Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

The African-American artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance faced difficult problems as they attempted to enunciate a collective identity for themselves and their people. Should they demonstrate excellence by working within traditional art forms or should they develop new forms specifically derived from black experience? Should they write (or paint, or sing) only about their experiences as black people, or should they write like Americans, or about universal issues? If the answer was always to write as blacks, could it be maintained that there was just one black experience common to all African-Americans? Countee Cullen, a black middle-class New Yorker, experienced these issues in a particularly divisive fashion: he wanted to be a traditional poet but felt it his duty to articulate a black experience that was not entirely his own.

He was the adopted son of a Methodist minister and enjoyed a secure, comfortable childhood. He attended New York public schools, and traveled to Europe. He carried a Phi Beta Kappa key at New York University, where he received his B.A. in 1925; he took an M.A. at Harvard in 1926. He returned to New York as a public-school teacher. His first book of poems, Color, appeared in 1925, when he was only twenty-two. His youth, his technical proficiency, and the themes of the poems–truth, beauty, and goodness, in the world of time and circumstance–established him as the "black Keats," a prodigy.

Cullen’s anthology of black poetry, Caroling Dusk (1927), was an important document for Harlem Renaissance poets. He prefaced his selection with the assertion that the forms of English poetry, not transcriptions of black dialects or militant manifestos, were the proper tools of the artist. In this idea he went counter to the practices of such other Harlem writers as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes; he wanted to be a poet as he understood poets to be. Nevertheless, the titles of his books–Color as well as Copper Sun in 1927 and The Ballad of the Brown Girl in 1928–showed that he felt a responsibility to write about being black even if he did so in modes alien to black folk traditions. And he acknowledged in the preface to Caroling Dusk that it was not easy to be both a black and an American.

Cullen won a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete The Black Christ in 1929 and published a novel, One Way to Heaven, in 1932. He succeeded in his aim of becoming a literary man recognized for his skill as a traditional artist, but it is an important part of his achievement that in an era when American society was far more racially segregated than it is now he worked to bring black themes to the awareness of white readers who admired him because he exploited poetic modes that they found familiar.

The text of From the Dark Tower is that of Copper Sun (1927); the text of the other poems included here is that of Color (1925).

Yet Do I Marvel

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus1 (5)
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn (10)
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

1. Tantalus and Sisyphus (line 7) are figures in Greek mythology who were punished in Hades for crimes committed on earth. Tantalus’s punishment was to be offered food and water that was then instantly snatched away. Sisyphus’s torment was to roll a heavy stone to the top of a hill and, after it rolled back down, to repeat the ordeal perpetually.


Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small, (5)
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December; (10)
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition (Nina Baym, General Ed.)