Cullen was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. This 1920s artistic movement produced the first large body of work in the United States written by African Americans. Cullen considered poetry raceless, although his "The Black Christ" took a racial theme, the lynching of a black youth for a crime he did not commit.
Cullen was very secretive about his life. According to different sources, he was born in Louisville, Kentucky or Baltimore, Maryland. Cullen was possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a woman named Mrs. Porter, who was probably his paternal grandmother. Cullen once said that he was born in New York City, but may not have meant it literally. Porter brought young Countee to Harlem when he was nine. She died in 1918.
At the age of 15, Cullen was adopted unofficially by the Reverend F.A. Cullen, minister of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the largest congregations of Harlem. Later Reverend Cullen became the head of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Countee Cullen's real mother did not contact him until he became famous in the 1920s.
As a schoolboy, Cullen won a city-wide poetry contest and saw his winning stanzas widely reprinted. With the help of Reverend Cullen, he attended the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School in Manhattan. After graduating, he entered New York University (NYU), where his works attracted critical attention.
Cullen's first collection of poems, Color (1925), was published in the same year he graduated from NYU. Written in a careful, traditional style, the work celebrated black beauty and deplored the effects of racism. The book included "Heritage" and "Incident", probably his most famous poems. "Yet Do I Marvel", about racial identity and injustice, showed the influence of the literary expression of William Wordsworth and William Blake, but its subject was far from the world of their Romantic sonnets. The poet accepts that there is God, and "God is good, well-meaning, kind", but he finds a contradiction of his own plight in a racist society: he is black and a poet.
Cullen's Color was a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement was centered in the cosmopolitan community of Harlem, in New York City. During the 1920s, a fresh generation of writers emerged, although a few were Harlem-born. Other leading figures included Alain Locke (The New Negro, 1925), James Weldon Johnson (Black Manhattan, 1930), Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, 1928), Langston Hughes (The Weary Blues, 1926), Zora Neale Hurston (Jonah's Gourd Vine, 1934), Wallace Thurman (Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life, 1929), Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923) and Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1935). The movement was accelerated by grants and scholarships and supported by such white writers as Carl Van Vechten.
A brilliant student, Cullen graduated from New York University Phi Beta Kappa. He attended Harvard, earning his masters degree in 1926. He worked as assistant editor for Opportunity magazine, where his column, "The Dark Tower", increased his literary reputation. Cullen's poetry collections The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) and Copper Sun (1927) explored similar themes as Color, but they were not so well received. Cullen's Guggenheim Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write abroad. He met Nina Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois, the leading black intellectual. At that time Yolande was involved romantically with a popular band leader. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen travelled back and forth between France and the United States.
By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. The title poem of The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) was criticized for the use of Christian religious imagery - Cullen compared the lynching of a black man to the crucification of Jesus.
Cullen married Yolanda DuBois in April 1928. The marriage was the social event of the decade, but the marriage did not fair well, and he divorced in 1930. It is widely said that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman was a significant factor in the divorce. Jackman was a teacher whom Van Vechten had used as a model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson, whom he had known for ten years.
As well as writing books himself, Cullen promoted the work of other black writers. But in the late 1920s Cullen's reputation as a poet waned. In 1932 appeared his only novel, One Way to Heaven, a social comedy of lower-class blacks and the bourgeoisie in New York City. From 1934 until the end of his life, he taught English, French, and creative writing at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City. During this period, he also wrote two works for young readers, The Lost Zoo (1940), poems about the animals who perished in the Flood, and My Lives and How I Lost Them, an autobiography of his cat. In the last years of his life, Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre. He worked with Bontemps to adapt her 1931 novel, God Sends Sunday into St. Louis Woman (1946, publ. 1971) for the musical stage. Its score was composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white. The Broadway musical, set in poor black neighborhood in St. Louis, was criticized by black intellectuals for creating a negative image of black Americans. Cullen also translated the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, which was published in 1935 as The Medea, and some poems with a collection of sonnets and short lyrics.
- Color (illustrated by Charles Cullen). New York: Harper, 1925; Arno Press, 1969; Ayer, 1993.
- Copper Sun (illustrated by Charles Cullen). New York: Harper, 1927.
- The Ballad of the Brown Girl: An old ballad retold (illustrated by Charles Cullen). New York: Harper, 1927.
- The Black Christ, and other poems (illustrated by Charles Cullen). New York: Harper, 1929.
- The Medea, and some other poems. New York: Harper, 1935.
- (illustrated by Joseph Low). Follett, 1969
- (illustrated by Brian Pinkney). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Burdett, 1992.
- On These I Stand: An anthology of the best poems of Countee Cullen. New York: Harper, 1947.
- Collected Poems Library of America, 2011. ISBN 9781598530834
- One Way to Heaven. New York: Harper, 1932; New York: AMS Press, 1975.
- The Third Fourth of July (one-act play, With Owen Dodson), published in Theatre Arts, 1946.
- St. Louis Woman (musical adaptation of Bontemps's novel God Sends Sunday; first produced at Martin Beck Theater in New York City, March 30, 1946), published in Black Theatre (edited by Lindsay Patterson). Dodd, 1971.
- The Lost Zoo: A rhyme for the young, but not too young (illustrated by Charles Sebree). New York: Harper, 1940.
- My Lives and How I Lost Them (autobiography of "Christopher Cat"; illustrated by Robert Reid Macguire). New York: Harper, 1942
- (illustrated by Rainey Bennett). Follett, 1971.
- My Soul's High Song: The collected writings of Countee Cullen, voice of the Harlem Renaissance (edited with introduction by Gerald Early). New York: Doubleday, 1991.
- Caroling Dusk: An anthology of verse by Negro poets (illustrated by Aaron Douglas). New York: Harper, 1927, 1974.
- Yenser, Thomas (editor), Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, Who's Who in Colored America, Brooklyn, New York, 1930-1931-1932 (Third Edition)
- "To the Swimmer"
- Countee Cullen profile & 1 poem ("I Have a Rendezvous with Life") at the Academy of American Poets.
- Countee Cullen at The PIP (Project for Innovative Poetry) Blog: profile & 1 poem, "Saturday's Child"
- Countee Cullen 1903-1946 at the Poetry Foundation.
- Countee Cullen profile & 4 poems at Harvard Square Library
- Countee Cullen profile & 6 poems at My Poetic Side
- Countee Cullen: Online Poems
- Countee Cullen at PoemHunter (28 poems)
- Countee Cullen at Poetry Nook (38 poems)
- Audio / video
- Countee Cullen in the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Countee Cullen at About.com
- Countee Cullen at Biography.com
- Countee Cullen at AfriGeneas Writers Forum
- Countee Cullen at books and writers.
- Countee Cullen at NNDB.
- Countee Cullen: An introduction
- Countee Cullen at Find a Grave
- Countee Cullen (1903-1946) at Modern American Poetry
- "Imagery in Countee Cullen's Poetry"
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