blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

About Countee Cullen's Life and Career

Gerald Early

Poet, anthologist, novelist, translator, children's writer, and playwright, Countee Cullen is something of a mysterious figure. He was born 30 March 1903, but it has been difficult for scholars to place exactly where he was born, with whom he spent the very earliest years of his childhood, and where he spent them. New York City and Baltimore have been given as birthplaces. Cullen himself, on his college transcript at New York University, lists Louisville, Kentucky, as his place of birth. A few years later, when he had achieved considerable literary fame during the era known as the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance, he was to assert that his birthplace was New York City, which he continued to claim for the rest of his life. Cullen’s second wife, Ida, and some of his closest friends, including Langston Hughes and Harold Jackman, said that Cullen was born in Louisville. As James Weldon Johnson wrote of Cullen in The Book of American Negro Poetry (rev. ed., 1931): "There is not much to say about these earlier years of Cullen--unless he himself should say it." And Cullen--revealing a temperament that was not exactly secretive but private, less a matter of modesty than a tendency toward being encoded and tactful--never in his life saidcullenc.jpg (6902 bytes) anything more clarifying.

Sometime before 1918, Cullen was adopted by the Reverend Frederick A. and Carolyn Belle (Mitchell) Cullen. It is impossible to state with certainty how old Cullen was when he was adopted or how long he knew the Cullens before he was adopted. Apparently he went by the name of Countee Porter until 1918. By 1921 he became Countee P. Cullen and eventually just Countee Cullen. According to Harold Jackman, Cullen's adoption was never "official." That is to say it was never consummated through proper state-agency channels. Indeed, it is difficult to know if Cullen was ever legally an orphan at any stage in his childhood.

Frederick Cullen was a pioneer black activist minister. He established his Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in a storefront mission upon his arrival in New York City in 1902, and in 1924 moved the Church to the site of a former white church in Harlem where he could boast of a membership of more than twenty-five hundred. Countee Cullen himself stated in Caroling Dusk (1927) that he was "reared in the conservative atmosphere of a Methodist parsonage," and it is clear that his foster father was a particularly strong influence. The two men were very close, often traveling abroad together. But as Cullen evidences a decided unease in his poetry over his strong and conservative Christian training and the attraction of his pagan inclinations, his feelings about his father may have been somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, Frederick Cullen was a puritanical Christian patriarch, and Cullen was never remotely that in his life. On the other hand, it has been suggested that Frederick Cullen was also something of an effeminate man. (He was dressed in girl's clothing by his poverty-stricken mother well beyond the acceptable boyhood age for such transvestism.) That Cullen was homosexual or of a decidedly ambiguous sexual nature may also be attributable to his foster father's contrary influence as both fire-breathing Christian and latent homosexual.

Cullen was an outstanding student at DeWitt Clinton High School (1918-1921). He edited the school's newspaper, assisted in editing the literary magazine, Magpie, and began to write poetry that achieved notice. While in high school Cullen won his first contest, a citywide competition, with the poem "I Have a Rendezvous with Life," a nonracial poem inspired by Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." At New York University (1921-1925), he wrote most of the poems for his first three volumes: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). If any event signaled the coming of the Harlem Renaissance, it was the precocious success of this rather shy black boy who, more than any other black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure. Here was a black man with considerable academic training who could, in effect, write "white" verse-ballads, sonnets, quatrains, and the like--much in the manner of Keats and the British Romantics, (albeit, on more than one occasion, tinged with racial concerns) with genuine skill and compelling power. He was certainly not the first Negro to attempt to write such verse but he was first to do so with such extensive education and with such a complete understanding of himself as a poet. Only two other black American poets before Cullen could be taken so seriously as self-consciously considered and proficient poets: Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. If the aim of the Harlem Renaissance was, in part, the reinvention of the native-born Negro as a being who can be assimilated while decidedly retaining something called "a racial self-consciousness," then Cullen fit the bill. If "I Have a Rendezvous with Life" was the opening salvo in the making of Culln's literary reputation, then the 1924 publication of "Shroud of Color" in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury confirmed the advent of the black boy wonder as one of the most exciting American poets on the scene. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from NYU, Cullen earned a masters degree in English and French from Harvard (1925-1927). Between high school and his graduation from Harvard, Cullen was the most popular black poet and virtually the most popular black literary figure in America. One of Cullen's poems and his popular column in Opportunity inspired A’Leila Walker--heiress of Madame C. J. Walker's hair-care products fortune and owner of a salon where the black and white literati gathered in the late 1920s--to name her salon "The Dark Tower."

