Countee Cullen was born on May 30, 1903, but due to a lack of records of his early childhood, it has been difficult to pinpoint his city of birth. Baltimore, Maryland, New York City, and Louisville, Kentucky have been cited as his possible cities of birth. Although Cullen claimed he was born in New York City, it is strongly believed that he was born in Louisville Kentucky, due to Cullen constantly referring to it as his birthplace on legal applications. Cullen was brought to Harlem at age nine by his paternal grandmother who looked after the young Cullen until her death in 1918. Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, Harlem's largest congregation, became the guardian of the 15 year old Countee LeRoy Porter. Frederick A. Cullen was a central figure in the young Countee Cullen's life, as the influential clergymen would become president of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
DeWitt Clinton High School
At some point, Cullen entered the DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx. He excelled academically at the school while emphasizing his skills at poetry and won a citywide poetry contest At DeWitt, he was elected into the honor society, editor of the weekly newspaper, and elected vice-president of his graduating class. In January 1922, he graduated with honors in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and French.
New York University and Harvard University
After graduating from high school, he entered New York University (NYU). In 1923, he won second prize in the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry contest, which was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, with a poem entitled "The Ballad of the Brown Girl". At about this time, some of his poetry was promulgated in the national periodicals Harper's, Crisis, Opportunity, The Bookman, and Poetry. The ensuing year he again placed second in the contest, but in 1925 he finally won. Cullen competed in a poetry contest sponsored by Opportunity and came in second with "To One Who Say Me Nay", while losing to Langston Hughes's poem "The Weary Blues". Sometime thereafter, Cullen graduated from NYU as one of eleven students selected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Cullen entered Harvard in 1925, to pursue a masters in English, about the same time his first collection of poems, Color, was published. 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. He graduated with a master's degree in 1926.
Cullen was first brought to the idea of his sexuality from the help of American writer, Alain Locke. Locke wanted to introduce a new generation of African American writers, like Countee Cullen. Locke sought to present the authentic natures of sex and sexuality through writing, thus creating relationships with those that felt the same. Cullen looked to Locke for any advice and guidance, thus developing a father-and-son like relationship. Locke helped Cullen accept his sexuality, exposing him to gay-affirming material, like the work of Edward Carpenter. In March 1923, Cullen had written in a letter to Locke: "It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural".
Cullen married Yolande Du Bois in April 1928, the only surviving child of W.E.B. Du Bois. It is said that they were introduced by Cullen’s close friend Harold Jackman. The wedding was the social event of the decade. Every detail of the wedding was considering big news and was published to the public by the African American press. A few months after their wedding, Cullen had written a letter to Yolande confessing his love for men. The couple then divorced in 1930.
With an exception to his first marriage, Cullen was a shy person and was not flamboyant with any of his relationships. It was rumored that Cullen developed a relationship with Harold Jackman, "the handsomest man in Harlem", which contributed to Cullen and Du bois’ divorce. The young, dashing Jackman was a school teacher and, thanks to his noted beauty, a prominent figure among Harlem's gay elite. According to Thomas Wirth, author of Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, there is no concrete proof that they ever were lovers, despite newspaper stories and gossip suggesting the contrary.
Jackman's diaries, letters, and outstanding collections of memorabilia are held in various depositories across the country, such as the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. At Cullen's death, Jackman requested that the name of the Georgia accumulation be changed from the Harold Jackman Collection to the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection in honor of his friend. When Jackman, himself, succumbed to cancer in 1961, the collection was renamed the Cullen-Jackman Collection to honor them both.
The Harlem Renaissance 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), 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.
The social, cultural, and artistic explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance was the first time in American history that a large body of work was contributed to American literature by African Americans. Countee Cullen was at the epicenter of this new-found surge in literature. Cullen considered poetry to be raceless. However, his poem "The Black Christ" took on a racial theme which analyzed a black youth convicted of a crime he did not commit. "But shortly after in the early 1930's, his work was almost completely [free] of racial subject matter. His poetry instead focused on idyllic beauty and other classic romantic subjects."
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. This is where he met Nina Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading black intellectual. At that time Yolande was involved romantically with a popular band leader. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen traveled 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 crucifixion of Jesus.
As well as writing books himself, Cullen promoted the work of other black writers. But by 1930 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. Along with Herman W. Porter, he also provided guidance to a young James Baldwin during his time at the school.
