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Countee Cullen: The Reluctant Lamb

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Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library/Van Vechten Trust
Countee Cullen in Central Park, 1941; photograph by Carl Van Vechten

A generous selection of Longfellow’s poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy, is available from the Library of America; a scanned edition of James Russell Lowell’s poems is ready for your Kindle; and Honor Moore makes her case for Amy Lowell in the American Poets Project series. But we don’t read these poets anymore, not really. Some people read Edna St. Vincent Millay still, but probably most would be convinced by Edmund Wilson’s portrait of her as a romantic figure who by the 1940s had outlived her moment of outrageousness. There are a multitude of reasons why a writer goes out of fashion, which isn’t always the same as being forgotten. Longfellow, these two Lowells, and Millay remain names in American literature, even if their work isn’t read outside of specialist circles.

Similarly, Countee Cullen is part of Negro heritage. Last year, at the dedication ceremony of the Harlem branch library named for him, schoolchildren recited his poetry and a bust of him was unveiled. Some old-timers pronounce his name “Coun-tay,” as he did, rather than “Coun-tee.” He belongs to his period, the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance, those days of hopeful migration from the South and race pride given new voice in the North:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?

One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
(“Heritage”)

Cullen’s work is African-American literature, his cultural setting one in which the serious treatment of racial subjects by black writers was considered a breakthrough, liberation from the minstrel tones that white authors had for so long represented as the black voice in American literature. Cullen is seen most sympathetically in a literary tradition that places propaganda value on the fact of black composition. That a black youth, brought up partly in Harlem, was writing poetry was taken as a stand against oppression, regardless of the actual content of his poems. White American society did not expect or encourage a black youth to have larger aspirations. However, Cullen himself asserted early on that he wanted to be a poet, not a Negro poet. “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:/To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”

Countee Cullen’s poetry was celebrated in the 1920s as a demonstration of his discipline with form and of his happy immersion in English Romantic poetry. Jazz Age Harlem was proud that a black youth had mastered English prosody, in a manner not so far removed from the example of Phyllis Wheatley, the eighteenth-century prodigy in Boston, whose strict rhymed couplets were taken as proof that a black was capable of high verse. Wheatley wrote as a Christian and an American patriot, and gave little clue about what sense she had of herself as an enslaved African.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips—“Another of those names that straddles seas in the sails of unseen/Ships,” he says in a poem from his debut collection, The Ground—is a young Caribbean-American poet and translator from the Catalan. He argues in his recent essay collection, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness (2010), that twentieth-century black poetry began with the late-nineteenth-century career of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) and his “bifurcated sensibility.” Dunbar wrote a considerable amount of skilled poetry. However, the demand for his dialect poems about rural black scenes was far greater than that for his poems on conventional themes written in what was called “standard” English, a situation that tormented him. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” one of his most bitter poems begins. The critic J. Saunders Redding said, in his groundbreaking literary history, To Make a Poet Black (1939), that Dunbar’s dialect poems were written in a synthetic language, a regional parody that his Northern audience understood easily and found entertaining:

G’way an’ quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—
Put dat music book away;
What’s de use to keep on tryin’?
Ef you practise twell you’re gray,
You cain’t sta’t no notes a-flyin’
Lak de ones dat rants and rings
F’om de kitchen to be big woods
When Malindy sings.
(“When Malindy Sings”)

But Dunbar didn’t make the speakers in his dialect poems ridiculous for the sake of entertainment. More often he manages quite the opposite. His speakers convey a melancholy innocence that becomes the tone of black life itself:

Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight
For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.
So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I ’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible f’om de bottom of de draw’,—
W’en dey ’listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ’Lias went to wah.
(“When Dey ’Listed Colored Soldiers”)

The question Cullen asked about how to be a poet without being a black poet perhaps makes him one of Dunbar’s legatees in what could be described as “the performance of race.” Both regarded race as a difficulty, the great obstacle in their way, especially since the curious thing on Cullen’s mind seems to have been the contradiction between the cruelty of the black condition and the higher concerns the poetic sensibility was supposed to lead him to dwell on.

