Any Human to Another
Countee Cullen 1935
Countee (pronounced “count-tay”) Cullen struggled throughout his artistic career to be regarded as a poet, instead of being categorized as a “Negro poet.” Earning fame during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement that originated in a section of New York City that was primarily populated by African Americans, Cullen was at the forefront of artists who gained national prominence during the 1920s and early 1930s. In “Any Human to Another,” Cullen discusses the human condition and the issue of equality. The poem is from Cullen’s last book of verse, The Medea, and Some Poems, published in 1935. Because Cullen was an African–American writer who often addressed racial themes, there is probably much about his experience of bigotry that influenced this poem, although racial issues are not directly mentioned. As the title indicates, Cullen believed that he was writing about a universal topic, and therefore the poem is not a study of any particular person, event, or time.
Cullen was born Countee Leroy Porter in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1903 and raised in New York City by his grandmother. Following her death in 1918, he was adopted by the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen. Reverend Cullen had helped found the National Urban League and served as president of the local chapter of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). An excellent student, Cullen attended DeWitt Clinton High School, New York’s premier preparatory school, before enrolling at New York University in 1922. During high school and college Cullen placed poems in several publications and won numerous literary prizes. Color, his first volume of poetry, was published in 1925, the same year he graduated from New York University. After completing a graduate degree at Harvard University, Cullen returned to New York, where he was already considered a leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and began writing a column on literary and social issues for Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League. He published several volumes of poetry and edited Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927). In 1928 he received a grant to study in France. Before he left, he married Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois. The marriage was a brief one; Yolande stayed with Cullen in France only a short time before returning alone to the United States. They were divorced when he returned in 1930. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Cullen’s poetic output declined as he turned to other forms of writing. He published the novel One Way to Heaven (1932) as well as stories and verse for children. Although he was offered a teaching position at Dillard University in New Orleans in 1934, he declined to relocate to the South; instead, he became a creative writing teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York, a position he held for the remainder of his life. In the mid-1940s Cullen collaborated with Arna Bontemps on a play, St. Louis Woman (1945) and began preparing a collection of those poems he considered his best. This book, On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, was published in 1947, the year after his death.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Unnamed troubles cause the speaker sadness. Without more information, the reader is unable to determine whether the troubles are physical, emotional, or spiritual. Furthermore, the troubles might be personal, those of others, or of the world.
In the first line, the speaker seemed to be an isolated individual. However, in the second line we learn that the speaker is linked with others in some way. The link might be shared sorrow, but we cannot be sure, having read only two lines.
Again, lack of information leads to ambiguity: the reader is unable to determine if the arrow in the simile of this line represents the ills or those people associated with the speaker. Most likely the arrow stands for the “ills” because ills and an arrow shot in battle are similar, with harm typically resulting from both.
By line 4 it becomes clear that the arrow represents ills that have harmed the speaker and others to their marrow, or the core of their being. “Arrow” and “marrow” are symbols suggesting that the ills and suffering are very real and that the resulting pain is so intense as to be like a physical injury caused by a weapon.
The first stanza uses a confusing sentence structure: the verb “pierce” is delayed until the fourth line, making the reader wonder for longer than expected about the effect of the “ills” mentioned in the first line. The idea in this stanza is fairly simple—the ills cause deep pain to people—but the complex sentence structure causes the reader to slow down and contemplate while reading.
Images of fat and bone are part of the speaker’s continuing effort to convey the concreteness and physicality of the damage done to people by the ills that he is describing.
Here the speaker addresses the reader directly, acknowledging that they both feel grief. This grief is likely from the same source, the ills spoken of above.
Here the speaker is either strongly advising that grief be shared or is stating that the nature of grief is such that it cannot be experienced independently, and necessarily must be shared.
The simile begun in line 9 compares the grief of individuals to rivers flowing to the sea. Just as
separate rivers combine in a single body of water, the grief of each person becomes part of the grief suffered by all humanity. An image of seas and rivers covering the earth reinforces the notion that all people around the world are part of this community of grief. However, use of the words “mingle” and “diverse” indicates that we retain our individuality and uniqueness even while acknowledging that we are “fused” and “single” because of our common bond.
By addressing the entire human race, the title of the poem implies universality. Similarly, this line strengthens the sense of universality and absoluteness in the speaker’s message.
The speaker offers a warning against pride, which is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins that is fatal to spiritual progress.
Though confidence is often thought of as a positive quality, in the context of this discussion it has a connotation of arrogance, pomposity, or self-importance—traits that go against the poem’s theme of equality and universal fellowship.
In lines 15 through 19 the speaker sarcastically uses the metaphor of a life lived alone in a tent in Page 4 | Top of Articlea private meadow to express his feelings about an isolated, self-centered existence apart from the rest of humanity. Use of the word “little” in lines 16 and 19 indicates the speaker’s contempt for those people who deny their connection to others.
By describing “Joy” with such terms as “shy” and “friendly,” the speaker sets up a contrast with “Sorrow” in line 22. Much in the same way that a person might be selective about whom they take as a friend, joy is observed to be very selective and unpredictable, affecting some people but not others.