Cullen won more major literary prizes than any other black writer of the 1920s: first prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry contest in 1925, Poetry magazine's John Reed Memorial Prize, the Amy Spingarn Award of the Crisis magazine, second prize in Opportunity magazine's first poetry contest, and second prize in the poetry contest of Palms. In addition, he was the second black to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Cullen was also at the center of one of the major social events of the Harlem Renaissance: On 9 April 1928 he married Yolande Du Bois, only child of W E. B. Du Bois, in one of the most lavish weddings in black New York history. This wedding was to symbolize the union of the grand black intellectual patriarch and the new breed of younger Negroes who were responsible for much of the excitement of the Renaissance. It was an apt meshing of personalities as Cullen and Du Bois were both conservative by nature and ardent traditionalists. That the marriage turned out so disastrously and ended so quickly (they divorced in 1930) probably adversely affected Cullen, who remarried in 1940. In 1929, Cullen published The Black Christ and Other Poems to less than his accustomed glowing reviews. He was bitterly disappointed that The Black Christ, his longest and in many respects most complicated poem, was considered by most critics and reviewers to be his weakest and least distinguished.

From the 1930s until his death, Cullen wrote a great deal less, partly hampered by his job as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High. (His most famous student was James Baldwin.) But he wrote noteworthy, even significant work in a number of genres. His novel One Way to Heaven, published in 1934, rates as one of the better black satires and is one of the three important fictional retrospectives of the Harlem Renaissance, the others being Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring and George S. Schuyler's Black No More. Cullen's The Medea is the first major translation of a classical work by a twentieth-century black American writer. Cullen's contributions to children's literature, The Lost Zoo and *Christopher Cat, are among the more clever and engaging books of children's verse, written at a time when there was not much published in this area by black writers. He also completed perhaps some of his best, certainly some of his more darkly complex, sonnets. He was also working on a musical with Arna Bontemps called St. Louis Woman (based on Bontemps's novel God Sends Sunday) at the time of his death from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on 9 January 1946.

For many years after his death, Cullen's reputation was eclipsed by that of other Harlem Renaissance writers, particularly Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and his work had gone out of print. In the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in Cullen's life and work and his writings are being reissued.

See: Blanche E. Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negor Renaissance, 1966. Margaret Perry, A Bio-Bibliography of Countee P. Cullen, 1903-1946, 1966. Arna Bontemps, ed., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, 1972. Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960, 1974. Alan R. Shucard, Countee Cullen, 1984. Gerald Early, ed., My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, 1991.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Clifton H. Johnson

Cullen, Countee (30 May 1903?-9 Jan. 1946), poet and playwright, was the son of Elizabeth Thomas Lucas. The name of his father is not known. The place of his birth has been variously cited as Louisville, Kentucky, New York City, and Baltimore, Maryland. Although in later years Cullen claimed to have been born in New York City, it probably was Louisville, which he consistently named as his birthplace in his youth and which he wrote on his registration form for New York University. His mother died in Louisville in 1940.

In 1916 Cullen was enrolled in Public School Number 27 in the Bronx, New York, under the name of Countee L. Porter, with no accent on the first "e." At that time he was living with Amanda Porter, who generally is assumed to have been his grandmother. Shortly after she died in October 1917, Countee went to live with the Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, and his wife, the former Carolyn Belle Mitchell. Countee was never formally adopted by the Cullens, but he later claimed them as his natural parents and in 1918 assumed the name Countée P. (Porter) Cullen. In 1925 he dropped the middle initial.

Cullen was an outstanding student in every school he attended. He entered the respected, almost exclusively white, Dewitt Clinton High School for boys in Manhattan in 1918. He became a member of the Arista honor society, and in his senior year he received the Magpie Cup in recognition of his achievements. He served as vice president of the senior class and was associate editor of the 1921 Magpie, the school's literary magazine, and editor of the Clinton News. He won an oratorical contest sponsored by the film actor Douglas Fairbanks and served as treasurer of the Inter-High School Poetry Society and as chairperson of the Senior Publications Committee. His poetry appeared regularly in school publications and he received wider public recognition in 1921 when his poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Life," won first prize in a citywide contest sponsored by the Empire Federation of Women's Clubs. At New York University, which Cullen attended on a New York State Regents scholarship, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and received a bachelor's degree in 1925. His poems were published frequently in the school magazine, The Arch, of which he eventually became poetry editor. In 1926 he received a master's degree from Harvard University and won the Crisis magazine award in poetry.

