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TheLifeandTimesofCounteeCullen

CounteeCullenwasbornCounteeLeroyPorteronMay30,1903.Hisplaceofbirth
hasalwaysbeeninquestion.MostagreethathewasmostlikelyfromLouisville,Kentucky,but
itisspeculatedthathecouldhavebeenfromChicago,Baltimore,ortheNewYork.WhenCullen
wasabout13or14,hemovedtoHarlem,NY.HisgrandmotherraisedhiminHarlemuntilher
deathwhenhewasabout15.Afterhisgrandmother'sdeath,thepastorandfounderoftheSalem
MethodistEpiscopalChurch,Rev.FredrickAsburyCullen,adoptedanorphanedandalone
Countee.Rev.CullentookalikingtoCounteebecauseofhismeticulousandcleverpersonality.
Whilelivingwithhisadoptedparents,Cullen'sloveofliteratureandtheartsbegantogrow.His
fatherhadahugelibraryfullofbooksthathewasabletoread.Heexcelledinhisstudies,and
hispassionforliteratureandspecificallyliteraturebegantogrow.Hisfosterparentswerevery
conservativeyetsociallyactivepeople,andtheyweremostlikelythemainsourceforCullen's
loveofempowerment,blackactivism,religion,andsocialjustice.Withthehelpofareligious
upbringingandtheHarlemRenaissance'scultural,racial,andartisticinfluences,CounteeCullen
wasabletocreatepoemsandotherliteraturethatunequivocallyreflectedhisloveforpoetryand
hopeforequality.
In1918,Cullenbeganattendingapredominantlywhite,highlyacclaimedhighschool
intheBronxcalledDewittClintonHighSchool.Thereheexcelledacademicallyandparticipated
inmanyextracurricularactivities.Anexcellentstudenthewaselectedtotheschoolshonor
society,AristahestudiedLatinandreadtheworksofnineteenthcenturyEnglishpoetsLord
Byron,AlfredTennyson,andAfricanAmericanpoetPaulLawrenceDunbar(Cohassey).At
thisschoolheflourishedandbegantowritesomeofhismostfamouspoetry.Hisacademicskills

wereaboveparashegraduatedtopofhisclass,andhecontinuedtoresearchandstudypoetry.
Healsoparticipatedinmanyextracurricularliteraryactivities,andbegantobecomevery
popularthroughoutHarlem.CullenthenwentontoattendNYUfrom1921until1925.During
histimetherehebecameaverytalkedaboutandwellknownpoet.Hebegantogainrecognition
alloverAmerica,andhispoetrywaspublishedinmanyprestigiousmagazines.Hethenwenton
toattendHarvardfrom1925untilhisgraduationin1927.Betweenhighschoolandhis
graduationfromHarvard,Cullenwasthemostpopularblackpoetandvirtuallythemostpopular
blackliteraryfigureinAmerica(Early).HereceivedanhonorarymastersdegreeinEnglish
andFrenchfromHarvardandcontinuedtowritemesmerizingpoetry.Eventhoughmuchis
knownabouthiseducationalcareerandovernightrisetofame,thereisahugelackof
documentedinformationabouthischildhood.Inmanycaseshisplaceanddateofbirthdiffer,his
birthmothersnameisdebated,andhisbiologicalfathersnameisusuallynevereven
mentioned.ItisalsonotveryclearhowandwhenexactlyheendedupinHarlem,NY.Even
thoughthereisnotalotofdocumentedinformationabouthisearlyyears,enoughisknownto
provethattheywerethemostformativeyearsofhislifeandwritingcareer.Hewouldgoonto
basealargemajorityofhispoemsoffofhischildhoodinfluencesandexperiences.
ReverendFrederickAsburyCullenwasaveryprominentblackactivistintheHarlem
community.In1902,heestablishedSalemMethodistEpiscopalChurchatthecornerofAdam
ClaytonPowellBlvdand7thAveinHarlem.Thechurchquicklygrewsizeandbecameoneof
themostprominentinNYinthe1920sand30s.Rev.CullenandhiswifeCarolynBellCullen
adoptedCounteeinlate1917orearly1918,andtheyallgrewveryclose.Counteespokeon
manyoccasionsofhisloveforhisadoptedparentsandoftenaccreditedhisfatherwithsparking