In the last years of his life, Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre. He worked with Arna Bontemps to adapt Bontemps's 1931 novel God Sends Sunday into St. Louis Woman (1946, published 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. Cullen shortly after died from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
Due to Cullen's mixed identity, he developed an aesthetic that embraced both black and white cultures. He was a firm believer that poetry surpassed race and that it could be used to bring the races closer together. Although race was a recurring theme in his works, Cullen wanted to be known as a poet not strictly defined by race.
Countee Cullen developed his Eurocentric style of writing from his exposure to Graeco-Roman Classics and English Literature, work he was exposed to while attending prestigious Universities like, New York University and Harvard. In his collection of poems To the Three for Whom the Book Cullen uses Greek methodology to explore race and identity and writes about Medusa, Theseus, Phasiphae, and the Minotaur. Although Cullen's continued to develop themes of race and identity in his work, Cullen found artist inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman literature..
Cullen was also influenced by the Romantics and studied subjects of love, romance, and religion. John Keats and Vincent Millay influenced Cullen's style of writing. In Caroling Dusk, an anthology edited by Cullen, he expands on his belief of using a Eurocentric style of writing. He writes, "As heretical as it may sound, there is the probability that Negro poets, dependent as they are on the English language, may have more to gain from the rich background of English and American poetry than form the nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance." Countee Cullen believed that African-American poets should work within the English conventions of poetry to prove to white Americans that African Americans could participate in these classic traditions. He believed using a more traditional style of writing poetry would allow African-Americans to build bridges between the black and white communities.
"Color is the name of Countee Cullen's first published book and color is, rightly, in every sense its prevailing characteristic." Cullen discusses heavy topics regarding race and the distance of ones heritage from their motherland and how it is lost. It has been said that his poems fall into a variety of categories: those that with no mention were made of color. Secondly the poems that circled around the consciousness of African Americans and how being a "Negro in a day like this" in America is very cruel. Through Cullen's writing, readers can view his own subjectivity of his inner workings and how he viewed the Negro soul and mind. He discusses the psychology of African Americans in his writings and gives an extra dimension which forces the reader to see a harsh reality of Americas past time.
"Heritage" is one of Countee Cullen's most known poems. Although it is published in Color, it originally appeared in The Survey, March 1, 1925. Count Cullen wrote Heritage during a time when African American artists were dreaming of Africa. During the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen, Hughes, and other poets were using their creative energy trying fuse Africa into the narrative of their African American lives. In Heritage, Countee Cullen grapples with the separation of his African culture and history created by the institution of slavery. To Cullen, Africa was not a place of which he had personal knowledge. It was a place that he knew through someone else's description, passed down through generations. Africa was a place of heritage. Throughout the poem, he struggles with the cost of the cultural conversion and religious conversion of his ancestors when they were away torn form Africa.
The Black Christ
The Black Christ was published at the height of Cullen's career in 1929. The poems examine the relationship of faith and justice among African Americans. In some of the poems, Cullen equates the suffering of Christ in his crucifixion and the suffering of African Americans. This collection poems captures Cullen's idealistic aesthetic of race pride and religious skepticism. The Black Christ also takes a close look at the racial violence in America during the 1920s. By the time Cullen published this book of poetry, the concept of the Black Messiah was prevalent in other African American writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude Mackay, and Jean Toomer.
- Color Harper & Brothers, 1925; Ayer, 1993, ISBN 978-0-88143-155-1 (includes the poems "Incident," "Near White," "Heritage," and others), illustrations by Charles Cullen
- Copper Sun, Harper & Brothers, 1927
- Harlem Wine 1926
- The Ballad of the Brown Girl, Harper & Brothers, 1927, illustrations by Charles Cullen
- The Black Christ and Other Poems, Harper & Brothers, 1929, illustrations by Charles Cullen
- Tableau (1925)
- One Way to Heaven, Harper & Brothers, 1932
- Any Human to Another (1934)
- The Medea and Some Other Poems (1935)
- On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947
- Gerald Lyn Early (ed.), My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Doubleday, 1991, ISBN 9780385417587
- Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, Library of America, 2013, ISBN 978-1-59853-083-4
- One Way to Heaven (1931)
- The Lost Zoo, Harper & Brothers, 1940; Modern Curriculum Press, 1991, ISBN 9780813672175
- My Lives and How I Lost Them, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942
- St. Louis Woman (1946)
- Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties: Anthology of Black Verse. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.