The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen pic
Countee Cullen, article title
Once riding in old Baltimore,
    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
    Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
    And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
    His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

I saw the whole of Baltimore
    From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
    That's all that I remember.
-"Incident" by Countee Cullen

Baltimoreans who know the poetry of African American poet Countee Cullen wince when reading this one. The poem paints an ugly--albeit accurate--picture of Charm City in the early part of the 20th Century. We see the city that closed an amusement park rather than integrate it, the city that made it difficult for Barbara Mikulski to have lunch with her African American coworkers and where star athletes had difficulty finding a place to live.

It may be this very poem that has led many to assume Cullen was born here. Sources do not agree as to his birthplace. There's a good chance, though, that he was born in Louisville, Kentucky--he was very secretive about the details of his life. We do know that he grew up in New York City and always considered it his home.

Born Countee Porter in 1903, Cullen was raised by his grandmother in New York City and taken in by Rev. Frederick Cullen and his wife after her death. Prominent members of the African American community, the Cullens sent young Countee to a predominantly white high school, where he excelled. He attended New York University, majoring in English and French and graduating with honors in 1925. While there, he also won several prestigious poetry awards and saw his work published in such respected magazines as Harper's and the NAACP magazine The Crisis. His first book of poetry, Color, was published the year he graduated from college. The following year, 1926, he received a master's degree in English from Harvard.

In 1928, Cullen married Nina Yolande Du Bois, an English teacher in the Baltimore City schools and the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, a founding member of the NAACP, the renaissance man who embodied the Harlem Renaissance. (The Du Bois family lived in Northeast Baltimore for several years.) The wedding, which took place in New York, proved to be one of the premier social events of the African American community. The bride's wedding party, including 17 bridesmaids, left for New York from Baltimore's Penn Station on Charles Street. Despite the grandeur of the wedding, the marriage lasted only a short time, ending in divorce in 1932. (Two months after the wedding, Cullen made use of his Guggenheim Fellowship and took off for Europe to study and write.) He married Ida Mae Roberson in 1940, and they remained married until his death.

Most of Cullen's income did not come from his writing. He edited the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and taught English, French, and creative writing for many years at Frederick Douglass Junior High in New York. Despite his workload as a public school teacher, he produced many poems and is sometimes referred to as "the poet laureate" of the Harlem Renaissance. He also mentored other African American writers, including James Baldwin. In addition to his volumes of poetry, he wrote plays, essays, and a novel.

Unlike many African American poets, Cullen drew more from the traditions of the English lyric poets, particularly Keats and Shelley, than from the literature, history, and folk traditions of Black America. Today's writers and readers might find him conservative--especially when compared to poets like Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, or Nikki Giovanni. However, his struggles as an African American writer do appear in his poems, particularly in one of his best known, "Yet Do I Marvel," which concludes:

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing;
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Countee Cullen died at age 43 from uremic poisoning and complications from high blood pressure.

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