Countee Cullen and the Racial Mountain
March 27, 2013
Mar 27, 2013
28 Min read time
The life of the black poet.
“Countee Cullen and the Racial Mountain” is adapted from the introduction to Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, edited by Major Jackson and published this month by The Library of America. © 2013 by Literary Classics of America. Used with permission. The book will be the most comprehensive edition ever published of Cullen’s work, including uncollected and unpublished poems.
From Phillis Wheatley right up to our own ostensibly “postracial” moment, African American poets have had to bear a seemingly inescapable burden. Above and beyond the usual demands and privileges of the poetic vocation—for those fortunate enough to have been allowed to write poetry at all, and to have succeeded in the struggle—their work has had to do a kind of double duty. For black poets, merely wrestling with words and the mysteries of existence hasn’t been considered enough, unless their efforts have also addressed race itself—unless they have come to terms in one way or another, as poets, with their “blackness.”
This burden is evident in the apparent paradox of what is probably Countee Cullen’s most famous couplet, from his first volume, Color:
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
Even as Cullen’s speaker marvels at the fact of his calling his also hesitates, noting that “poet” and “black” seem a “curious” or even potentially antithetical combination. These lines question and affirm simultaneously: a black poet discovers, quizzically but not unhappily, that he is both, and in doing so silences any doubt that the two terms belong together. And yet the speaker’s momentary befuddlement at the idea that black people might write poetry also suggests a consciousness not quite at ease in its own skin. He marvels at himself, just as Phillis Wheatley’s interlocutors marveled at her some hundred and fifty years earlier, refusing to believe she had actually written her poems until she was able to answer their questions about them in person. And so, along with love, death, beauty, the absurdity of life, and whatever else, race becomes an obligatory theme for Cullen and for black American poets more generally. And their handling of “race,” among some critics and readers, becomes a matter of major or even peremptory concern.
Cullen’s career is a case in point rather than an exception to this rule. In his lifetime and after, his writings have been by turns excessively praised or prejudicially discounted, not so much for their particular literary merits or failings, but for the ways in which they address broader debates about race in American culture. Some, like W.E.B. Du Bois, sought to boost Cullen less for his art alone than for what his art would prove about African American character. Others, like Langston Hughes and many after him, suspected Cullen of aspiring to a kind of whiteness in his poetic practice—even as his poems articulate a unique vision of the joys and trials of being black, male, and some would vigorously add “gay” in early twentieth-century America.
In a publishing career that spanned over twenty years, Cullen produced a body of work that included not only five volumes of poetry—Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), The Black Christ, and Other Poems (1929), The Medea, and Some Poems (1935), and the collected On These I Stand (1947)—but also a novel, One Way to Heaven (1931); two children’s books, The Lost Zoo and My Nine Lives and How I Lost Them; and the musical play St. Louis Woman (1946), his collaboration with poet and novelist Arna Bontemps. His translation of Euripides’s Medea is considered the first major translation of a classical work by a black American writer.
Such varied and lasting achievements speak for themselves. And yet it is difficult to appreciate them fully without some understanding of the ways in which debates about the role of the black artist are impressed on their very texture, and of how Cullen himself bore the pressures of exemplarity conferred on him in the wake of his early successes. They inform his language as surely as any metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. And yet I do not believe that Cullen’s poems should be reduced to mere ciphers—in an argument, say, about the history of African American self-representation in a racist nation. After all such arguments are done and forgotten, Cullen’s poems will still be able to give great pleasure on their own terms. Fortified by his deep awareness of the Bible and English literature, not to mention the classical and French writers he loved to translate, and stimulated by the technical challenges of his chosen medium, Cullen left a body of poetry that offers us, if nothing else, a curious, marvelous, and singular self-portrait.
• • •
Cullen’s early years are as obscure, in their own way, as Phillis Wheatley’s African origins. He kept the true circumstances of his birth a secret from all but a few close friends and deliberately rewrote his past. Officially, he was Countee Cullen, or sometimes rather stylishly Countée. (He dropped the accent for his published books of poetry, but used it in personal correspondence; it appears on his tombstone.) Born in New York (he often claimed), Countee Cullen came to be known as the son of one of Harlem’s most influential men, the Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, pastor of the famed Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, and his wife Carolyn. He was raised in the parsonage of the church—a fine structure, still standing on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 129th Street, at the epicenter of many Harlem happenings. Along with the physical and emotional stability of a loving home, the Cullens provided a solid, conservative Christian upbringing. They were on the upper end of Harlem’s burgeoning middle class.