The speaker presents “Sorrow” as capable of the human feeling of scorn and of the human ability of speech. In contrast to joy, which is “shy” and “friendly to a few,” sorrow is very outgoing. “Sorrow never scorned to speak to any who were false or true” means that sorrow affects everyone, because we are all either false or true, good or bad. In other words, sorrow—unlike joy—affects everyone, regardless of the kind of lives that they lead. We are reminded of the title of the poem, which addresses all people.
The speaker asks to feel the grief of the reader, even though grief will “strike [the speaker] down” like a weapon. Shared grief is given a noble quality when described as “shining and unsheathed” like a polished sword.
After the speaker accepts the sorrow of the reader, the reader must accept the sorrow of the speaker. Acceptance of another person’s sorrow is difficult (“bitter”) yet healing (“aloes”). In the last line, the reader becomes king-like for accepting the sorrow of the speaker. The last line also may contain Christian imagery that links the reader to Jesus Christ. According to the Christian tradition, Christ suffered for the sake of others and was crowned with thorns before being crucified.
The speaker of this poem is drawing attention to a fact of our existence that is often recognized but seldom emphasized: that we all identify ourselves as individuals but, at the same time, also as human beings. He makes this point most directly in line 11, with the words, “Diverse yet single.” Usually, a person defining him- or herself will focus on the aspects that make an individual life unique, such as special talents, circumstances, or ideas that seem as if no one else has ever or will ever experience them. Somewhere within that self-definition, though, is the assumption that one is a human being, and it is this identity—which touches all individuals equally—that the poet is concerned with here. To some extent, it seems as if he is promoting a falsehood by mixing the definition of the individual so freely with the definition of the species. It defies common sense: although he tells us that we suffer when others suffer, we are all more familiar with ignoring others’ problems and having our own ignored. To argue against Cullen’s point, one could extend the same reasoning to a similar case, pointing out, for instance, that when one chair collapses all other chairs stay strong. This argument would say that Cullen could show no identifiable way in which one person’s grief carries to another who does not experience it. Cullen’s likely counter argument would be that human intelligence makes us aware of our identity in a way that no other object or animal can be. One cannot experience another’s suffering, and may even try to keep it out of mind, but being conscious of humanness means one cannot escape the knowledge that being human connects everybody.
The basis for religious, ethical behavior is that humans should all treat each other the way that God wants them to. The foundation for humanist ethical behavior, which tries to determine what we should or should not do without working the idea of God into the balance, has always been that we should treat each other as we think we should be treated ourselves. This bond of recognition is, of course, what “Any Human to Another” is all about. In this poem, Cullen centers on the idea that sorrows are transmitted from one human to another, but he does nothing to suggest what we ought to do about this fact. The obvious consequence of the situation described in this poem is that we should be good to each other in order to lighten our own portion of sorrows. This conclusion is so obvious that there is no reason for the poem to even mention it. Cullen uses five carefully crafted stanzas, with the most eloquent language imaginable (which helps convince the reader that these are intelligent and sensitive thoughts) and a rhyme scheme that Page 5 | Top of Articleintertwines the same way he says that human lives intertwine. In short, he spares no poetic technique in order to make readers feel the truth of his claim that our fortunes are all mixed up together. It is not enough for readers to agree; they must believe what he says deeply within their hearts. When readers believe what he says, ethical behavior must necessarily follow.
It would be wrong to assume that Countee Cullen, being from a racial minority, always focused on the struggle for social equality in his writings. Still, whether it was his intention or not, this poem does touch upon the root cause of much of society’s ills. The foundation of social inequality is that somebody in a position of power feels that somebody else is less deserving than they. Throughout history, the question of who is and who is not “deserving” has troubled politicians and social planners. As early as 400 B.C., when Plato’s Republic was recorded, the greatest minds have grappled with the concept of justice, or the matter of everyone getting what they deserve. Different reasons have been given for excluding people from society’s privileges. Some of the most common are, first, criminal behavior, and then laziness and ignorance. In today’s society, for example, we jail criminals and we also accept the idea of large salaries for those people who we feel either have worked particularly hard or who have special knowledge that most people lack. Civil rights become an issue when a group of people is denied social benefits for no good reason. In such cases, the people who do the denying must show a certain callousness or lack of feeling toward the people they are oppressing. In this poem, Cullen does not address the question of who “deserves” to be treated with less respect in society; he leaves social injustice to be examined by hundreds of other poets. Instead, Cullen is reminding the privileged—who might be fortunate enough to avoid suffering—of the responsibilities they have for other humans. Those who have distanced themselves from the suffering of others are the ones who need to remember the rights of others.
“Any Human to Another” is a 31–line poem, with five stanzas: two 7-line stanzas, two 6-line stanzas, and one 5-line stanza. Each stanza has its own distinct
rhyme scheme (abccab, aabccb, ababccd, and abacabc, respectively). By employing rhyme and a regular verse structure while at the same time varying the rhyme schemes and stanza lengths, Cullen combined unity and diversity in the form of the poem. Similarly, the theme of the poem emphasizes our common humanity while recognizing the worth of the individual. The five stanzas are, as line 11 puts it, “diverse yet single,” each of them treating the theme of fellowship in different ways.
