The year was 1925 and the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. A young poet by the name of Countee Cullen published his first collection of poetry entitled, Color. Considered an instant success, Alain Leroy Locke proclaimed that Cullen was "A genius!" and that his poetry collection "transcends all of the limiting qualifications that might be brought forward if it were merely a work of talent."
Yet two years earlier, Cullen proclaimed "If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it." And Cullen's philosophy as a poet was evident throughout a career that spanned more than twenty years. Using styles developed by John Keats and William Wordsworth during the period of Romanticism, Cullen wrote lyrical poetry to explore themes such as alienation, racial pride and self identity.
Early LifeCullen was born on May 30, 1903. Cullen's birthplace is unknown--according to varying accounts, he was born in either New York City, Baltimore, or Lexington, Ky. Early in his life, he was orphaned and raised by his maternal grandmother. When Cullen was nine, he was bought to Harlem and was adopted by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor and founder of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. Cullen attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. As a high school student, Cullen began to develop his skills as a orator and poet.
EducationFollowing Cullen's graduation in 1922, he attended New York University (NYU). In his freshman year, Cullen won second prize in the undergraduate poetry contest with the poem, "The Ballad of the Brown Girl." This contest provided Cullen with a jump start to his literary career--his poetry was published in journals including Harper's; The Bookman; Poetry as well as Crisis and Opportunity.
In 1925, Cullen graduated from NYU and traveled to Boston to attend Harvard University. While Cullen was pursuing a master's degree in English Literature, his first collection of poetry, Color was published. The following year, he graduated from Harvard University and returned to New York City.
Career as a Writer
Returning to New York City, Cullen began establishing himself as one of the most prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen served as assistant editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life for two years and wrote a column called "The Dark Tower." During this time, Cullen continued to write and edit collections of African-American poetry. In 1926, Cullen edited a special issue of Palms featuring African-American poets. The following year, Cullen edited an anthology of poetry by African-American poets entitled Caroling Dusk.
In 1928, Cullen received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Paris. He also published another collection of poetry, The Ballad of a Brown Girl.
That same year, Cullen married Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois. However, the marriage was short lived and the couple divorced in 1930.
Cullen continued to work and publish his writing. Another collection of poetry, The Black Christ and Other Poems was published in 1929 and Cullen's only novel, One Way to Heaven hit book stands in 1932 and The Medea and Some Poems was his last collection of poetry.
Life After the Renaissance
Although Cullen's later literary works did not receive much acclaim, he continued to publish, speak and teach. By 1934, he was working as an English and French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Harlem. The novelist and essayist,James Baldwin , was one of Cullen's students.
In 1940, Cullen wrote The Lost Zoo and two years later, My Lives and How I Lost Them.
Death and LegacyCullen died in 1946 from complications associated with high blood pressure.
Cullen's legacy is honored in Harlem at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library.