When Cullen's first collection of poetry, Color, was published in 1925 during his senior year at New York University, he had already achieved national fame. His poems had been published in Bookman, American Mercury, Harper's, Century, Nation, Poetry, Crisis, the Messenger, Palms, and Opportunity. He had won second prize in 1923 in the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Contest sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. He placed second in that contest again in 1924 but won first prize in 1925, when he also won the John Reed Memorial Prize awarded by Poetry magazine.

Color received universal critical acclaim. Alain Locke wrote in Opportunity (Jan. 1926): "Ladies and Gentlemen! A genius! Posterity will laugh at us if we do not proclaim him now. COLOR transcends all of the limiting qualifications that might be brought forward if it were merely a work of talent." The volume contains epitaphs, only two of which could be considered racial; love poems; and poems on other traditional subjects. But the significant theme--as the title implies--was race, and it was the poems dealing with racial subjects that captured the attention of the critics. Cullen was praised for portraying the experience of African Americans in the vocabulary and poetic forms of the classical tradition but with a personal intimacy. His second volume of poetry, Copper Sun, published in 1927 also by Harper and Brothers (the publisher of all his books), won first prize in literature from the Harmon Foundation. There are fewer racial poems in this collection than in Color, however, they express an anger that was not so pronounced in the earlier volume. The majority of the poems in Copper Sun deal with life and love and other traditional themes of nineteenth-century poetry.

Cullen edited the October 1926 special issue of Palms devoted to African-American poets, and he collected and edited Caroling Dusk in 1927, an anthology of poetry by African Americans. Cullen was by this time generally recognized by critics and the public as the leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Gerald Early in My Soul's High Song (1991), Cullen's collected writings, said, "He was, indeed, a boy wonder, a young handsome black Ariel ascending, a boyish, brown-skinned titan who, in the early and mid-twenties, embodied many of the hopes, aspirations, and maturing expressive possibilities of his people."

Cullen said that he wanted to be known as a poet, not a "Negro poet." This did not affect his popularity, although some Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes, interpreted this to mean that he wanted to deny his race, an interpretation endorsed by some later scholars. A reading of his poetry reveals this view to be unfounded. In fact his major poems, and most of those still being printed in anthologies, have racial themes. Cullen expounded his view in the Brooklyn Eagle (10 Feb. 1924):

If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it. But that is another matter.

From 1926 to 1928, Cullen was assistant editor to Charles S. Johnson of Opportunity (subtitled "A Journal of Negro Life") for which he also wrote a feature column, "The Dark Tower." On the one hand, in his reviews and commentaries, he called upon African-American writers to create a representative and respectable race literature, and on the other insisted that the African-American artist should not be bound by race or restricted to racial themes.

The year 1928 was a watershed for Cullen. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Paris, the third volume of his poetry, The Ballad of a Brown Girl, was published, and, after a long courtship, he married Nina Yolande Du Bois. Her father, W. E. B. Du Bois, the exponent of the "Talented Tenth" concept, rejoiced at bringing the young genius into his family. The wedding, performed by Cullen's foster father, was the social event of the decade in Harlem. After a brief honeymoon in Philadelphia, Cullen left for Paris and was soon joined by his bride. The couple experienced difficulties from the beginning. Finally, after informing her father that Cullen had confessed that he was sexually attracted to men, Nina Yolande sued for divorce, which was obtained in Paris in 1930.

Cullen continued to write and publish after 1928, but his works were no longer universally acclaimed. The Black Christ and Other Poems, completed under the Guggenheim Fellowship, was published in 1929 while he was abroad. His only novel, One Way to Heaven, was published in 1932, and The Medea and Some Poems in 1935. He wrote two books for juveniles, The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942). His stage adaptation of One Way to Heaven was produced by several amateur and professional theater groups but remained one of his several unpublished plays. Critics gave these works mixed reviews at best.

