The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance: Countee Cullen
By Mary Arnold
Like Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen is also "something of a mysterious figure" (Early 194). The place of his birth is unknown, and not much is known of his childhood, except that he was adopted by Frederick Cullen, a Methodist minister, and his wife sometime before 1918. Cullen was enormously popular in literary circles, and the Negro intelligentsia hailed him as a "major crossover literary figure" since
Here was a black man with considrable academic training who could, in effect, write 'white' verse - ballads, sonnets, quatrains, and the like, much in the manner of Keats and the British Romantics, (albeit, on more than one occasion, tinged with racial concerns) with genuine skill and compelling power. (Early 195)
Thus, Cullen was viewed as a man who could be "assimilated" while still maintaining his "racial self-consciousness" (Early 195). It may be, however, that Cullen didn't manifest a struggle with his identity as an African American in the world of white intellectualism because he had a more pressing identity conflict: that of his unorthodox sexual desires (homosexuality) against the Christian insistence of heterosexuality.
Cullen embraced a particular form of public "blackness" in his position as poet, but that very public position, which he eagerly wished to maintain, conflicted with a very different form of "blackness" embodied in his private desires for black men. The tension between these different modes of being produced the creative tension out of which much of Cullen's poetry was born. (Powers 664)
Cullen employed many themes in his five volumes of poetry: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), and The Medea and Some Poems (1935). However, the majority of Cullen's poetry, in the style of "traditional lyric poets" of English romanticism, deal with love and thwarted love and sexual desire and sexual repression (Canaday 107).
This conflict between "public responsibility and private desire" is explored in Cullen's "Heritage" and "The Black Christ." Both protagonists in these poems experience an internal struggle to express their sexual longings while being constrained to repress desire by society's mandated moral propriety. In "Heritage," the protagonist resolves to "Quench my pride and cool my blood / Lest I perish in the flood" (Powers 667). The tragic consequences of fulfillment of sexual desire are exhibited in the poem "The Black Christ." Through Jim, we can see a struggle between sexual desire and social propriety:
While the narrator in "Heritage" struggles against the expression of desire, finally killing it to preserve his body, Jim expresses his desire openly and defiantly. Sexual expression becomes a means of challenge, of throwing down his "gage." He is lynched in short order. (Powers 673)
Like the novels of Fauset and Larsen, Cullen's poetry explores such romantic themes as desire and loss, transgressing racial, social, and sexual boundaries, and creating a sense of self. Langston Hughes will also explore many of these themes, but his poetic style was not based on classical English forms. Rather he uses black vernacular and the rhythm of jazz and blues to construct the melody of his poetry.
Canaday, Nicholas Jr. "Major Themes in the Poetry of Countee Cullen." The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972. 103-125.
Early, Gerald. "Countee Cullen." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 194-96.
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