Countee Cullen: The Reluctant Lamb

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?


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…

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