Cullen, Countee (1903?-1946) | Amistad Research Center
One of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen achieved recognition as a respected writer at an early age and was one of the most widely read American poets during his lifetime. Cullen contributed greatly to African American letters as a poet, playwright, and editor. He later taught in the New York school system.
Cullen's early life, including his date of birth and birthplace, has been speculated on by scholars. He was likely born on May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky, although his birthplace has also been cited as Baltimore, Maryland; New Orleans, Louisiana; and New York City. His father is unknown, and his mother, Elizabeth Thomas Lucas, died in Louisville in 1940.
By 1916, Cullen was living with Amanda Porter, presumably his grandmother, in New York. He attended Public School 27 under the name Countée L. Porter. After her death in 1917, Cullen went to live with Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen and his wife, Carolyn, in Harlem. Although he was never formally adopted by the Cullens, he assumed their surname in 1918.
Cullen did well in school, was active in various clubs, and received a number of awards and recognitions. Throughout secondary school and at New York University, he was active in various literary societies and his poetry began appearing regularly in school publications. His poetry won awards from contests sponsored by the Empire Federation of Women's Clubs, the Poetry Society of America, and The Crisis magazine, and was published in magazines such as American Mercury, Poetry, Opportunity, The Crisis, Harper's, and others. Cullen's first book, Color, was published in 1925 during his senior year at New York University, where he received his bachelor's degree. He received his master's degree from Harvard University.
Cullen's second book, Copper Sun, was published in 1927 and was awarded a prize by the Harmon Foundation. During that same year, he edited an anthology of African American poetry entitled Caroling Dusk, which was illustrated by Aaron Douglas. Cullen's work received widespread acclaim due to his ability to portray the African American experience through classical poetic forms. He was soon hailed as the leading literary figure of the "New Negro Movement," which later became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Cullen served as assistant editor of Opportunity from 1926 to 1928, which regularly featured his column, "The Dark Tower." The year 1928 saw the publication of his third volume of poetry, The Ballad of a Brown Girl. He began studying in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship that same year. The Black Christ and Other Poems was published while he was living in France.
In 1928, he married Nina Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois. However, they divorced two years later, in part because of Cullen's admission to her that he was sexually attracted to men. During the 1930s and 1940s, Cullen continued to write; however, he failed to receive the critical acclaim of his earlier works. He wrote his only novel, One Way to Heaven (1932), a volume of poems entitled The Medea and Some Poems (1935), and two books for children, The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942).
Cullen lectured and conducted readings during those decades. He began teaching in New York public schools in 1932, and accepted a full-time position teaching English and French at Frederick Douglass Junior High School two years later. He married Ida Mae Roberson in 1940. Cullen died on January 9, 1946.
Cullen's interests in classical and romantic lyrical poetry lead some critics, including contemporaries such as Langston Hughes, to fault his work for not addressing African American themes on a deeper level, especially in his later work. His collaboration with Arna Bontemps on the script for the musical St. Louis Woman was also opposed by the NAACP for its representation of African Americans. However, Cullen remains one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and was for many years the most celebrated poets in the United States.