In fact, Cullen was probably born Countee Lucas, in Louisville, Kentucky or thereabouts, on May 30, 1903. In 1940, according to his widow Ida Mae Roberson, he attended and paid for the Louisville funeral of his mother, Elizabeth Thomas Lucas. But the two seem to have had little contact. Extreme poverty or some local scandal may have forced her to give him up; we can only speculate. He was raised by a grandmother or family friend, Amanda Porter, in the New York area. In 1918, a year after she died, he was unofficially adopted by the Cullens—perhaps because he had shown himself to be a particularly bright student at an early age. As he grew older, Countee began to question some of the more unreconstructed values and manners of his foster parents, but he remained a dutiful son until the end. Well into adulthood, he accompanied the Rev. Cullen on nearly annual summer trips, to Europe or the Holy Land, and after Carolyn Cullen died, he took his father in. He was evidently grateful for all they had given him. Yet they also provided him, like many parents, with an ample dose of psychic tension—a tension that would come into play in his writing.
Cullen sometimes rhapsodized over African scenes, offering exotic visions of magical, pantheistic worship in dark humid jungles.
Describing himself in a biographical note to Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets—a groundbreaking Harlem Renaissance anthology he edited in 1927—Cullen offered a wry, telling account of his conflicted state: “Countée Cullen’s chief problem has been that of reconciling a Christian upbringing with a pagan inclination.” Pagan is a densely loaded term here. On the most polite level, it indicates Cullen’s tendency, in his poetry, toward a kind of Keatsian sensualism. Instead of the moral strictures or exhortations one might find in a properly “Christian” poet—and indeed Cullen’s father perennially urged him to write more poems in an explicitly devotional, religious mode—Cullen is more often interested in gorgeous imagery, or in the pleasures of the sounds of words for their own sake. (Critics have identified Keats as one of Cullen’s primary influences, and indeed Cullen’s tone often strikes one as exceptionally Keatsian. His lyrics often address the principal themes one associates with Keats: beauty, love, mortality. But what might be called Cullen’s Keatsianism is intertwined and melded with other thematic concerns—particularly race, and wrestling with issues of doubt and faith. Cullen’s “Christian upbringing” shows through, throughout his writings.)
Cullen’s use of pagan may also raise the possibility that he sensed or wondered, as an African American poet, about some essential persistence of what Phillis Wheatley called “my Pagan land”—an African past, or a specifically racial heritage, that would perhaps cut against the proprieties of his American, Christian life. Cullen sometimes rhapsodized over African scenes, offering exotic visions of magical, pantheistic worship in dark humid jungles. In “Heritage,” he interrogates and examines the claims such visions ought to have on him. At one point he notes his distance from the “pagan” past:
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
Writing from the parsonage of Salem Methodist Episcopal, in his strictly iambic and certainly never “savage” measures, Cullen is by turns fascinated by, distressed over, and even occasionally embarrassing in his enthusiasm for what he imagines of “pre-Christian” Africa.
Pagan may also hint, at a more deeply coded level, of some self-awareness of homosexual identity. Gay writers and theorists beginning around the turn of the nineteenth century often turned to ancient Greece as a way to find their roots and imagine a less encumbered future, just as many black writers turned to Africa. Cullen avidly followed both of these intellectual developments, reading and making contacts with proponents of both. In 1922, writing to Alain Locke—a leading Howard University intellectual and fellow traveler in both camps—he described his response to the gay utopian Edward Carpenter’s Greek-themed Ioläus (1908):
I read it through at one sitting, and steeped myself in its charming and comprehending atmosphere. 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. I loved myself in it.
Throughout his poetry, and perhaps also in his private life, Cullen tentatively explored the “pagan” side of his divided identity, and questioned some of the orthodoxies within which he was raised. But from the beginning Cullen was a poet with a public reputation—a kind of prodigy, whose works were noticed and held up for praise. If he attempted to reconcile the “Christian” and “pagan” elements of his personality, it was in poems intended for the widest possible public consumption, not a coterie audience. The burdens of exemplarity began early. In high school—the almost exclusively white DeWitt Clinton High School, where he served as the editor of the school newspaper and assistant editor to the school’s literary magazine The Magpie—he began to be recognized for his literary talents. He won his first of many contests, a citywide competition sponsored by the Federation of Women’s Clubs, with his poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life” (1920)—a poetic reply to Alan Seeger’s then-popular poem of World War I, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” (1917). It begins:
I have a rendezvous with life,
In days I hope will come,
Ere youth has sped and strength of mind;
Ere voices sweet grow dumb;
I have a rendezvous with life,
When spring’s first heralds hum.
