Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

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Countee Cullen

1903-1946 / Poet, editor

By the time aspiring poet Countee Cullen graduated from New York University in 1925, his work had appeared in national magazines such as Harper's and The Nation. His first book of poems—Colors, published the year he graduated—earned the praise of critics and readers alike.

Cullen resisted being pigeonholed as a black poet, yet many of his poems tackled issues of race. Indeed, he embodied the New Negro movement and the values and abilities of the Talented Tenth (the black intelligentsia).

That's no surprise when you consider his background: The adopted son of the pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, Cullen grew up surrounded by notable figures of Harlem's cultural life.

In 1921, Cullen's connections—and his ambition—led him to join a writers' group at the local public library. Among the talents he met there was Ethel Nance, the secretary of Opportunity magazine; Jessie Fauset, editor of the NAACP's The Crisis magazine; and writer Gwendolyn Bennett. Before long, Cullen had become Opportunity's assistant editor, working under Charles S. Johnson, and he began writing his own column, "The Dark Tower." Cullen's connection to the Harlem literati network also led him to collaborate with writer Arna Bontemps and composer Harold Arlen on St. Louis Woman, a musical adaptation of Bontemps' 1931 novel, God Sends Sunday.

Cullen's literary style rivaled his personal flair. While his poems explored modern racial injustices within classical forms such as the 14-line sonnet, his courtly manners and impeccable dress distinguished him as a true gentleman. Cullen's 1928 marriage to Yolanda Du Bois, daughter of civil rights pioneer W. E. B. Du Bois, was a watershed event in Harlem society; guests packed not only the church balcony but the streets outside.

Cullen's writing brought him plenty of plaudits in his lifetime. Among the honors he received were literary prizes from Opportunity magazine, the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal Award, and one of the first Guggenheim Fellowships ever awarded to an African American.