On October 29, 1929, after a decade of postwar growth and prosperity, the U.S. stock market collapsed. This event was followed by the cycle of poverty known as the Great Depression that lasted throughout the 1930s. There are dozens of theories about what caused the Depression, but most of them agree about the importance, to various degrees, of several key points: that the confidence of U.S. investors was so shaken by the stock market crash that they kept their money out of circulation, which hindered economic recovery; that the failures of some banks put strain on the banks remaining, which then shut down, taking unheard-of
sums of money out of circulation and overburdening the economy; and that similar financial disasters in other countries, many of them the consequences of the World War that had ended in 1918, kept America from recovering quickly from what could have been a slight economic downturn. The effects of the Great Depression are easier to note, by examining the lives of people in the 1930s. It is estimated that by 1932, the height of the Depression, 12 million Americans were unemployed. This huge figure becomes an even larger percentage when we realize that the U.S. population then was only 124 million, less than half of what it is today, and that women were rarely part of the customary workforce and would therefore not have been counted in unemployment statistics. Although actual starvation was scarce during the Depression, malnutrition rose dramatically: people struggling to obtain food could not be too finicky about maintaining a well-balanced diet. People who once had been employed in prestigious occupations—stock brokers, teachers, and business owners, for example—would walk ten miles or more to wait in line for hours, just to be considered for a job opening. Middle-class families lost their houses when they were unable to keep up with the mortgage payments, and they moved into increasingly smaller apartments and worse neighborhoods. Those who Page 7 | Top of Articlecould not afford to pay any rent at all moved in with relatives. It was not uncommon to have three or four families living under one roof. Because money was tight, the country had no need for anything but the barest basic services, so the jobs that were still available were mostly in manual labor. A trained, experienced professional might find it a mark of honor to be hired as a grill cook or gas station attendant, avoiding the even greater shame of being idle.
In and around cities, people at least had neighbors and community organizations to turn to for support. In rural areas (and one quarter of America was rural at the time), poverty was devastating. At the same time that the Depression was driving down the prices that consumers could afford for food, a drought hit several key farming states. This area was settled quickly in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and because the inexperienced farmers had used improper farming techniques, the soil eroded when the drought hit. Parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado became so dry and barren that they were referred to as the Dust Bowl. While Dust Bowl farmers were unable to produce anything from their land, other U.S. farms were producing more than the marketplace could buy. Prices fell and surplus food that consumers could not pay for rotted in storage. Farmers who could not pay back the money that they had borrowed for seeds and feed for livestock lost their homes and moved to cities, which already had more unskilled workers than they could use Some families stayed on their land, ate what they could grow without hired workers, and did without products that had to be bought with money, such as clothes or heating oil.
In 1932, the country elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency for the first time (Roosevelt eventually won four presidential elections before his death in 1945). Beginning in 1933, his first year in office, Roosevelt’s administration began introducing new programs that used federal money to help the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. Collectively, Roosevelt’s programs to handle the depressed economy were referred to as “The New Deal.” A limited amount of money went directly to unemployed people in the form of “relief” payments. The New Deal also established programs that put the unemployed to work: the Civilian Conservation Corps put three million men to work in the national forests, planting trees and building observation towers and laying telephone lines; the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was to develop the Tennessee River and its tributaries and which pays for itself to this day with the sale of electricity from Hoover Dam; and the National Industrial Recovery Act, which authorized the Public Works Administration to hire citizens to construct roads, buildings, dams, and other public structures.
In 1935, the year this poem was published, a second “New Deal” was announced. This one contained policies that especially bothered many of the rich people who had not lost their money. Taxes on the rich were raised. Privately owned utility companies, which provided necessary services, were subject to government regulation. The National Labor Relations Act assured the rights of organized labor, and the Fair Labor Standards Act established minimum wages and maximum working hours. The Social Security Act introduced the program that we use to this day to make sure that non-working senior citizens and the handicapped will not be destroyed by poverty. “Any Human to Another” was written at a time in this country’s history when circumstances put millions of people in need of help, and the government responded, even though the same complaints of “government interference” and “welfare cheats” that are heard today were also common then.
The Depression ran its course by the end of the 1930s and was over when war broke out in Europe in 1939. Producing weapons and consumer goods for the countries involved in the war boosted economic conditions in the United States, which did not enter the war until 1941. Due to increased production during World War II and the continuation of New Deal policies afterward, the United States has been fortunate enough to avoid another depression since.
It is difficult to find a critical response to Cullen’s work that does not call attention to his African–American identity, for, as Arthur P. Davis put it in a 1974 essay, “Though he rebelled against being labelled a ‘Negro poet,’ he is, if not the finest, certainly one of the best poets of the New Negro Renaissance.” Alan R. Shucard added, “So central to Countee Cullen’s world view is his inescapable race consciousness that it is really no easy matter to differentiate in a great deal of his poetry between racial and nonracial themes.” Here we see the paradox of Cullen’s life work: with poems like “Any Human to Another” he sought to call attention to the universality of human experience so that it
would be recognized by all people, but critics almost always try to find racial commentary in his poetry.