Racism was a tyrant deforming black creative life, dictating black writers’ subjects. Yet perhaps J. Saunders Redding had it right, after all, when he observed that Paul Laurence Dunbar was not something new so much as he was the culmination of a style or school. He was better at dialect poetry than anyone else around and handled with grace an idiom that is cringe-making in most poets of the period, white and black. Dunbar died young, and with him the plantation mood in African-American literature.

The black lyric poets after the Reconstruction generation and immedi- ately preceding Cullen, such as Wil- liam Stanley Braithwaite—“My Thoughts Go Marching Like an Arm- èd Host”—and Georgia Douglas Johnson—“I Want to Die While You Love Me”—freed their work of the church and, in some cases, of the South. Johnson might hope that God’s sun would shine someday on a perfected and unhampered people, but her poetry can also speak of a desire for an individualism away from God and history. “I believe that the rhythmical conscience within/ Is guidance enough for the conduct of men,” ends Johnson’s “Credo.” Individual consciousness fought the added burden of race consciousness. Lament was the tone this generation tended toward, a consequence of its members’ gentility as black people of letters. Before he taught creative writing at Atlanta University, Braithwaite was for three decades literary editor of The Boston Evening Transcript, and for as long Georgia Douglas Johnson held a polite salon in her Washington, D.C., home.

This generation rejected dialect and few distanced themselves from minstrel-era associations more vigorously than James Weldon Johnson. In his important anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), he dismissed dialect as too restrictive in its emotional possibilities for what the modern black poet had to say. Older than the poets associated with the Harlem Renaissance, he is a transitional figure between the genteel tradition and the triumph of the vernacular. He turned away from dialect, but did not look up to the heavens. He identified with the aims of the younger generation. Just as in the late 1960s Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry changed significantly after her encounter with the young poets of the Black Arts Movement, so Johnson was influenced by the New Negro aesthetic—the emphasis on identifying with black vernacular culture—in his collection God’s Trombones (1927), a series of connected poems in which he tries to convey the musicality of the black church service.

Zora Neale Hurston complained that white people were making money from popular or low black culture while black artists were wasting their time trying to be highbrow about their sufferings. But the historical moment belonged with the vitality of the material that young black artists such as Hurston and Langston Hughes drew from the experiences of the masses, of their rural Southern black culture transformed in the urban North. Some black novelists and short-story writers of the Harlem Renaissance embraced the freedom that dealing frankly with this suddenly visible and audible black life gave them, but by no means all.

For instance, where Wallace Thurmon’s satires were considered risqué, Jessie Fauset concentrated on the plight of middle-class black women and most black novelists wrote sober problem novels. Fewer black poets were persuaded to join the Negro Awakening at the point where they were called on to express their dark-skinned selves unapologetically and unabashedly, as Hughes urged in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” an essay of 1926 that has come down to us as the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, but most, like Cullen, wrote in standard English.

Claude McKay, another Harlem Renaissance figure, is unusual in that he found a lively, personal idiom for the black working-class characters of his fiction, while his sonnets of militant racial protest adhered to the language of his English poetic models. Countee Cullen also never tried to inflect with a personal idiom the historical poetic language he’d been taught—the language of the metaphysical and the Romantic poets. But unlike McKay, he was not a radical and didn’t have his reputation for taking a confrontational tone in his work.

Indeed, everybody knew that Countee Cullen was the young black poet whom Langston Hughes had in mind when he charged that a black poet who said that he didn’t want to be a black poet was in effect saying that he wanted to be white. In Hughes’s view, race was not an obstacle to the transcendent, it was the most profound of subjects, and black culture excluded nothing. When Hughes published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he and Cullen were both rising stars, regarded as maybe different in approach, but involved in the same struggle, the advancement of the black race.

Yet time has not been generous to Cullen. If Dunbar’s poetic legacy marks a division between poetry about black life in an imagined black idiom and a poetry seeking universality by being color-blind, then Cullen is on the losing side. In his poem “To Certain Critics,” published in The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), he wrote:

Then call me traitor if you must,
Shout treason and default!
Say I betray a sacred trust
Aching beyond this vault.
I’ll bear your censure as your praise,
For never shall the clan
Confine my singing to its ways
Beyond the ways of man.

No racial option narrows grief,
Pain is no patriot,
And sorrow plaits her dismal leaf
For all as lief as not.
With blind sheep groping every hill,
Searching an oriflamme,
How shall the shepherd heart then thrill
To only the darker lamb?
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