hisloveforliteratureandpoetryinparticular."CounteeCullenhimselfstatedinCarolingDusk
(1927)thathewas"rearedintheconservativeatmosphereofaMethodistparsonage,"anditis
clearthathisfosterfatherwasaparticularlystronginfluence"(Early).Itisveryevidentthrough
Countee'swritingsandstatementsthathisfatherinstilledastrongfaithandrelianceinGodin
him.Forexample,inhispoem"SimontheCyrenianSpeaks,"CullentellsthestoryofSimonthe
CyrenefromtheBible.SimonwasthemanthathelpedJesuscarrythecrossthroughthestreets
ofRomeuptothemountainonwhichhewascrucified.CullenalludestoabeliefinJesusChrist
onmanyoccasionsandinmanydifferentpoems.Thisagaingoestoshowhowhisformative
yearsstronglyimpactedhispoeticwritings,andhowhecarriedhischildhoodlifelessonsand
experienceswithhimfortherestofhislife.AnotherinfluenceonCounteeCullenwasHarold
Jackman.CullenandhisfuturebestfriendmetwhileattendingClintonDewittHighSchool
togetherin1918.Theybecameveryclosefriends,andovertheyearstheirfriendshipcontinued
togrow."HaroldJackmanbecameCullen'sclosestfriend.TheyweretheDavidandJonathanof
theHarlemtwenties.Cullendedicatedhispoem"Heritage"toJackmanand,knowingthetwo,
oneimaginesthatanumberoftheotherCullenpoemsmightwellhavecarriedthesame
dedication"(Bonstemps12).ManypeopleduringthetwentiesandthirtiesconsideredJackman
andCullenmorethanjustfriends.Jackmanwasoftentimesregardedasthemuseormotivation
foralargenumberofpoemsthatCullenwrote."Heritage,"arguablyCullen'smostfamouspoem
wasalsodedicatedtoMr.Jackman.
Harlem,NYduringthe1920swasahubofart,literature,selfexpression,and
empowerment.CounteeCullenwasoneofthemostfamousliteraryfiguresoftheHarlem
Renaissance.WhenCullenwasabout13or14,hemovedtoHarlem(NY)withawomanmost

peoplerefertoashisgrandmother.Afterhisgrandmother'sdeath,Rev.CullenadoptedCountee.
ItcouldbearguedthathismovetoHarlemchangedhisentirelife.Hewasknownforaddressing
manypressingissueswithinhiscommunity.Besidesraceandreligion,Cullenwasalways
addressingissuesofsocioeconomicstatus.Inhispoem"Saturday'sChild,"Cullenaddressesone
ofthemostpressingandmostrelatableissuesofthenandnow,socioeconomicstatus.Inthis
particularpoem,thenarratortalksofthedifferenceintheworldsoftherichandthepoor.Justas
headdressesraceandreligioninhispoetry,Cullenfindsanartisticandcleverwayofcomparing
bothendsofthesocioeconomicspectrum.Hisuseofimagery,wordchoice,andmanipulationof
wordsiswhatmakesthisparticularpoemsogreat.CounteeCullenalsousessomeofthesame
toolsinotherpiecesofpoetry.
Cullenwasverykeenonpeoplelookingforthedeepermeaningsofhispoetry."Countee
Cullen'slyricgiftiswellrecognized,andtheprevailingdictumisthathispoemsinvolvedwith
raceareprobablyhisbest,althoughhedidnotwanttobejudgedasaNegropoet"(Bonstemps
41).ThefactthatCullendidnotwanttobecalledaNegropoetwasratherironicbecausealarge
majorityofhispoetrywasaboutorrelatedtoissuesofraceandblackempowerment.Hewas
alwaysveryparticularaboutthewayhewasaddressedintheliteraryandHarlemcommunity,
andoftentimesstressedthathedidnotwanttoberecognizedapoetthatwrotejustracebased
poetry."Cullensaidthathewantedtobeknownasapoet,nota"Negropoet."Thisdidnotaffect
hispopularity,althoughsomeHarlemRenaissancewriters,includingLangstonHughes,
interpretedthistomeanthathewantedtodenyhisrace,aninterpretationendorsedbysomelater
scholars.Areadingofhispoetryrevealsthisviewtobeunfounded.Infact,hismajorpoems,and
mostofthosestillbeingprintedinanthologies,haveracialthemes"(Johnson).Manyofhispeers

