Countee Cullen: Biography & Poetry

Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will review the early life of the poet Countee Cullen. We will also explore his role in the Harlem Renaissance as well as the ways in which his poems reflected the literary movement.

Biography - Early Life

Countee Cullen was born in 1903. His birthplace is not known for certain, but it may have been Louisville, Kentucky. Sometime around 1918, Cullen was adopted (though never officially) by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen and Carolyn Cullen after his grandmother passed away. Frederick Cullen was a black activist minister who established the largest Methodist church in Harlem. He raised Countee in a conservative Christian household, and he had an influence on Countee's politics and how he saw culture in America.

While in high school, Cullen began to establish himself as a poet and writer. He was the editor of his school newspaper and literary magazine, and he won his first writing contest. After high school, he attended New York University and wrote most of the poems that would be published in three volumes. This success led to Cullen's involvement in the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was one of the most influential movements in African-American literary history. In fact, many scholars believe that this movement laid the foundation for most of African-American literature. The Harlem neighborhood in New York City, which was once predominantly white, became a place for black intellectuals, artists, and writers, and soon became known as 'the capital of black America'.

These writers' goal was to define black people separately from the stereotypes and racism that had been placed on them by white people. They wanted to embrace their heritage and each other. The group of Harlem Renaissance writers worked together in all aspects of arts, including music, theater, and poetry. Through this, the movement became more than just about the arts, but a sense of racial pride that demanded civil rights.

Cullen's Role In The Harlem Renaissance

Many scholars believe that Countee Cullen was one of the most influential poets of the Harlem Renaissance. While Cullen's poems did reflect the goals of the movement, particularly the message of racial pride, he was different than the other poets. Cullen's writing was more mainstream than the others', and he seemed to reject the idea that African Americans had to have their own poetry or writing style. He did not want to be recognized as only a 'black poet' but just a poet, someone who wrote for all audiences. Cullen also rejected the writing styles of the other poets in the movement and stayed with a more traditional English verse. Because of these differences, Cullen became a unique voice of the movement and one that developed universal themes meant for everyone.

Poetry and Writings

Although he is known for his poetry, Cullen also was a novelist and playwright. Cullen published four volumes of poetry, and he also worked to promote other black poets.

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