Aidan Wasley is a writer and instructor at Yale University. In the following essay, Wasley examines Cullen’s belief that all people share experiences and are bound together by common threads of pain and suffering regardless of race, age, or gender.
Countee Cullen’s poem “Any Human to Another” presents, on first reading, a vision of community based on the universality of suffering and grief. The title suggests that the words of the poem are not simply those of the poet himself, but could instead be spoken by “any human to another,” and that regardless of apparent differences like age, sex, creed, class, or race, what binds us all together is our shared experience of life’s pain:
Joy may be shy, unique,
Friendly to a few,
Sorrow never scorned to speak
To any who
Were false or true.
Not everyone feels joy in their lives, says Cullen, but no one escapes sorrow. It is this commonality that defines us all as human.
This is an old idea, but Cullen’s poem moves beyond the traditional assertion that human life is, in the customary phrase, a “vale of tears.” The pain and grief that Cullen speaks of are not passively suffered, as if they were unavoidable facts of life. Rather, they are actively inflicted, by “any human” on another. Sorrows are imagined as weapons, “arrows” which “pierce to the marrow,” driven not by nature or some divine force which decrees that we must suffer, but by other men:
Your every grief
like a blade
Shining and unsheathed
Must strike me down.
What makes us a community then is not just that we all suffer pain, but that we inflict that pain on each other. We are bound together by our capacity to hurt one another.
Cullen expresses this sense of fraught inter-connectedness in various ways throughout the poem. The speaker addresses the reader, telling him:
Your grief and mine
Like sea and river,
Be fused and mingle,
Diverse yet single,
Forever and forever.
The griefs of one “must intertwine” with those of another: what one suffers, the other must also suffer. The formal structure of the poem supports this idea of sensations being “fused and mingled,” as it avoids a fixed rhyming scheme in favor of a shifting, fluid form full of internal rhymes (”sorrow”/“arrow”) and varying metrical patterns. The rhymes “intertwine” with one another, as in the first stanza’s abccab scheme, while the insistence of the Page 9 | Top of Articlerhymes themselves suggest the force of a connection that transcends differences. The rhymes connect lines that can be next to one another and with similar stress patterns (“be fused and mingle, / diverse yet single”), or which are many lines apart and with different metrical values (“The ills I sorrow at” / “Through the fat”). What one line sings, another often very different line echoes.
Just as one line echoes another, so too is Cullen’s theme of shared experience and responsibility an echo of a well-known passage from the New Testament in which Christ tells the damned at the Last Judgment, “Whatosever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me” (Mt. 25.40). Cullen, the son of a Methodist minister, is alluding to, and adapting, the Christian notion that sins against one’s fellow man are sins against God. In doing so, Cullen places the speaker of the poem in the position of Christ, and engages in a subtle reversal of the Biblical passage. The Christ-like speaker of Cullen’s poem tells his reader, in effect, ‘Whatever you do to me, you do to yourself’: “Of bitter aloes wreathed, / My sorrow must be laid / On your head like a crown.”
The image of the persecuted Christ is an extremely important one for Cullen, who uses it again and again in his poetry as a complex symbol for the plight of blacks in America. In a poem written six years before this one, Cullen describes the lynching of a “Black Christ,” presenting the hanging of an African-American man in the racist South in terms of the Biblical crucifixion. Similarly, in “Heritage,” Cullen’s most famous poem, he addresses Christ, wishing he were black: “Surely then this flesh would know / Yours had borne a kindred woe.” In “Any Human to Another,” Cullen’s identification of the speaker with Christ encourages us to read this poem as a kind of parable about the relationship between blacks and whites in the United States. The martyr-Christ figure of the speaker represents the history of African-American oppression by whites, whose arrows “pierce” their victim just as the crucified Christ’s side is pierced by a spear. But Cullen’s reversal of Christ’s message—his insistence that persecution places a figurative “crown” of thorns not on the victim but on the oppressor—suggests that the relationship between blacks and whites is an inextricably “intertwined” one. In this community of pain, the poem implies, all are bound together and, in hurting blacks, whites only hurt themselves.
The poem enacts a delicate balance between awareness of the injustices done to blacks by whites, and a desire to move beyond that antagonistic relationship toward one of peaceful, colorblind equality. Cullen simultaneously recalls the African-American history of “sorrow” and “grief” at the hands of whites, while arguing that men should learn to speak, not as blacks or whites, but as “any human to another.” The tension inherent in this poem between the speaker’s consciousness of his race and his wish to transcend it, illustrates a dilemma Cullen faced throughout his poetic career. It is a dilemma which W. E. B Du Bois, the noted scholar and critic (and Cullen’s father-in-law), saw as characteristic of the condition of living as an African-American in a white-dominated culture. In 1903, in his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois famously wrote: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois argued that to be black in America was to be forever caught in the conflict between proud acknowledgment of one’s racial heritage and the desire to be seen not as black, but simply as an American.