tookthisashimdisowningorrejectinghisrace.Whetherornothedidnotwanttoberecognized
asaracebasedpoetorhewantedtorejecthisrace,themajorityofhispoetrywasinfact,race
based.Inoneofhismorefamouspoems"HeyBlackChild,"hewritestwentysevenlinesofwhy
andhowlittleblackchildrenshouldlovethemselves.Thatpoeminitselfspeaksoftheviewsand
thingsthatwereimportanttoCullen.Apersonwhowasrejectingtheirraceorattemptingtobe
somethingotherthanthemselveswouldneverwriteanythingsupporting,buildingup,and
promotingselfloveandempowermentofsaidrace.Cullenbeautifullyillustratestheseimportant
ideasin"HeyBlackChild.Evenwithhimwritingmanypoemswiththesamethemesand
connotations,manypeoplestillthoughtthatbecauseCullendidnotwanttobeknownassolelya
racebasedpoet,hewasattemptingtoachievecertainwhiteness.Theybelievedthathedidn't
wanttobeassociatedwithblackpeopleandtheblackmovement,ratherthantheblackpeople,
blackmovement,andothergroupsandcollectionsofpeopleandthings.Cullenwasknownfor
attackinginjustice,ofallkinds,inhispoetry.
Lastly,healsooftenwrotepoetrythathighlightedideasofhopefortheendof
injustice,love,andaconnectionamongstallpeople.Inhispoem"ForAPoet,"CounteeCullen
speaksofahopeforsomethingbeautifulinthefuture.Thenarratorlongsforequalityandsocial
justice.ThispoemdirectlyreflectssomeoftheveryprominentideasthatsurroundedCullen
duringtheHarlemRenaissance.Blackempowermentandhopeforthefutureofblackpeople
wereveryprominentmovements.Peoplewerebecomingverysupportiveofafuturewherethey
wouldbeabletocoexistwithothersasequals.
CounteePorterCullenwasoneofthemostinfluentialliteraryfiguresandpoetsofhis
time.HisreignduringtheHarlemRenaissanceonlymadeoneofthebiggestartisticmovements

inhistorythatmuchbetter.WiththehelpofareligiousupbringingandtheHarlemRenaissance's
cultural,racial,andartisticinfluences,CounteeCullenwasabletocreatepoemsandother
literaturethatunequivocallyreflectedhisloveforpoetryandhopeforequality.
Inhispoems"SimontheCyrenianSpeaks,""Heritage,""Saturday'sChild,""HeyBlackChild,"
and"ForAPoet,"Cullenpiecestogetherwordsandphrasesthatwentontomovemountainsand
breakbarriersHarlem,NYandacrosstheworld.

WorksCited
Bonstemps,Arna,ed.TheHarlemRenaissanceRemembered.NewYork,NY:Dodd,Mead&
Company,1972.Print.
Cohassey,John."Cullen,Countee19031946."encyclopedia.com.N.p.,n.d.Web.14Mar.
2016.<http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Countee_Cullen.aspx>.
"CounteeCullen:OnlinePoems."english.illinois.edu.N.p.,n.d.Web.14Mar.2016.
<http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cullen/online_poems.htm>.
Early,Gerald."AboutCounteeCullen'sLifeandCareer."english.illinois.edu.OxfordUniversity
Press,n.d.Web.14Mar.2016.
<http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cullen/life.htm>.
"'Hey,BlackChild'byCounteeCullen."allhailchanel.weebly.com.N.p.,n.d.Web.21Mar.
2016.<http://allhailchanel.weebly.com/harlemrenaissance.html>.
Jackson,Major."CounteeCullenandtheRacialMountain."bostonreview.net.N.p.,27Mar.
2013.Web.22Mar.2016.<https://www.bostonreview.net/poetrybooksideas/countee
cullenandracialmountain>.
Johnson,CliftonH."AboutCounteeCullen'sLifeandCareer."english.illinois.edu.OxfordUP,
n.d.Web.16Mar.2016.
<http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cullen/life.htm>.