Countee Cullen

One of the most distinctive voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen's belief that art transcends race made his poetry popular with both black and white readers.

Photo: Countee Cullen, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1941, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

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    Cullen’s exact birthplace is unknown, but in 1918, at the age of 15, Countee LeRoy was adopted by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the minster to the largest church congregation in Harlem.

    Cullen kept his finger on the pulse of Harlem during the 1920s while he attended New York University and then a graduate program at Harvard. His poetry became popular during his student years, especially his prize-winning poem “The Ballad of a Brown Girl.” In 1925, he published his first volume of poetry entitled Color. Within the next few years, Cullen became well-known, publishing several books and winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928 (to write poetry in France).

    At first, Cullen was critical of Langston Hughes’ poetry, writing that, in using jazz rhythms in his poetry, Hughes was erecting barriers between race instead of removing them. In his own poetry, Cullen sought to erase these boundaries and took traditionalist poets, such as Keats and A.E. Housman, as models for his own poetry. However, despite his criticisms of other black poets, the majority of Cullen’s own verses confront racial issues.

    By the 1930s, Cullen’s influence had waned, though he continued to publish prolifically, including novels, a collection of poems for children, the autobiography of his cat, and an adaption of his novel God Sends Sunday into a Broadway musical.

    –Christie Finn
    Source: Poetry Foundation website

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