Though not perhaps a poem for the ages—only five years later, when he published his first book, Color, Cullen omitted this early work—“I Have a Rendezvous” marked an auspicious beginning. In its moment, the poem was a minor hit, published in New York’s (white) daily newspapers, and soon reprinted in magazines and anthologies. One writer, Gaius Glenn Atkins, borrowed Cullen’s phrase for the title of his own book, A Rendezvous with Life (1922). Indeed, Cullen scholar Gerald Early has suggested that Cullen’s precocious debut—rather than, say, the publication of Jean Toomer’s Cane in 1923—ought to mark the beginning of what we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. This may seem a heavy weight of expectation to rest on a poem that is nothing if not light and cheerful, but it accurately reflects the eagerness with which young black writers were being looked to for signs of uplift and revitalization.
It was the appearance of his poem “The Shroud of Color” in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury in November 1924 that first propelled Cullen onto the national literary scene and made him one of the most talked about black writers in the country. He “became famous, like Byron, overnight,” Mencken later recalled. The 199-line poem, mainly in iambic rhyming couplets, begins with a speaker in crisis. “[B]eing dark,” he “cannot bear” to go on living, and very melodramatically throws himself, groaning, onto the Earth, asking God to let him die. God instead reveals a vast cosmic vision—a vision which enables him to understand his suffering as a source of strength, and to find solidarity in the suffering of his people:
And somehow it was borne upon my brain
How being dark, and living through the pain
Of it, is courage more than angels have. I knew
What storms and tumults lashed the tree that grew
This body that I was, this cringing I
That feared to contemplate a changing sky,
This that I grovelled, whining, “Let me die,”
While others struggled in Life’s abattoir.
The cries of all dark people near or far
Were billowed over me, a mighty surge
Of suffering in which my puny grief must merge
And lose itself; I had no further claim to urge
For death; in shame I raised my dust-grimed head,
And though my lips moved not, God knew I said,
“Lord, not for what I saw in flesh or bone
Of fairer men; not raised on faith alone;
Lord, I will live persuaded by mine own.
I cannot play the recreant to these;
My spirit has come home, that sailed the doubtful seas.”
The poem struck many readers as a tour de force, not only for its perspective on race relations in America but for the virtuosity with which it cast the struggle and plight of “all dark people,” both aesthetically and thematically, in high Miltonic terms. It is a kind of blues poem, written in the key of Paradise Lost. It not only discovers and asserts a sense of racial solidarity, but does so in a grand and “epic” manner, against the presumptions of a white audience. Cullen’s diction alone seems a repudiation of racist typecasting, and goes out of its way to insist on his seriousness.
Cullen’s debut volume, Color, was published by Harper & Row in 1925, the year he graduated from New York University. It was perhaps the most auspicious and long-awaited first book in African American literature, and it sold more than two thousand copies in its first two years in print. It confirmed what many, seeing his poems in magazines, had already begun to suspect: Cullen was one of the major writers of his generation, another star in the expanding literary universe that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, along with figures like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. As a result of his resolve to master the high literary tradition of poetry, Cullen emerged in the mid-1920s critically acclaimed by both black and white readers.
Cullen’s desire to be read as ‘a poet and not a Negro poet’ was condemned as black aristocratic self-hatred.
It is little wonder, given Cullen’s then-prominence, that two of the most enduring critical statements from the Harlem Renaissance on the function of African American creative expression should take Cullen as their starting point: Du Bois’ “Criteria of Negro Art” and Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Cullen was celebrated as the golden exemplar of a campaign by black political and cultural leaders who sought to engineer a new image of black people in America. Yet he was also targeted as an aesthete, and his expressed desire to be read as “a poet and not a Negro poet” was increasingly condemned as representative of black aristocratic self-hatred, and worse, a veiled longing “to be white.” To his critics, it did not matter or help that Cullen wrote some of the most formally adept American verse of the decade. Instead, his poems engaged traditional (read “white”) literary modes with altogether too much enthusiasm, and seemed sponsored in sound and sense by a bygone era. His penchant for penning pitch-perfect sonnets and jaunty ballad stanzas (so accomplished that he would later pick up the nickname “the Black Keats”) was both blessing and curse in an age that had stopped its metronome and begun to favor the various iconoclasms of modernism over mastery of tradition, and the raw potential of black vernacular forms over seemingly exhausted Anglo-American gentilities.