As a poet, Cullen experienced this inner conflict even more acutely. Torn between the expectation of his audience—both white and black—that he represent his race, and his ambition to be read not as a “Negro” poet but as an “American” one, Cullen’s sense of his own “double-consciousness” led him, in two famous lines from an early poem, to lament, “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black and bid him sing!” (“Yet Do I Marvel”). To make a poet black is, says Cullen, to condemn him to a state of artistic limbo, forever struggling to escape his limiting role as “Negro” poet.
For Cullen, a Harvard-educated scholar, his response to this dilemma throughout his career took the form of his identification with the dominant tradition of white American and European poetry, in contrast to contemporary black poets like Langston Hughes who found their inspiration in the native African-American tradition of spirituals, blues, and jazz. By asserting his alliance with Anglo-American literature, Cullen was staking his claim as a writer who refused to be restricted by the color line. He wanted to be a poet who was seen to soar above and beyond questions of race, who was judged by
the merits of his words, and his relation to past poets, not by the color of his skin.
Yet while Cullen sought to distance himself from preconceived notions of what a black poet could or could not do, one finds evidence of Du Bois’s notion of “warring ideals” even in poems like this one, which self-consciously echoes canonical English poets like Donne in its evocation in the third stanza of Donne’s famous claim, “No man is an island,” and in that stanza’s first line which recalls the language of Donne’s lyric, “Death be not proud.” (Indeed, if one traces Cullen’s imagery back to poems like “The Ecstasy,” which speak of two lovers’ souls being “intergrafted” such that what one feels the other does as well, one might make an argument that this poem be read as a revision of a Donnean love lyric.) “Any Human to Another” is a poem full of dualities and oppositions, from the central theme of “intertwined” sorrows, to the dichotomies the poem draws between pairs like “sea” and “river,” “sun” and “shadow,” “joy” and “sorrow,” and “false” and “true.” Even the final image of the “crown” is an ambiguous one, as this symbol of victory and triumph is, as we have seen, converted into a symbol of shame and sorrow.
“Let no man be so proud,” says Cullen, “To think he is allowed / A little tent … / All his own.” In light of the poem’s concern with its own “unreconciled strivings,” as Du Bois puts it, we can read these lines as a comment on the desire to stand alone, to break from the community of pain that the poem, and African-American history, describes. The lesson, the poem suggests, is that such an escape is never possible. No man can ever truly retreat to his “little tent.” One cannot, and, in the imperative language of the poem, “must” not forget that the history one shares with others, however painful, forges a mutual relation, a connection that cannot be broken. One’s identity is a product of that history, and while that too may be divided and “unreconciled,” it is that very conflict that makes us who we are. To be “any human,” just as it is to be an African-American poet, is to be forever engaged in the conflict between our sense of our own uniqueness, and our place within the larger community of history and culture. Our relationship with “other humans” is always in tension with our individuality. No matter who we are, each of us, says Cullen, is always “diverse yet single.”
Source: Aidan Wasley, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Houston A. Baker, Jr.
In the following excerpt, Baker explains and defends Countee Cullen’s position within the Black literary tradition.
What is the task of the Black American author and by what standards is he to be judged?
If this query is placed in an historical context, it is relatively easy to gaze back on turn-of-the-century America and see that the odds were stacked against the Black writer who decided that he would give an unflinching portrayal of Black America, that he would make no compromises, and that he—like William Lloyd Garrison—would be heard. There were simply too many Jim Crow laws and lynchings (and too few courageous publishers) for such honesty to exist. And Black creativity, which was to flower in the 1920s, faced many of the same handicaps. The age that witnessed the deportation of Marcus Garvey, the heroic but unsuccessful efforts of James Weldon Johnson to secure the passage of an anti-lynching bill, and the arrest of Ossian Sweet was scarcely one of interracial harmony. Although the chronological span between the end of Dunbar’s career and the publication of Countee Cullen’s first volume of poetry, Color (1925), is almost infinitesimal, critics have seemed unable to bring these twenty years into perspective. Some make it appear that the Harlem Renaissance was a self-willed affair, springing forth from the Black American consciousness like Athena from the brow of Zeus.…
Black American literature came of age during the 1930s and 1940s when proletarian art was in its heyday, and Richard Wright was one of the first Black American authors to achieve overwhelming national and international success. If one adds to this fact the growth of an educated Black reading Page 11 | Top of Articlepublic, it is not difficult to understand why many writers of the fifties and sixties looked upon Wright as a paradigm for Black literature and included the 1920s in the nonage of their tradition. Wright’s early fiction was read approvingly by many white Americans and Europeans, and his themes and aims were often in harmony with a socialistic ideal: propagandistic, oriented toward change, and conceived in accordance with a specific social philosophy. Though the Black American reaction to Uncle Tom’s Children and Native Son was not entirely favorable … he could feel a great deal more assurance than, say, Claude McKay or Langston Hughes in beginning their careers that Black America was amenable to proletarian art.
This historical and aesthetic perspective is necessary if one is to understand the position that Countee Cullen, who was called by contemporaries the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, occupies in the gallery of writers that is being contemplated by today’s artists, critics, and academicians. The space assigned to Cullen seems describable as a dimly lit and seldom-visited chamber where genteel souls stare forth in benign solicitude. [In the book In a Minor Chord,] Darwin Turner, for example, calls him “the lost Ariel,” and Nathan Huggins [in Harlem Renaissance] speaks of Cullen clinging “quite tenaciously to the genteel tradition.” Such phrases only indicate that Cullen did not march to the beat of the drummer who has “boomlay, boomlay, boomlayed” us into the 1970s. But critics are often embarrassed by the poet who is out of step with the age, as though someone had brought out a picture of a nonpartisan ancestor and shown it to their most committed colleagues. There follow tacit dismissals, vague apologies, and overweening defenses.
Of course, the disconcerted responses of Black critics faced with the life and work of Countee Cullen are predicated upon certain progressivistic assumptions; e.g., the poet does not “lead” to the point at which Black authors find themselves today.… Cullen did not think of art in Saint-Simonian or Caudwellian terms; his guiding mode was not the realistic but the romantic, and he believed the poet was a man in tune with higher spiritual forms rather than a social tactician. The romantic mode implies a world charged with wonder and suspends the laws of probability—there is unlimited expectation. Though piety and devotion are operative, the prevailing motive is love. Cullen’s canon reflects all of these characteristics and contains the distinction between a dark romanticism of frustrated love and infidelity and a bright one of harmony and enduring friendship. The mode, or preshaping impulse, of his work is in harmony with his overall conception of the poet as a man who dwells above mundane realities; for Cullen, the poet is the dream keeper, the “man … endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness,” the individual who is “certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of Imagination.” These quotations from Wordsworth and Keats are descriptive; they capture in brief the a priori mandates of the romantic poet.… Cullen defines the poet as a creator of immortal beauty, a man still in harmony with the mysterious and the ideal in an age “cold to the core, undeified,” a person who wraps his dreams in “a silken cloth” and lays them away in “a box of gold.” Such an author is far removed from the ideal social artist and can hardly be compared to many of today’s Black artists, who compose as though our lived realities were contingent upon their next quatrain. What we have, then, is not a difference in degree but one in kind. To apply the standards of a socially oriented criticism to Countee Cullen and dismiss him is to achieve no more than a pyrrhic victory. To expect the majority of his work to consist of the type of idiomatic, foot-tapping, and right-on stanzas that mark much of the work of Langston Hughes and Don Lee is not only naive, but also disappointing. Moreover, to search always for the racial import in the writings of an artist who believed the poet dealt (or, at least, should be able to deal) above the realm of simple earthly distinctions is to find little. To examine the writings of Countee Cullen in detail, however, and attempt to understand both his aesthetic standpoint and the major ideas in his poetry is to move closer to an intelligent interpretation of both the man and the tradition to which he belongs.
The starting point of such an examination is the realization that every notable author in the Black American literary tradition, Cullen included, has been dependent to some extent on the white American literary establishment—that complex of publishers, patrons, critics, scholars, journals, and reviews that can either catapult a writer to success or ignore him.…
[Cullen’s] first published poem, “To the Swimmer,” appeared in The Modern School during his sophomore year at De Witt Clinton High School.… Throughout his high school career, Cullen contributed to the literary magazine and continued to hone his poetic talent. He read Paul Laurence Dunbar and the British and American Romantic poets and resolved to be a writer.
After graduating from De Witt Clinton, he entered New York University, and here he came of age as a poet. He won prizes in the Witter Bynner and Crisis poetry contests, and by 1924, “it seemed that no literary magazines could bear to go to press without a Countee Cullen poem” [according to Blanche E. Ferguson in Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance]. In the fall of 1925, Cullen entered the M.A. program at Harvard University; he came bearing fame and a Phi Beta Kappa key. During the same year, Color was published by Harper and Brothers, and its seventy-odd poems secured the poet’s place as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The acknowledgments page—which contains such exalted names as The American Mercury, The Bookman, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, the Crisis, and Poetry—reveals Cullen as one of the first Black American poets after Dunbar to gain national celebrity.…
Early in the 1930s—the decade of the Great Depression that ended the Harlem Renaissance—Cullen decided to take a teaching job at Frederick Douglass Junior High School. This post turned into a career. Though One Way to Heaven (a novel, 1932) and The Medea and Some Poems (1935) both received kind reviews, by the mid-thirties Cullen’s days as a serious writer were past.…
Arna Bontemps writes [in an article titled “The Harlem Renaissance” in Saturday Review]: “Cullen was in many ways an old-fashioned poet. He never ventured very far from the Methodist parsonage in which he grew up in New York. A foster child, drawn into this shelter at an early age, he continued to cherish it gratefully.” Although Cullen always returned home to Harlem no matter how far he journeyed, the implications of Bontemps’ statement seem questionable; the poet lived in harmony with his adopted parents and is deemed old-fashioned because he never experienced a stage of Freudian revolt. One can see how Cullen would be considered the exception in an age that brought Wallace Thurman, Bontemps himself, and a host of others from all over the country to seek fame and fortune in Harlem. Cullen was already there. Moreover, he was the first to achieve monumental success as an author and to substantially express what many of the Renaissance writers felt. Cullen is old-fashioned, I think, only to the revisionist who feels he must divide the past into neat blocks and firmly ensconce his favorites.
