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COUNTEE CULLEN

The Harlem Renaissance and His Effect

 

 

For a Lady I Know

She even thinks that up in heaven

Her class lies late and snores,

While poor black cherubs rise at seven

To do celestial chores.

 

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Countee Cullen

 

    Born Countee Porter May 30, 1903 in Lexington, Kentucky (?), Cullen was raised first by a woman believed to be his paternal grandmother and then in a Methodist parsonage, the adopted son of Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Ashbury Cullen.  He attended De Witt Clinton High School in New York and began writing poetry at age 14.  I Have A Rendezvous with Life was his first published poem.

    In 1922, Cullen entered New York University. His poems were published in The Crisis, under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, and Opportunity.  Soon after he was published in Harper’s, the Century Magazine, and Poetry.  He won several awards-for his poem, Ballad of the Brown Girl. Harper published his first volume of verse, Color (1925).  His second volume of poetry, CopperSun (1927) met with controversy in the black community.  Cullen did not give the subject of race the same attention he had given it in Color.

    Cullen had been raised and educated in a primarily white community, De Witt was one of the finest public schools in New York and very few African-American students were enrolled there.  He differed from other poets of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes, in that he lacked the background to comment from personal experience on the lives of other blacks or use popular black themes in his writing. An imaginative lyric poet, he wrote in the tradition of Keats and Shelley and was resistant to the new poetic techniques of the Modernists. Cullen's other verse collections include Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) and The Black Christ (1929).  He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928 enabling him to study and write abroad, between the years 1928 and 1934 Cullen traveled back and forth between France and United States.  By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. His marriage to Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois, did not succeed and they divorced in 1930.  Cullen’s second wife was Ida Mae Robertson.

    From 1934 until his death, Cullen taught French, English, and creative writing at Frederick Douglas Junior High School in New York.  Cullen’s later works included children’s stories such as THE LOST ZOO (1940) about the animals Noah did not take on the ark and MY LIVES & AND HOW I LOST THEM, an autobiography of his cat.  Other publication’s include the verse collections ON THESE I STAND (1947), novel ONE WAY TO HEAVEN (1932), a social comedy of lower-class blacks and the bourgeoisie in New York City, THE MEDEA AND SOME POEMS (1935), a collection of sonnets and short lyrics together with a translation of Euripide's tragedy, and plays ST LOUIS WOMAN (1946, published 1971) & THE THIRD FOURTH OF JULY (1946).

    His friend and literary collaborator Arna Bontemps told that Cullen was very preoccupied with the question of whether he would be remembered as a poet or as a "Negro poet."  Almost his only public comments about the art in which he expressed himself were pleas for an evaluation of his work strictly on its merits, without racial considerations. He was to learn, however, that this was no easy matter.  Cullen died on January 9, 1946.

 

 

 

                                                                                          

    The Harlem Renaissance

 

    The 1920’s in New York City, Harlem, was a time exploding with African- American artistry, political energy and racial pride.  It is often called the New Negro Movement-The Harlem Renaissance was an awakening from

the bleakness of slavery that had only ended a few generations before.  Book-ended by the Great War and The Great Depression, this Renaissance was short but powerful.

    The Harlem Renaissance, a period of great achievement in African-American art, literature, music and dance.  Jazz and blues became the height of fashionable music and the careers of such greats as jazz musician Duke Ellington and singer Bessie Smith were founded.  Literature was pushed to a new high with the 1925 publication of Countee Cullen’s Color. His sensuous lyric verse expressed themes in the life of his race and shed light on social reality.  A fresh generation of writers emerged, although a few were Harlem-born. Among the leading figures were Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thunnan, William Jourden Rapp, and Arna Bontemps.   The movement was accelerated by grants and scholarships and supported by such white writers as Carl Van Vechten.

    In its segregated world of the early twentieth century, Harlem was a ghetto, but a thriving ghetto, Blacks in Harlem were able to earn more than the average white family in mant ares of the South.  After World War I, the US was economically booming and this benefited not only Whites but African-Americans, as well.  Northern factories were offering jobs for Southern blacks and they migrated North by the hundreds of thousands (750,000 to be specific).  They left the Jim Crow South to discover the relevant tolerance of New York, the capital of ferment, fashion and freedom. Like other parts of New York, Harlem was a cosmopolitan community, where rural farmworkers, black professionals, musicians and hustlers strolled along Seventh Avenue.  Harlem homed blacks of every class from dockworker to doctor.  Before the Roaring Twenties, most whites believed African-Americans incapable of culture or sophistication.  The renaissance obliterated these false beliefs.

   

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  From the Dark Tower

We shall not always plant while others reap

The golden increment of bursting fruit,

Not always countenance, abject and mute,

That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;

Not everlastingly while others sleep

Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,

Not always bend to somemore subtle brute;

We were not made to eternally weep.

 

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,

White stars is no less lovely being dark,

And there are buds that cannot bloom at all

In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;

So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,

And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

 

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