Cullen's reputation as a writer rests on his poetry. His novel is not an important work, and it received little attention from the critics. He rejected so-called jazz and free-style as inappropriate forms of poetic expression. He was a romantic lyric poet and a great admirer of John Keats and Edna St. Vincent Millay. While his arch traditionalism and lack of originality in style had been seen in Color as minor flaws, they came to be viewed as major deficiencies in his later works.

Cullen's fall from grace with the critics had little effect on his popularity. He remained much in demand for lectures and readings by both white and black groups. In 1931 alone he read his poetry and lectured in various institutions in seventeen states and Canada. Some of his poems were set to music by Charles Marsh, Virgil Thomson, William Schuman, William Lawrence, Margaret Bonds, Clarence Cameron White, Emerson Whithorne, and Noel DaCosta. However, even though he continued to live with his foster father, royalties and lecture fees were insufficient income for subsistence. He searched for academic positions and was offered professorships at Sam Huston College (named for an Iowa farmer, not the Texas senator), Dillard University, Fisk University, Tougaloo College, and West Virginia State College. There is no clear explanation of why he did not accept any of the positions. In 1932 he became a substitute teacher in New York public schools and became a full-time teacher of English and French at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in 1934, a position he held until his death (caused by complications of high blood pressure) in New York City, and where he taught and inspired the future novelist and essayist James Baldwin.

Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson in 1940, and they apparently enjoyed a happy married life. Cullen's chief creative interest during the last year of his life was in writing the script for St. Louis Woman, a musical based on Arna Bontemps's novel God Sends Sunday. With music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, St. Louis Woman opened on Broadway on 30 March 1946. Although the production was opposed by Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and some other civil rights activists as an unfavorable representation of African Americans, it ran for four months and was revived several times by amateurs and one professional group between 1959 and 1980.

On These I Stand, a collection of poems that Cullen had selected as his best, was published posthumously in 1947. The 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library was named for Cullen in 1951, and a public school in New York City and one in Chicago also bear his name. For a few brief years Cullen was the most celebrated African-American writer in the nation and by many accounts is considered one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance.


Countée Cullen's personal papers (1921-1969, c. 4,400 manuscripts and photographs and thirty-nine volumes) are in the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; microfilm copies of that collection are in other repositories. The James Weldon Johnson Collection in Beinecke Library at Yale University contains more than 900 letters written by and to Cullen and other writings by and about him. One of the best biographies is Michael L. Lomax, "Countee Cullen: From the Dark Tower" (Ph.D. diss., Emory Univ., 1984). Also valuable is the biographical introduction to My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Gerald Early (1991). This volume contains reprints of all Cullen's published books except Caroling Dusk, The Lost Zoo, My Lives and How I Lost Them, and On These I Stand; it also contains some of Cullen's uncollected poems, speeches, and essays. See also Blanche E. Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance (1966); Margaret Perry, A Bio-Bibliography of Countée P. Cullen, 1903-1946 (1971); and Alan R. Shucard, Countee Cullen (1984), for biographical studies. For critical studies of Cullen's poetry, see Houston A. Baker, Jr., "A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen," in his Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic (1988), pp. 45-87; Isaac William Brumfield, "Race Consciousness in the Poetry and Fiction of Countee Cullen" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, 1977); Nicholas Canaday, Jr., "Major Themes in the Poetry of Countee Cullen," in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, ed. Arna Bontemps (1972), pp. 103-25; Eugenia W. Collier, "I Do Not Marvel, Countee Cullen," in Modern Black Poets, ed. Donald B. Gibson (1973), pp. 69-83; Arthur P. Davis, "The Alien-and-Exile Theme in Countee Cullen's Racial Poems," Phylon 14 (Fourth Quarter 1953): 390-400; Robert E. Fennell, "The Death Figure in Countee Cullen's Poetry" (M.A. thesis, Howard Univ., 1970); and David Kirby, "Countee Cullen's Heritage: A Black Waste Land," South Atlantic Bulletin 4 (1971): 14-20. Of value also is James Baldwin, "Rendezvous with Life: An Interview with Countee Cullen," Magpie 26 (Winter 1942): 19-21. For an extensive discussion of Cullen's impact on Baldwin, see David Leeming, Baldwin (1994). Obituaries and related articles are in the New York Herald Tribune, 10 Jan. 1946; the New York Times, 10 and 12 Jan. 1946, and the Negro History Bulletin 14 (Feb. 1946): 98.

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 11:27:39 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Return to Countee Cullen