May 30 is the birthday of Countee Cullen (1903-1946), celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance. During the 1920s and 30s Harlem was the scene of an extraordinary flowering that generated a new black cultural identity. Also known as the New Negro Movement, this period was described as a “spiritual coming of age” where the black community seized opportunities for self-expression and self-determination. As a highly skilled poet, Cullen touched upon the beauty and complexity of being black during this vibrant period.
Although Cullen may have been born in Louisville or Baltimore, he grew up in Harlem and spent his teen years in the parsonage of Rev. Frederick Cullen. The prominent Methodist minister, along with his wife, Carolyn Belle, appear to have adopted Cullen. As a student at DeWitt Clinton High School, young Cullen began writing poetry at 14.
The aspiring poet enrolled at New York University in 1922, receiving a number of awards with his works also being published in The Crisis, under the direction of W.E.B. DuBois, and Opportunity, publication of the National Urban League. His works were published in Harper’s, Century Magazine, and Poetry. In 1925, Cullen not only graduated Phi Beta Kappa from NYU but published his first collection, Color. He also enrolled in a master’s program at Harvard and went on to complete it with the publication of additional poetry volumes in 1927: Copper Sun and The Ballad of the Brown Girl.
Aside from his success as a poet, Cullen also mastered other literary forms. He was recognized as a novelist, having published a satirical piece connected to the Harlem Renaissance called One Way to Heaven in 1932.Three years later the poet became the first African American to translate and publish a version of the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides. In addition, he published a children’s work, The Lost Zoo, and collaborated with Arna Bontemps in adapting his novel God Sends Sunday for the stage which debuted on Broadway following Cullen’s death in 1946.
Among the poems published in his first collection, Color, is a poetic recollection of an experience that took place in Baltimore as a child. In light of the recent, national attention given to Baltimore, Cullen’s poem is particularly noteworthy 85 years since his birth
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.