Five Black Facts: Countee Cullen

“Yet Do I Marvel”
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 brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Countee Cullen, 1925

– 1 –

Born an orphan in 1903, Countee Leroy Porter was raised in Harlem, New York with his grandmother until he was nine.

He was adopted at 15 years old by Reverend Frederick Cullen who founded the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the largest congregations in Harlem.

Countee Cullen excelled in his studies at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, New York where he was editor of the school newspaper, elected class vice president, and won prizes for his poetry and oratory skills.

Countee graduated Clinton in 1922 and pursued undergraduate studies at New York University.

– 2 –

Countee’s father, Reverend Cullen, was soon elected to president of the Harlem NAACP at a time when Harlem was bubbling with a new and intellectual spirit of what it meant to be Black in America.

Equipped with a strong sense of self, Countee competed in collegiate literature and oratory contests, won prizes, and had work published in national periodicals including Harper’s Magazine.

In 1923, Countee was awarded second prize in the Witter Bynner Contests for Undergraduate Poetry for his poem, The Ballad of the Brown Girl, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America.

The same poem placed second in the 1925 Opportunity literary contest, one of three sponsored by National Urban League’s academic journal on black life during the Renaissance.

– 3 –
After graduating NYU, Countee completed his Master of English at Harvard University and accepted membership in the honors society Phi Beta Kappa.

He published his first collection of poetry entitled Color, which included some of his most famous works like Yet Do I Marvel, Heritage, and Near White.

While completing his Guggenheim Fellowship in France, he met and wed Nina DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois, in spring 1928 hailed as the premiere wedding of the season.

The marriage lasted only a few years when sensational rumors surfaced about the questionable homosexual relationship between Countee and Harold Jackman.

Countee was married at the time of his death to long time sweetheart, Ida Mae Robertson.

– 4 –

Countee was passionate about universal subjects such as love, faith, doubt and believed literature could lead to a more accepting, colorblind society.

 A true believer in the healing power of art, Countee challenged creatives of the Harlem Renaissance, especially writers, to use their art to build bridges between races while esteeming blackness and censoring bitterness.

Analysis of his written work reveals a shared experience with other black intellects of his time who wrestled with the beauty of the American dream in the face of harsh realities.

– 5 –
Countee turned to teaching English and French literature and creative writing as a means to contribute to social change.

The majority of his teaching career he spent at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City.

His passion for theatre trumped his fame in poetry as he took to writing more stage plays for his students, then for Broadway.

Countee collaborated with his lifelong friend Arna Bontemps, an esteemed writer of the Harlem Renaissance, to transform Bontemps’ novel God Sends Sunday into the musical adaptation St. Louis Woman.

 Accused by the NAACP for revealing the demeaning side of blacks, it would be another three years, and after Countee’s  death in 1946, before St. Louis Woman would make a Broadway debut.

One thought on “Five Black Facts: Countee Cullen

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