Three Poems by the American Man of Letters, Countee Cullen
John R. Guthrie
The one reference to blacks in South Carolina public school textbooks of my generation was in the required 7th grade course based on the Sims South Carolina History. Said text’s only reference to blacks was to note that chattel slaves of the Palmetto state were so delighted with their status that they felt compelled to frequently burst into song, dancing as they did so. Doubtless my fascination with Countee Cullen’s lyrically beautiful poetry, when I discovered it as an adult, was enhanced by my abysmal ignorance of black history early on.
Cullen began writing poetry at fourteen. He was recognized early on as a student of exceptional brilliance and promise, winning a city wide poetry prize while still a student at Manhattan's prestigious Dewitt Clinton High School. His prize winning poetry was widely reprinted. He graduated from New York University Phi Beta Kappa. The first of his many books was a poetry collection, Color, published the same year he graduated. It met with considerable critical acclaim. He then took a masters degree at Harvard. Cullen became a noted figure of the Harlem Renaissance along with such luminaries as Langston Hughes. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928 and studied abroad for two years. He married Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois. Playing out a tragedy reminiscent of the cowboy protagonists of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, after two months of marriage Countee traveled to Europe--not with his bride, but with his alleged lover Harold Jackman. Cullen and his wife divorced the next year. Cullen did eventually remarry; to one Ida Mae Robertson. He died of uremia on January 9, 1946. Three examples of his poetry follow: