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On Race, Homosexuality, and Visual and Verbal Androgyny in Cullen's Work

James Smethurst

One of the most interesting aspects of many of these openly homoerotic poems is the linking of explicit homoeroticism with a miscegenation of black and white. Perhaps Cullen's purpose in making the couples inter-racial was to heighten a sense of transgressive sex that also obscured something of the nature of the real social transgression by figuring sexuality within a racial discourse. These conflicted relationships are filled with anguish, bitterness and disappointment and much of the sexual conflict is displaced into racial conflict, but not to the extent that the homoerotic content of the poem becomes completely obscured. (Though perhaps it is obscured enough to evade the attention of those readers who for various reasons would prefer not to find it.)

This conflation of categories of race and sexuality into is further heightened by the illustrations of Charles Cullen (no relation to the poet) whose (literally) black and white, male and female figures frame the text in Countee Cullen's collections The Black Christ and Other Poems and Copper Sun, and his The Ballad of a Brown Girl. Charles Cullen’s female figures are fairly normative representations of women. However, the "male" figures are quite androgynous, if not actually featureless. There is also a peculiar sort of racial androgyny. The black figures are clearly marked as African-American--even the relatively featureless male figures are generally typed by kinky hair or flat noses. However, the white figures, particularly the white male figures, are rendered so that the features that do appear are also typically "black." In fact, when viewed with respect to the particular poems they accompany, it is clear that these white figures often do represent African-Americans. Thus, the illustrations seem to set rigid oppositions of black/white, male/female, but they also set up a frame of a racially and sexually androgynous eroticism that is both male and bi-sexual, where racial and sexual difference are displaced into one another or obscure the other.

This racial and sexual androgyny of Charles Cullen's illustrations frames a similar androgyny in Countee Cullen’s poetry, particularly in The Black Christ and Other Poems. As is often pointed out by critics, much of Cullen's love poetry is not clearly marked by racial signs. This lack is usually interpreted as an attempt by Cullen to be "universal," which is sometimes extended into a desire to be white or at least not black. However, it is worth pointing out that most of Cullen’s first person love lyrics not only lack racial markers, but are also unmarked as to gender as well. In short, these poems, often filled with loss, confusion, regret and/or resentment, allow space for almost any sort of romantic pairing possible. When seen within the frame of Charles Cullen's illustrations, which both foreground and collapse together categories of race and gender, these poems are far from "white" or "universal" in some abstract sense, but instead quite personal and quite specific with regard to the condition of a gay black man in the early 20th century.

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