Du Bois—the leading black intellectual of the early twentieth century and recognized leader of what he called “the Talented Tenth”—valued Cullen’s literary achievements and example immensely, for they signaled the arrival of a black man who could play the English language like a song and engage with literary tradition as well as any white poet. In an address delivered in June 1926 at the Chicago Conference of the NAACP, Du Bois recounted the story of a University of Chicago professor who recited an excerpt of a poem and then asked his literature students to identify the author. Du Bois reports: “They guessed a goodly company from Shelley and Robert Browning to Tennyson and Masefield. The author was Countée Cullen.” One can almost hear Du Bois’ near swoon, his self-satisfied pride at Cullen being mistaken for some of the most celebrated white poets in English literature. These conference remarks would be published later that year as “Criteria of Negro Art” in the NAACP’s official magazine The Crisis, of which Du Bois served as editor; they would come to be a touchstone in debates over the role and purpose of the arts in the African American struggle for civil rights and social equality. “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,” Du Bois’ proclaimed, and he celebrated black art for its unique role in promoting the truth of human equality and unmasking the lie of white supremacy. That Cullen’s poetry could so easily be confused with that of Shelley or Browning or Tennyson confirmed for Du Bois some of his most closely held beliefs. He doggedly believed African Americans were equal to their white countrymen in all aspects of life, and Cullen was consummate proof.
James Weldon Johnson—poet, diplomat, and central member of the Talented Tenth—proposes a similar role for the black poet in the preface to his groundbreaking anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922). Like Du Bois, Johnson articulates the high yield black leaders expected of their artists and writers:
No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior. The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.
In short, according to the these representatives of the Talented Tenth, Cullen and other Harlem Renaissance poets were to be held responsible—not only for counting syllables and contemplating the themes they wished to contemplate, but for the ways in which their efforts would lift up the race, and help to change the country’s attitudes about African Americans.
To understand Du Bois’s and Johnson’s zeal for such a programmatic view of black art and their excitement over what they viewed as the import of Cullen’s poetic achievement—Johnson, too, promoted Cullen and his career—one must keep in mind some of the battles they were fighting, from Harlem, as Cullen was coming of age in the late 1910s and early 1920s. For generations, a campaign of fear and racial violence had been waged against African Americans—an ugly scar on the American psyche which saw thousands of black people lynched, shot, or burned, in a horrific reign of brutality. Resistance to this campaign was necessarily ongoing. In the wake of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the KKK had reemerged. In 1922, the Dyer anti-lynching bill, which would have made lynching a federal crime, passed the House of Representatives but was blocked by white Southerners in the Senate. Against the backdrop of these and many similar incidents, Du Bois and other concerned African Americans (including Cullen’s foster father, who organized anti-lynching protests and traveled to Washington to petition President Wilson in the wake of a race riot), found determination and purpose in substantiating black people’s humanity above the status of hunted animals to be dragged up a tree and left to swing long after the mob had dissipated. “Negro Art,” in such circumstances, could not exist for its own sake. It became a weapon, and a shield, against organized oppression.
One must realize, too, the particular appeal that highly decorous and elevated language would have had for Du Bois and other black critics. The black vernacular traditions that were just beginning to fascinate younger writers in the 1920s, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, could easily have seemed tainted, corrupt, or degrading, because they had been so thoroughly co-opted in racist white popular entertainments. For generations, the image of the Jim Crow “minstrel” and its many subsequent variations and iterations had presented black folk as simple-minded, uncouth, happy-go-lucky, and quick to a tune. Such dehumanizing stereotypes had found their way into the culture they parodied and mocked. Even a poet as proficient and accomplished as Paul Laurence Dunbar had had to “wear the mask” that others expected of him, writing in folksy dialect to appeal to white readers. Propriety and formality were antidotes to years of misrepresentations which reveled in the contrary. As Alain Locke put it in 1925, in his essay “Enter the New Negro”:
The day of “aunties,” “uncles” and “mammies” is equally gone. Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on, and even the “Colonel” and “George” play barnstorm roles from which they escape when the public spotlight is off. The popular melodrama has about played itself out, and it is time to scrap the fictions.
