May 30, 2010
Though now eclipsed by other Harlem Renaissance writers, COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-46) was the movement’s harbinger, and the most celebrated African-American poet of his generation. Largely innocent of Zora Neale Hurston’s folkloric sources and Langston Hughes’ immersion in blues, the NYU- and Harvard-educated pastor’s son’s verse combined mastery of Anglo-European forms with an assured, Keatsian use of rhyme. His pursuit of formal balance hardly numbed him to racial concerns: the three quatrains of “Incident,” in which a passerby’s n-bomb becomes the poet’s sole memory of “the whole of Baltimore,” cut to a depth that a more inflamed presentation might not have matched. An early Guggenheim and marriage to W.E.B. Dubois’ daughter, both in 1928, made Cullen a symbolic pillar of the black community, but his later poetry — “universal” in theme but covertly homoerotic — was poorly received by both black and white critics. By the 1930s, he was publishing children’s books (and a translation of The Medea) while teaching junior-high French. Despite these reversals, Cullen never wavered from his own view as to which aspects of his identity were essential and which accidental, as implied by the couplet of an early sonnet: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:/To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) generations.