In many ways, the Harlem Renaissance was simply the artistic extension of the socio-political activities of Black Americans during the 1920s. Its end was integration into the mainstream, and its means were not very different from those of white creative artists. Financial success, acknowledgment by literary figures such as H. L. Mencken, Sara Teasdale, and Witter Bynner, and the acclaim of newspapers like the New York World and the Times were considered worthy rewards by all American authors. Countee Cullen was not out of step with his age when he gratefully received any of these. And unlike a number of Black American authors, Cullen refused to be wooed and won by white patrons. He firmly rejected Carl Van Vechten’s offer to secure a publisher for him and steadfastly refused to be channeled into a narrow stream.
Most often criticized is Cullen’s choice of the romantic mode and his reliance on a long-standing poetical tradition. And if his detractors stuck to these charges, there would be little conflict. Most, however, go beyond them and assume that, say, Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer were more forthright, “modern,” and independent than Cullen.…
In short, Cullen can be placed in the Harlem Renaissance camp that viewed the Black writer’s objective of universal success as one strategy for lessening the great American dilemma.…
Countee Cullen … understood better than most the aims of his articulate Black contemporaries. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote [in his article “Our Book Shelf” in Crisis]: “In a time when it is the vogue to make much of the Negro’s aptitude for clownishness or to depict him objectively as a seriocomic figure, it is a, fine and praiseworthy act for Mr. Cullen to show through the interpretation of his own subjectivity the inner workings of the Negro soul and mind.” And Alain Locke felt the poet blended “the simple with the sophisticated so originally as almost to put the vineyards themselves into his crystal goblets. “’The final member of that revered Renaissance triumvirate, James Weldon Johnson, said [in The Book of American Negro Poetry]:
Cullen is a fine and sensitive lyric poet, belonging to the classic line.… He never bids for popular favor through the use of bizarre effects either in manner or subject matter.… All of his work is laid within the lines of the long-approved English patterns. And by that very gauge a measure of his gifts and powers as a poet may be taken. The old forms come from his hands filled with fresh beauty. A high test for a poet in this blasé age.
Cullen was not destined to go unsung like Toomer nor was he subject to the kind of disillusionment that overtook Hughes. One of the most Page 13 | Top of Articleaccomplished literary representatives of a majority point of view, he received both the lavish (and, at times, inordinate) praise and the ironical discomfort that accompany such a position.
With the wisdom of hindsight, one might glance back on Cullen—and the Harlem Renaissance in general—and talk of the myopia of the 1920s. Many Black American artists and critics felt the millenium had arrived. While this was certainly not true, it seems excessively critical to speak of their faulty vision. A view of Cullen’s aesthetic statements reveals that one of his chief demands was the freedom of the Black American artist. Like James Weldon Johnson, Cullen was interested in liberating Black American poetry from the shackles of the past and in developing a strong literary tradition. In a 1926 Crisis article [titled “The Negro in Art”], he wrote: “I do believe … that the Negro has not yet built up a large enough body of sound, healthy race literature to permit him to speculate in abortions and aberrations which other people are all too prone to accept as truly legitimate.” This sounds, on the one hand, like a Victorian moralist calling for fresh air and sunshine in art, but it seems, on the other, wise advice to the poets of an era prone to bizarre tangents. A firm tradition could be established only if the writer exercised meet selectivity. Cullen says:
Let art portray things as they are, no matter what the consequences, no matter who is hurt, is a blind bit of philosophy. There are some things, some truths of Negro life and thought, of Negro inhibitions that all Negroes know, but take no pride in. To broadcast them to the world will but strengthen the bitterness of our enemies, and in some instances turn away the interest of our friends.… Put forward your best foot. [Tucker, In a Minor Chord].
This enjoinder was not prescriptive, however; unlike Jessie Fauset and others, Cullen did not believe the field of the Black artist should be severely limited. His statement is a call for what all fine art must possess—authorial discretion. The specific subject matter is the choice of the individual artist.… [O]ne must beware of interpreting the response as the bourgeois artist’s apology for his subjects and techniques. Cullen never urged Black writers to turn away from the ghettoes of the land and lose themselves in learned epithets.…
Given Cullen’s views on the liberty and discretion of the Black artist, it is not surprising that he considered artistic diversity a norm in the Black experience.…
Cullen points out, however, the Black American’s double consciousness does not present a simple problem. Though he made a strong case for the Black artist’s freedom from limiting categories (hoping that any merit that might reside in his own works would “flow from it solely as the expression of a poet—with no racial considerations to bolster it up”), he found himself insensibly drawn into writing racial verse. In 1926, he said [according to Stephen H. Bronz in his Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness]:
In spite of myself … I find that I am actuated by a strong sense of race consciousness. This grows upon me, I find, as I grow older, and although I struggle against it, it colors my writing, I fear, in spite of everything I can do. There may have been many things in my life that have hurt me, and I find that the surest relief from these hurts is in writing.
