Cullen’s talent as a poet was recognized at an early age. While both a high school student and an undergraduate, his poetry won several awards and he consistently published in some of the leading magazines and journals, including Crisis and Harper’s. His first collection of poems, Color, was published in 1925, placing him squarely in the arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen’s conventional approach to poetry, both in form and subject matter, put him at odds with several of the younger writers of the Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, although they all deeply respected one another. Cullen frowned upon Hughes’ experimentation with poetic form within a jazz idiom and, like some of the more conservative writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Jessie Fauset, he advocated for literature to represent the more respectable aspects of black life.
Cullen went on to publish several collections of poems, an anthology of African American verse, a novel, and two children’s books. He arguably penned some of the most recognizable poems to African Americans, including “Heritage” and “Yet Do I Marvel.”
Although there is very strong historical evidence that Cullen privately identified as a gay man, he never led an openly gay lifestyle. Rather, he married Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande, in 1929 but they divorced in 1930. He married Ida Roberson in 1940, by which time he was a teacher in the New York City public school system. Cullen died in 1946, at the tragically young age of 43.
Gerald Early, ed., My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Anchor Books, 1991); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Alden Reimonenq, “Countee Cullen’s Uranian ‘Soul Windows,’” in Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (New York: The Haworth Press, 1993).
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