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“Countée Cullen. Twenty-two. Watch him.”

By Danielle Brune Sigler

Countée Cullen was one of the first poets to establish a national reputation in the midst of the Harlem, or New Negro, Renaissance. Critics recognized Cullen’s first book of poetry, Color (1925), as a significant literary achievement.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) [Portrait of Countee Cullen, in Central Park], June 20, 1941. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]
Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) [Portrait of Countee Cullen, in Central Park], June 20, 1941. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]

 

Countée Cullen’s first book of poetry, <em>Color</em> (Harper & Brothers, 1925).
Countée Cullen’s first book of poetry, Color (Harper & Brothers, 1925).

 

Throughout his life, Cullen expressed the desire to be known as a “poet” rather than a “Negro poet.”  That is, he wanted critics and readers to appreciate and evaluate his work without regard to his race. This philosophy subjected Cullen to a fair amount of criticism from fellow artists including his friend Langston Hughes, who took Cullen to task (without naming him) in his influential essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”

 

Cullen’s poem “Yet Do I Marvel,” as it appeared in <em>Color</em>.
Cullen’s poem “Yet Do I Marvel,” as it appeared in Color.

 

Today, Cullen is probably best known for two poems that appeared in Color: “Yet Do I Marvel” and “Incident,” both explicitly about the experience of being African American in the United States. “Yet Do I Marvel” begins:

 

I doubt not that God is good, well-meaning, kind,

And did He stoop to quibble could tell why

The little buried mole continues blind,

Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die…

 

and concludes:

 

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:

To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

 

In “Incident,” the narrator recounts a trip to Baltimore as a young man during which a white youth “poked out/ His tongue” and called him a racial epithet:

 

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.

 

The first page of John Weatherwax’s review of <em>Color</em> from the January 1926 issue of <em>Palms</em>.
The first page of John Weatherwax’s review of Color from the January 1926 issue of Palms.

 

These poems are but a small sampling of the wide ranging poetry of Color, a collection praised for its depth in many reviews. Among those was a review in the poetry magazine Palms. Palms had featured poems by Cullen in 1923, 1924, and 1925.  In the January 1926 issue, Palms reviewer John Weatherwax pronounced Cullen “one of the greatest of the younger American poets” and praised the great variety and depth of the collection. Weatherwax concluded his review with three succinct statements:

 

Countée Cullen.               Twenty-two.                      Watch him.

 

Cullen had indeed become a poet to watch, and he would continue to shape the Renaissance, not only as a poet, but as an editor as well.

 

The acknowledgements page reveals how extensively Cullen had published his work even before the publication of <em>Color</em>.
The acknowledgements page reveals how extensively Cullen had published his work even before the publication of Color.

 

Materials related to Countée Cullen and his work are in the Ransom Center’s book collection as well as the Idella Purnell Stone Personal Papers and Records of Palms Magazine and other manuscript collections.

 

Related content

Countée Cullen and “The Negro Number” of Palms

Caroling Dusk, An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets

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