Cullen helped put such fictions on the scrap heap. In a rave review of Color in The Crisis, Du Bois singles out Cullen’s ability to move beyond such simple typecasting:
In a time when it is the vogue to make much of the Negro’s aptitude for clownishness or to depict him objectively as a serio-comic figure, it is a fine and praiseworthy act for Mr. Cullen to show through the interpretation of his own subjectivity the inner workings of the Negro soul and mind.
Always impeccably tailored, Cullen was not only an antitype of the minstrel show buffoon in his personal demeanor: his literary style seemed freshly free of the melodramatic, role-playing masks that Dunbar, Locke, and Du Bois lamented. It was a style transparent to his “inner workings,” true to his dignity, rather than a performance put on for others. In 1925, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from NYU, then went on to earn a master’s degree in English and French from Harvard University, which made him, as one critic has noted, the most considerably educated black poet in America. He was also one of the most lauded, winning a succession of national prizes including the Witter Bynner Poetry contest, the John Reed Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine, and the Amy Spingarn Award of the Crisis magazine, among others. He did this not only without affecting a “serio-comic” or other sham-vernacular voice, but indeed in verse that owed more, it can be argued, to English literary tradition than to any American vernacular whatsoever, black or white. As other Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer began to participate in the avant-garde literary movements now known as modernism, Cullen pursued traditional forms with particular enthusiasm, writing not only ballads and sonnets and Spenserian stanzas, but also becoming, according to Robert Hillyer, the first American to publish a poem (“To Lovers of Earth: Fair Warning”) in the antique, Chaucerian “rime royal.” He was a formalist’s formalist.
Called a ‘traitor’ to his race, Cullen asserts the common, transcendent, human relevance of his themes.
Members of the Talented Tenth were committed to celebrating Cullen’s accomplishments, and he became a kind of standard-bearer for the race. Probably no one rejoiced more in Cullen’s successes than Du Bois; indeed, his regard for the young poet was so high that he encouraged him to take his daughter’s hand in marriage. The wedding of Countee Cullen and Nina Yolande Du Bois, on April 9, 1928, is now legendary for its extravagance. Langston Hughes later remembered it, in The Big Sea(1940), as “the social-literary event of the season, and very society.” Officiated by the groom’s father at Salem Methodist Episcopal Church—the large hall filled to capacity, and hundreds of uninvited onlookers crowding the streets outside—it represented a symbolic passing of the torch from the old guard of black political leaders to the new crop of young black artists and writers in attendance, the force and energy behind much of the fervor and excitement of the Harlem Renaissance. With his multiple accomplishments, Cullen offered exactly the kind of image that the Talented Tenth wished to project, and indeed immediately following the wedding, he took time out to address a race rally, postponing his honeymoon. He was at the height, perhaps, of his public career.
In the end, the wedding was more show than substance. Yolande, it is rumored, would have preferred to marry Jimmie Lunceford—a jazz musician with whom she is reported to have been infatuated. Cullen had already begun to understand himself as attracted to other men. They soon divorced, in 1930. Langston Hughes—who chafed, at the wedding, in his rented tux—was beginning to stake out his own distinct claims to the title of black laureate, and to seek new directions for African American poetry. Hughes and Cullen had been friends early in their roughly contemporary poetic careers, and they remained on relatively good terms throughout their lives, though they were competitors; they had many common friends and influences, including Howard professor Alain Locke. But in his landmark essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which appeared in The Nation in the same month as Du Bois’s Chicago conference address, Hughes spurned Cullen’s, and indeed black elites’ “desire to run away spiritually from [their] race.” He noted with palpable antipathy “this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” And though he refrained from directly naming Cullen and instead spoke of “one of the most promising of the young Negro poets” who wished to be identified as a “poet—not a Negro poet,”the example of Cullen and his career was his point of departure. (Cullen had proclaimed defiantly in a 1924 interview in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET.” As poet Gregory Pardlo has recently observed, Hughes leaves Cullen unmentioned partly because “it is polite to do so,” but also because he finds Cullen’s admission “so damaging.”)
In Hughes’s view, Cullen’s insistence on distinguishing himself as a raceless artist amounts to a suicide of the self and becomes the obstruction that prevents Cullen from making a fierce and unapologetic contribution to American literature, one steeped in and informed by the living culture of his people. Hughes would certainly have endorsed the aspirations expressed in Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry:
What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without . . . a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.
He looked forward—in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”—to a time when race would leave free expression unobstructed:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.
