Countee Cullen - Biography

Countee Cullen

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 someday die, Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus 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 With petty cares to slightly understand What awful brains compels His awful hand. Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

('Yet Do I Marvel' By Countee Cullen)

Years have passed by and we haven’t seen enough of the poets who were mainly restricted to romantic poetry. John Keats was the undisputed champion and followed by him, it was mostly Countee Cullen. There were others too (Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Melvin Tolson, Nella Larsen), but Cullen had a significant role to play in the field of English Romantic Poetry.

Cullen, on the other hand, went out of his way to establish a proper platform for writers and poets of his timeline. He worked with Langston Hughes to establish one of the earliest bodies in the United States, to give rise to African American poets ‘n writers.

The people from the field of literature haven’t seen a lot of unbiased souls. Countee Cullen wasn’t biased, he used to think that poetry is a form of literature that’s free of racism, hatred and prejudice. He strongly condemned lynching and wanted Black people to be treated the same way as White people were. His efforts merged with those of other people of the same race and contributed significantly towards the liberation of the black nation.

The Subject of Countee Cullen’s Birth:

Known as Countee Leroy Porter, was oblivious of the warmth and love of his parents. He was abandoned at the time of his birth, which is why; his paternal grandmother took care of him. Its not known whether Mrs. Elizabeth Porter did it out of sheer love for the child, or just because she had a liability at hands, but she did take good care of Cullen. Having said that, Cullen’s place, date and year of birth is unclear.

Some people suggest that he was born in Kentucky, while others say that Baltimore was more like it. Most probably, it was Louisville Kentucky because his mother died in the same area in 1940, and previous records of his admission forms at the New York University say that he wrote down Louisville in there. Anyways, Cullen’s parents never tried to contact him. He had a disturbed childhood because none of his parents were there to look over his shoulder.

At some point, his mother did contact him but that wasn’t until Countee had become famous. Probably she wanted him to dish out a huge amount of cash but that’s about it. When Countee Cullen was 9 years old, his grandmother reallocated to Harlem. Her health was already deteriorating so she did what she could, to give this kid a head start. He was enrolled in Public School Number 27 – Bronx. A year later, Ms. Porter passed away and Cullen was “alone” once again.

In those days, Reverend Fredrick Ashbury Cullen used to be one of the most influential figures. He was a pastor at Salem African Church in Harlem. It was quite a large Church and the pastor had his fair share of good reputation. It was natural for him to adopt Countee; besides the kid was barely 15 and needed a home and a family.

He wasn’t formerly adopted but the Cullens were like natural parents to him. They provided him with everything that he ever wished for and it was due to the immense love and support of the Cullen family that he dropped the middle name and assumed “Countee P. Cullen” in 1925, as his full name. He was an outstanding student and earned an enviable reputation in every single school that he ever attended. He got selected in the DeWitt Clinton School, a place that was quite prestigious in those days. Most of the students came from White families and if you ever happened to see a Black kid enrolled there, it was probably because his parents or guardians were influential, or maybe because of the student’s potential in academics.

Whilst at DeWitt, he did extremely well and earned his way towards the Vice President of the Class title. He also brought several awards back home and was considered to be a prodigy by some of his teachers. He made full use of the opportunities that DeWitt had to throw his way. Cullen contributed a lot to the editorial section of the school newspaper.

Later on, in 1921, he was appointed as the associate editor of Magpie, the school’s literary magazine. His reputation earned him a lot of trust and other responsibilities as well. At one point, during his education years, he was appointed as the treasurer of the Inter High School Poetry Society. The senior year was perhaps the finest of all the times that he had spent in the school. The senior year ended up with Cullen’s entitlement to the Magpie Cup.

As far as his poetry is concerned, he had been writing short poems and stanzas on different subjects since elementary school level. The tid bits of his finest work occasionally surfaced at the local school publications but it didn’t bring him the sort of fame, popularity and recognition that a person of his caliber had always deserved. All thanks to his poem: “I Have a Rendezvous with Life”, his recognition started expanding imminently afterwards.

May 1925 was another important phase of his life that stands witness to major changes. It was the right time for Countee Cullen to rise and be known forever. He released his first volume of poems that was titled “Color”. It’s the same book that later on won him a Harmon Foundation Award and was published the same year when the poet finally graduated from the New York University. Color was widely received and had enough potential to push Countee Cullen in the league of some of the finest poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

Cullen’s poetry and books carry the effect of a traditional writing style. He has always found himself at the condemning end against racism and black oppression. Some of his other remarkable titles comprise poems, such as: “Heritage”, “Incident” and “Injustice”.

Followed by Color, the second volume of Cullen’s poetry was known as “Copper Sun”. This book was published in 1927 by Harper and Brothers. Once again, the Harmon Foundation officials were more than happy to bestow an award upon Cullen for his contribution to the literary circles. Some of his poems go a little off track, as they deal with life, love and yearnings of a child.

For those of us who think that Countee Cullen’s poetry only sympathized with humans, think again. In his poetic book, “The Lost Zoo (1940 Publication)”, he talks about animals who perished in the great Flood. Other than that, he has briefly written about his cat, by dedicating a autobiography to it. Probably the creature is bragging off about “My Lives and How I Lost Them” in its little Cat Heaven.

On January 9 – 1946, Countee Cullen died of gastronomical disorder. His death was sudden and is often brought to controversy because some fans think that he was poisoned. Meanwhile, the rest of the bandwagon likes to think that Cullen died of high blood pressure and the complications that were associated to it. Nevertheless, he will always be honored as one of the most praised and celebrated poets of the African American nation.