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Cullen on African Americans, Literary Tradition, and Modernity

Madame is of the opinion that little of artistic merit is now being produced in America except that which is being done by Negroes; the American short story writers and novelists have run out of material; the American poets are monotonous and repetitious; but the Negro alone has life and action and material unplumbed out of which the new literature is to come. In vain I mention some names: Frost and Robinson and Millay; Anderson and Cather and O'Neill; timidly I venture the opinion that these are names before whom it is just to bow the knee, and that their ore does not seem to have run out. Madame makes me feel that I am recreant, disloyal, a literary heretic, a blind man stumbling along in the light of the new day. Just archly enough not to offend me, yet accusingly, she turns to one of my poems, and indicts me for my love of Keats, for concerning myself with names like Endymion and Lancelot and Jupiter. It is on the tip of my tongue to ask why Keats himself should have concerned himself with themes like Endymion and Hyperion, but I am drinking Madame’s tea. . . . Later, out in the cool Parisian air, I ponder where all this will lead us. Must we, willy-nilly, be forced into writing of nothing but the old atavistic urges, the more savage and none too beautiful aspects of out lives? May we not chant a hymn to the Sun God if we will, create a bit of phantasy in which not a spiritual or blues appears, write a tract defending Christianity though its practitioners aid us so little in our argument; in short do, write, create, what we will, our only concern being that we do it well and with all the power that is within us? Ah, Madame, I have drunk your tea and read your book and thought you a charming hostess, but I have not been converted.

From My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

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