Countee Cullen and the Culture Wars (a ramble)


In his famous Countee Cullen smackdown in the Nation magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain“, (which was cleverly disguised as a George Schuyler smackdown), Langston Hughes slyly signifies on his friend, confidante and fellow Harlem Renaissance luminary by opening with the following condemnation:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.

It just goes to show how much Cullen suffered for his peculiar vision: Cullen, the “Black Keats” wrote traditional sonnets loaded with Greek and Roman allusions, never aspiring to the newer modernist models that attracted his peers. Indeed, the other young black poets Cullen associated with were more aligned with the downtown Modernists – Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer – than with Cullen’s Victorian verse, and they thought Cullen’s traditional verse showed too much deference to older European forms. Hughes, Hurston and others were unapologetic Modernists: they rejected the bourgeois ideals of the older generation, and were interested in erecting something new and uniquely American in its place.

On the other hand, the older guard of activists and artists loved Cullen. Cullen even married (disastrously, as it turns out) W.E.B. DuBois‘ daughter Yolande. Cullen, more than just proving that black poets could write verse as strong as white poets, showed that he could write verse that surpassed most of the poetry published by white authors. After all, the only traditional lyric poet writing at that time at the level of Cullen was Edna St. Vincent Millay. (It’s curious that the two most adept traditional poets would be a black poet and a bisexual female poet; which just goes to show that sometimes those most disenfranchised are also those most fluent in the system which disenfranchises them.)

But Cullen’s understated, distanced and sly way of writing about race seems to me to be a result of his bifurcated place among the old guard and the new writers. Being a few months younger than Langston, and part of the Bohemian group of writers who published the subversive magazine FIre!!, he really did belong to the their clique; but as something of a literary relic, and only a halfway rebel, he was never an easy fit. And in his personal life, he also had an uneasy bifurcated relationship with his own identity.


Cullen’s birth is a mystery. No one knows the exact day of his birth, no one knows the exact spot; no one knows his exact parents or his original birth name; no one knows much of anything about his early life. He was both an orphan and (once adopted) the son of a successful Harlem preacher. As such, Cullen felt like a pagan – a motherless child, a mystery man, and a trickster, as well as a child of God. Stories he told about his early life were as likely to be true as they were to be false, and almost through no fault of his own. The concept of identity for Cullen was particularly complicated. So while most of the Harlem Renaissance authors were looking to history, to Africa, to ancient culture and myth to rediscover their literary identities, Cullen couldn’t even place his literary identity in his native American soil, let alone in African culture. In his poem Heritage, he writes:

“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

Africa, for Cullen, is a fiction. An unreal, imagined land of exotic sights and peoples. He ends the poem by concluding:

“Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.”

Cullen is Western through and through, even if he tries to deny it. What use trying to fit classical African models onto his art, when classical European models were a more comfortable fit? Or this seems to be his argument, at least.

What’s missing is why Cullen seems to have been passed over by modernism, while all his peers were compelled by it. In my opinion, Cullen’s appreciation of traditional verse results from his father’s preaching, and his schooling. His father’s preaching would have attuned his ear to Biblical language. His teachers were all enthusiasts of the Romantics. Cullen sounds tame to us now, and he could even sound tame (sometimes) in his day, but for Cullen, the Romantics would have been subversive, extremely so, as Cullen’s relationship to poetry prior to his exposure to them would have been almost strictly Biblical. Keats, Byron, Shelley must have come like a revelation.


More importantly, I think he felt a special affinity with the Romantics, one that he felt even more deeply than he felt the strictures of modern society. Countee Cullen is in many ways Byron’s wandering Childe Harold: a wandering poet, fallen from grace. So when Hughes writes, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself,” the question of self was a more complicated one for Cullen than for Hughes. Langston Hughes’ concept of self was developed through his interaction with lower middle class black life in Kansas and Cleveland, and later, when Hughes visited his father in Mexico, a renunciation of his father’s racism and self-hate. Cullen came to an understanding of himself through the church, and through school. His self is a problematic mix of church, culture, and the impossible position of being a very dark, gay black man in America in the early 20th Century. “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: /To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Radicalism in poetry for Cullen was the use of older (white) literary forms to create a black poetic aesthetic. When Claude McKay wrote sonnets, he wrote them as weapons: they were angry, socialistic and black nationalistic, as in the famous “If We Must Die

“If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

When Cullen wrote sonnets, his temperament was not that of the angry black man. He wanted to be a poet first, black man second; and as such, if he were to write as a black poet, he would write as a satirist – trickster – Eiron, the black poet who could whip the white poets at their own game, and in the process demonstrate the absurdity of racialist thinking.

