Countee Cullen (born Countee LeRoy Porter; May 30, 1903 – January 9, 1946) was an American poet, novelist, children's writer, and playwright during the Harlem Renaissance.
When his paternal grandmother and guardian died in 1918, the 15-year-old Countee LeRoy Porter was taken into the home of the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, Harlem’s largest congregation. There the young Countee entered the approximate center of black politics and culture in the United States and acquired both the name and awareness of the influential clergyman who was later elected president of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Photography by Carl Van Vechten
Cullen’s participation in the Harlem Renaissance was influenced by a movement called Negritude which represents “the discovery of black values and the Negro’s awareness of his situation." Cullen saw Negritude as an awakening of a race consciousness and black modernism that flowed into Harlem. Cullen’s poetry “Heritage” and “Dark Tower” reflect ideas of the Negritude movement. These poems examine African roots and intertwine them with a fresh aspect of African American life.
Countee Cullen’s work intersects with the Harlem community and amongst the prominent figures of the Renaissance such as Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes. Ellington admired Cullen for confronting a history of oppression and shaping a new voice of “great achievement over fearful odds.” Cullen maintained close friendships with two other prominent writers, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. However, Hughes critiqued Cullen, albeit indirectly, and other Harlem Renaissance writers, for the “desire to run away spiritually from [their] race.” Hughes condemned “the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” Though Hughes critiqued Cullen, he still admired his work and noted the significance of his writing.
Countee Cullen’s work intersects with the Harlem community and amongst the prominent figures of the Renaissance.
Duke Ellington admired Cullen for confronting a history of oppression and shaping a new voice of “great achievement over fearful odds.”
Countee Cullen was at the epicenter of this new-found surge in literature. Cullen considered poetry to be raceless.
However, his poem "The Black Christ" took on a racial theme which analyzed a black youth convicted of a crime he did not commit. "But shortly after in the early 1930's, his work was almost completely [free] of racial subject matter. His poetry instead focused on idyllic beauty and other classic romantic subjects."
Cullen’s talent as a poet was recognized at an early age. While both a high school student and an undergraduate, his poetry won several awards and he consistently published in some of the leading magazines and journals, including Crisis and Harper’s. His first collection of poems, Color, was published in 1925, placing him squarely in the arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen’s conventional approach to poetry, both in form and subject matter, put him at odds with several of the younger writers of the Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, although they all deeply respected one another. Cullen frowned upon Hughes’ experimentation with poetic form within a jazz idiom and, like some of the more conservative writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Jessie Fauset, he advocated for literature to represent the more respectable aspects of black life.
Cullen went on to publish several collections of poems, an anthology of African American verse, a novel, and two children’s books. He arguably penned some of the most recognizable poems to African Americans, including “Heritage” and “Yet Do I Marvel.”
Although there is very strong historical evidence that Cullen privately identified as a gay man, he never led an openly gay lifestyle. Rather, he married Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande, in 1929 but they divorced in 1930. He married Ida Roberson in 1940, by which time he was a teacher in the New York City public school system. Cullen died in 1946, at the tragically young age of 43.