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literature

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Cullen, Countee (1903-1946)  

Countee Cullen, an African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was heralded as the "poet laureate" of the period.

Cullen's birthplace is difficult to ascertain but is generally agreed to have been Louisville, Kentucky. Countee Leroy Porter (the name he used until 1920) was born on May 30, 1903, and was raised by his grandmother, Mrs. Porter, who brought him to New York when he was nine. On her death, the orphaned Cullen seems to have been adopted (around 1918) by the pastor Frederick A. Cullen of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. Cullen was educated at the prestigious DeWitt Clinton High School (1922), graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University (1925), and completed an M.A. in literature from Harvard (1926).

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Cullen was committed to a career as a poet from as early as his high school years; by the time he finished undergraduate school, he had published his first book of poetry, Color (1925). Given his short life, one is surprised at the immensity of Cullen's literary output. He penned five volumes of verse, edited an African-American poetry anthology, and published one adult novel and two storybooks for children.

As a dramatist, Cullen collaborated with Arna Bontemps, Owen Dodson, and others, writing plays for local production. A frequent contributor to Crisis and Opportunity magazines, Cullen wrote a regular column entitled "The Dark Tower" (1926-1928) for Opportunity. Just before his death in 1946, Cullen assembled what he considered to be his best poetry in a volume, On These I Stand, which was published posthumously in 1947.

Despite what Cullen admitted to Langston Hughes about wanting to be recognized as "a poet, not a Negro poet," he spent most of his life proving that a black poet could surely sing--and sing in a black voice. In fact, five of the seven volumes of poetry that bear Cullen's name have, in their very titles, a basis for racial themes that is borne out in the poetry itself. Yet, Cullen's poetry reveals a man who was torn between allegiances to his blackness and his vocation as a raceless poet.

Surely, Cullen's race created problems for his creative expression, but his sexuality posed even greater dangers. Although married to W. E. B. DuBois's daughter Yolande early in life and Ida Roberson only six years before his death, Cullen had a steady string of male lovers in the United States and France. Furthermore, Cullen was a premier member of a thriving gay coterie in Harlem.

Cullen and most gays of the period were, understandably, closeted publicly. This closetedness worked to protect Cullen from certain discrimination while it also held a firm grip on his creative imagination. Although difficult to decipher, the influence of gayness on Cullen's literary imagination can be seen through the coded references to homosexuality in much of his poetry.

From his earliest attempts, Cullen developed a multifarious poetry that, on the surface, followed the British Romantic tradition. Cullen's break from these writers can be seen in his use of racial themes and in the complex integration of male-male relationships as a significant though veiled subject.

In Color, for example, the poems "Tableau," "The Shroud of Color," "Fruit of the Flower," "For a Poet," and "Spring Reminiscence" can be classified as gay poems in which the speaker decries the oppression of those who are different. Copper Sun (1927), Cullen's next book of verse, has several thinly veiled gay poems, including "Uncle Jim," "Colors," and "More Than a Fool's Song."

"The Black Christ" (1929) was Cullen's attempt to write an epic poem on the subject of lynching. This 900-line piece exemplifies Cullen's brilliant poetic layering of racial and gay themes. The main character, Jim, can be viewed not only as the persecuted black who is falsely accused of rape, but also as the victim of heterosexism.

When Jim is lynched at the end of the poem, Cullen puts him in the company of Lycidas, Patroclus, and Jonathan--all characters who have had long-standing associations with gay readings of their respective texts. In many ways, "The Black Christ" is key to gay rereadings of Cullen's poetry; for, in this text, we are alerted to the homosexual coding that marks the earlier poems as well as many in The Medea and Some Poems (1935).

Understanding Cullen's poetry in the context of the gay closet in which it was written is the cornerstone on which to rebuild Cullen's reputation as a gay poet laureate and as the inaugurator of a black gay male poetic tradition.

Alden Reimonenq

     

 
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Countee Cullen in 1941.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Avi-Ram, Amitai F. "The Unreadable Black Body: 'Conventional' Poetic Form in the Harlem Renaissance." Genders 7 (1990): 32-45.

Baker, Houston A. Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Canaday, Nicholas, Jr. "Major Themes in the Poetry of Countee Cullen." The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Arna Bontemps, ed. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1972. 103-125.

Davis, Arthur P. "The Alien-and-Exile Theme in Countee Cullen's Racial Poems." Phylon 14 (1953): 390-400.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Ferguson, Blanche. Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1966.

Garber, Eric. "A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Library, 1989. 318-331.

Lomax, Michael L. "Countee Cullen: A Key to the Puzzle." The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined. Victor A. Kramer, ed. New York: AMS Press, 1987. 213-222.

Perry, Margaret. A Bio-Bibliography of Countee P. Cullen, 1903-1946. Westport: Greenwood, 1971.

Reimonenq, Alden. "Countee Cullen's Uranian 'Soul Windows.'" The Journal of Homosexuality 26:2/3 (Fall 1993): 143-65.

Shucard, Alan. Countee Cullen. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

Smylie, James H. "Countee Cullen's 'The Black Christ.'" Theology Today 38:2 (July 1981): 160-173.

Tuttleton, James W. "Countee Cullen at 'The Heights.'" The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations. Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989. 101-137.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States. Trans. Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Reimonenq, Alden  
    Entry Title: Cullen, Countee  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 6, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/cullen_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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