It’s fair to say that many of the younger Harlem Renaissance writers(with the powerful exceptions of Hughes, Hurston, McKay and Sterling Brown) were striving to be post-racial writers in a way the writers of the 60’s Black Art Movements (and older writers like WEB DuBois) were decidedly not . The tensions arose from how the writers thought best to achieve this. George Schuyler and Countee Cullen considered blacks “lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons” – with no other differences whatsoever. Fair enough. This went right along with the new anthropological work being done by Franz Boas and other leaders of the field, which was rapidly proving there were indeed no biological differences between the races, and that the concept of race was a social construction. Nevertheless, the history and culture of an oppressed people was not a fiction, and writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay saw no way of engaging literature honestly without writing as outspoken members of this community. Jean Toomer thought of the American as a new race altogether – if a term as outmoded as race was to be used at all. What all the writers seemed to agree on, though (at least for a time, Toomer’s a more complicated case), was the necessity of a black cultural arts and letters movement.


This cultural inferiority complex was not limited to Black America. As late as 1920, the cultural critic HL Mencken writes, “America has not produced any writer worthy of the name of second-rater.” Americans looked to Europe for examples of truly exceptional art and culture. Countee Cullen was no exception, and so his decision to base his poetry on European models is understandable. It was simply an American response. In many cases, (as in that of Edgar Allen Poe) it would take a European artist to give the thumbs up on an artist before Americans even had the confidence to accept the artist as important. Here we have the beginnings of what we call today The Culture Wars. Was there a purely American art – and if so what was it, beyond the crass, superficiality of America’s money driven, more and more pop-culture driven economy – or had Europe already set the standard for high art? Similarly, Black Americans asked themselves, was there a Black American art – and if so what was it – and what was its place within the context of a larger American art – if such a thing even existed?

Furthermore, American art has always distrusted its own popular culture because American culture is so heavily inflected with African American culture, and America was built on the idea that African Americans were not even human. But American culture cannot be separated from Black culture. No other country has such a troubled relationship with its own folk culture.

As we are all well aware, the Culture Wars are still with us today. The Great Depression put a choke hold on the activities of many of the Harlem Renaissance writers (as well as white writers) and in the wake of the Renaissance, came social realism. Social Realism gave way to the sixties, Black arts, and Black power, and the idea of a black writer trying to be post-racial at that point was not really feasible. This in part hurt the career of a writer as illustrious as Ralph Ellison, who was not sure how to respond in fiction to the 1960’s. The Black Arts Movement ravaged the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Critics like Houston Baker, Harold Cruse and Irving Huggins blamed the failure of the Harlem Renaissance on white patronage.

While white (and black) patronage, did hurt (and help) some of the Renaissance writers, the conclusion of the sixties critics is too reactionary, although many of the questions the Black Arts and Black Power Movements asked were never satisfactorily answered. For example, how does a minority community assimilate comfortably into a culture built off of systemic racism?

I’ve been using the term “post-racial,” but as far as I know, that term was never once used by any of the Harlem Renaissance writers. I’ve been using it because I want this post to have a resonance for our own times, where, after Obama’s election, we often heard talk about a post-racial America; a fantasy obviously dismissed in the wake of this bleak election of Donald Trump. So much for the myth of progress.

Now that is not to dismiss the importance of the first black president, or even to say that there has been no great progress since the 1960’s; that would be an absurd claim. I do think, however, that we’ll be stuck with the Culture Wars for a while – basically a cultural civil war – that began with the end of Reconstruction and hasn’t left us since; the very real concerns of the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement were never fully addressed; and they must be forcefully addressed if we are to survive as a country. Nothing makes this more obvious than Trump’s election.

Countee Cullen was onto something with his uneasiness about taking on the folk modernism of Hughes, Hurston and Brown. After all, DuBois’ idea was that a Talented Tenth of Black Americans were meant to speak for the entirety of black people. This kind of elitism was not an easy fit with the poetry Hughes was writing, or with his elevated place in society – and even though Hughes always tried to remain a champion of the everyman, the institutional place he increasingly occupied in the culture elevated him well beyond the position of the common man. Cullen on the other hand wrote poetry that would be more in line with a so-called Talented Tenth. The populism of Hughes and Brown (and to a less extent Hurston) was an illusion which had the deadly possibility of turning into opportunism.

Similarly, the populism we see today is a reaction against the elitism that the Democratic and Republican parties have created – a system where money determines elections, and where large corporations have more rights than individual citizens. On the other hand, the real successes of black artists and politicians threaten those white Americans who feel pushed out by the elitist establishment. The Culture Wars today are like the embodiment of Cullen’s poetry: Americans are fueled by the desire to sing and soar, with an attachment to the high culture values of the past; and yet we know that we are essentially other – that we are multicultural, multiracial, that we were not born into the elite, and that is the reason for much of our bifurcated schizophrenia; that is the reason a large number of people could vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and then vote for a virulent racist like Donald Trump in 2016.

The Culture Wars are political wars and the political wars are cultural wars. Countee Cullen was a black man who could not come to terms with his blackness; he never learned fully to appreciate, understand or investigate it. Similarly the United States is a black country that has not yet come to terms with its blackness. With a setback like Donald Trump, it will not be an easy journey; but America must not be afraid to be its(black)self.

-Whit Frazier, 2010 (Updated November 20, 2016)

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