If Hughes and Cullen were competitors, of sorts, for the prize of principal African American poet of their generation, Cullen may have had an early lead, and during the later 1920s and early 1930s they were often discussed in tandem. Over time, Hughes has arguably become the more canonical of the two (even as a handful of Cullen’s poems continue to be widely anthologized and read); his openness to modernism gave him an edge, as did his exploration and embrace of African American folk traditions. Hughes ultimately expanded the range of possibilities and set new standards for what African American poetry and indeed any poetry could sound like. Cullen, in his way, can sometimes sound like Edna St. Vincent Millay, whom he admired immensely; not only “white,” if one must, but even whiter, and even as race was a frequent theme. Hughes’s reservations about what might be called the defensive propriety of Cullen’s diction have to some extent stuck in the reception history of Harlem Renaissance poetry. As black writers during the Harlem Renaissance and the remainder of the twentieth century increasingly explored the literary possibilities of black vernaculars, Cullen’s work came to seem a less vital part of African American tradition, an impressive but unproductive cul-de-sac.
Cullen could not have been unaware of the aspersions Hughes had cast on his work. Indeed, his poem “To Certain Critics”—included in his book The Black Christ (1929)—offers a pointed response. Cullen’s locution (“certain critics”) leaves Hughes unnamed, just as Hughes avoided naming Cullen—the poet who secretly wished to be white—in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” But while Cullen’s poem is open to broader interpretations, Hughes would certainly be a plausible addressee:
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?
Called a “traitor” to his race, Cullen asserts the common, transcendent, human relevance of his themes. Grief, pain, and sorrow belong to all. And with a forceful pun, he pushes back and shames the faction—“the clan”—that would limit his artistic freedom on racial grounds.
• • •
All of these debates around the “racial mountain”—as essential as they are and as ongoing as many of the issues are—can seem claustrophobic and distorting, from the perspective of over eighty-five years later. They have the effect of encouraging us to neglect whole landscapes of poetry not notably or necessarily overdetermined by the turbulent long foreground of African American history, or to read too narrowly. I invite the reader to take pleasurein Cullen’s many distinctive merits, often little explored or still undiscovered. He is a poet of impudent humor (especially evident in his “Epitaphs”). Later in life—in poems newly published or collected here for the first time—he adopted a stridently political voice that may surprise those already familiar with his poetry, and should dispel the mistaken notion that Cullen, in spite of his occasional claims to the contrary, was “apolitical.” Above all, he knows how to hammer the quickness of thought into the turns of form. The astute reader attuned to Cullen’s rhetorical gifts will pay special attention to such turning. He is the poet of “Yet” and “But”—of insights that spark between his lines as well as in them. He would certainly have understood Ralph Waldo Emerson’s edict: “it is not meters, but a meter making argument that makes a poem.”
Cullen was addicted to fashioning such arguments, and sought his own brand of freedom in pattern and form. He is as dexterous, in his way, as his “Atlantic City Waiter,” from Color:
With subtle poise he grips his tray
Of delicate things to eat;
Choice viands to their mouths half way,
The ladies watch his feet
Go carving dexterous avenues
Through sly intricacies;
Ten thousand years on jungle clues
Alone shaped feet like these.
For him to be humble who is proud
Needs colder artifice;
Though half his pride is disavowed,
In vain the sacrifice.
Sheer through his acquiescent mask
Of bland gentility,
The jungle flames like a copper cask
Set where the sun strikes free.
It may help to know that Cullen worked, one summer, as a waiter in Atlantic City; he wrote his friend Langston Hughes from there, complaining about his co-workers but expressing pride in the poems they had inspired. Of course, the “pride” here (self-esteem? animal group? sexual desire?), and the punning “feet,” are also Cullen’s (throughout? in part?), and this portrait “flames” even brighter as self-portrait. But is it a poem about race? sex? class? poetry? Is it “pagan” or “Christian,” and how well reconciled are these tendencies? Like its subject, the poem twists and turns while carrying a complex load, and is a kind of show-stopper. But what exactly happens in it? Cullen is simply too “sly” here and elsewhere to be denigrated as a poet who would “write white” or (on the flip side) be content with mere propaganda in the service of racial uplift. He is a complex and sometimes a real virtuoso performer. Like his waiter on tables, he deserves to be closely watched.
Photograph: Countee Cullen / Photography by Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy of The Van Vechten Trust
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March 27, 2013
28 Min read time