concord allows them to pass unscathed through a quagmire of angry looks. The evocation of the word for racial passing suggests the formation of a conglomerate racial identity (a new space for passing) fusing and merging the two races as one, in one sexual body. Indeed, even the title, meaning a striking scene with picturesque people, contains a deep metonym for "tablet" and (with the lightning and thunder of the end) suggests a new law, or a scene of judgment. The homoerotic content is used powerfully to establish racial equipoise in a new post-racialized space, a conglomerate interior title to poetic authority for the speaker of the enunciation.
From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Copyright © 2001 Cambridge University Press.
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