And in an interview for the Chicago Bee during the following year, he said:
Most things I write, I do for the sheer love of the music in them. Somehow or other, however, I find my poetry of itself treating of the Negro, of his joys and his sorrows—mostly of the latter, and of the heights and the depths of emotion which I feel as a Negro.
The apologetic tone of these statements is considered gratuitous by our own generation, but in a poet as concerned with widening the horizons of the Black author as Countee Cullen, the sentiments are genuine. Cullen himself wanted to be an accepted poet, and he hoped that his example and advice would lead to the instatement of others in the hall of acknowledged American authors. He realized that from one point of view his task was far from simple.… “In the twenties the Negro’s gifts were still departmentalized. There were poets in the United States, and there were Negro poets” [according to Arna Bontemps in “The Harlem Renaissance”]. During the 1920s … the “Negro poet” was automatically deemed inferior to “the Poet.” It is one thing to say that Cullen should never have fallen prey to such speculations; it is quite another to realize that he was torn by the dichotomy and that in the process of working it out he made some of the strongest statements on Black artistic freedom that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. His apologies can surely be seen as lamentations that America produced a kind of schizophrenia in the Black artist and made it impossible for him to translate his highest ideals into a unified and consistent body of poetry that would rank with the canons of John Keats and Percy Shelley. Moreover, they can be viewed as his painful realizations that the Black man is often so scarred by his experiences in America that it is difficult for him to sustain the romantic point of view that Cullen felt most Page 14 | Top of Articleconducive to poetry. The question here is not disillusionment, but having all roads blocked from the outset. A careful reading of Cullen’s aesthetic dictates reveals a man with his mind set on freedom, but one who—like the creatures in George Orwell’s Animal Farm or like Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man—was confused by the relativity of the term. The inconsistency of Cullen’s canon—its peaks and deep valleys—is understandable within this context. A fine, militant racial poem is sometimes followed by popularistic verse urging a hedonistic Black existence, and skillful lyrics detailing the beauty of spring precede the most trite and unimaginative stanzas on despair. Cullen was certain that he did not want to be hemmed in—that he wanted to be accepted as just a poet—but he was not sure what constituted the most daring and accomplished freedom for an American author who happened to be Black. [In The Book of Negro Poetry] Johnson succinctly captures his situation:
The colored poet in the United States labors within limitations which he cannot easily pass over. He is always on the defensive or the offensive. The pressure upon him to be propagandic is well nigh irresistible. These conditions are suffocating to breadth and to real art in poetry. In addition he labors under the handicap of finding culture not entirely colorless in the United States.…
Countee Cullen never achieved the “Vision Splendid.” He can be classified as a minor poet whose life and poetry raise major problems. If we condemn him for his lack of independence and his rise to fame through the agency of noted American critics and periodicals, we are forced to do the same for a host of others. If he is judged and sentenced to exile on the basis of his aesthetic, a number of excellent statements on the Black artist’s tasks and difficulties are lost. If he is upbraided for his lack of directness and his reliance on a longstanding tradition, our evaluation of the entire corpus of Black American poetry must be modified. It is possible that we are now whirling about fiercely in the maelstrom of a Black poetic revolution, but a careful view of Countee Cullen brings doubt. There is much continuity between the career of the Harlem Renaissance poet and the generations that have followed. As one glances from Cullen to present works and back, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. In short, Cullen offers a paradigm in the Black American creative experience, and summary appraisals of his work lead to obfuscation rather than the clarity we so sorely need. He wrote a number of outstanding romantic lyrics and contributed racial poems that will endure because they grant insight into the Black American dilemma.
Source: A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen, Broadside Press, 1974. 57 p.
Davis, Arthur P., “First Fruits: Countee Cullen,” From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960, Howard University Press, 1974, pp. 73-83.
Garraty, John A., The Great Depression, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1986.
Hickok, Lorena, One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression, Richard Lowett and Maurine Beasley, editors, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Shucard, Alan R., Countee Cullen, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984, 185 p.
For Further Study
Auerbach, Jerold S., “The Depression Decade,” in The Pulse of Freedom: American Liberties, 1920-1970s, Alan Reitman, editor, New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1975, pp. 65-104.
This section of a book on civil liberties concentrates on the problems faced by political dissenters, especially radical labor activists. It provides an interesting look at a sector of society too often left out of regular histories.
Schwarz, Jordan A., The New Dealers, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
A meticulously detailed political history of many of the men in power in Washington during the 1930s who made the New Deal happen by appealing to the nation’s empathy for the victims of the Depression.
Turner, Darwin T., In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity, Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Turner presents brief analyses of the careers of Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Cullen. His claim that Cullen’s career never lived up to its early promise is debatable, given that “Any Human to Another” is one of the poet’s last works.