Poet Played With Gays, Race

Homo History: Countee Cullen

cullen_countee-1.jpg Has it been a year already!? Just twelve months ago we celebrated Gay History Month – and, like clockwork, it’s that time again! For our first installment of this month-long look back, let’s shine some light on poet Countee Cullen. Though no one seems to know for sure where the secretive Cullen came to be, we do know his mama birthed him in 1903 and named him Countee LeRoy Porter. That same mama ended up abandoning him, leaving Cullen’s grandmother to raise him. The young Cullen attended high school here in New York, where he also met up with some other bold-faced names, like W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois helped the NYU graduate get his start in the poetry business by publishing Cullen’s words in The Crisis, DuBois’ seminal black magazine. From there, Cullen began circulating his work to Harper’s, Century and the National Urban League’s Opportunity. Cullen also published a number of collections, such as The Ballad of the Brown Girl and The Medea and Some Other Poems. A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen later moved to Boston, where he received his Master’s from Harvard. His New York roots pulled him back to the Empire State, however, and in 1928 Cullen married DuBois’ granddaughter, Nina. That marriage didn’t last long, though, because Cullen took up with his best man and high-tailed it to Europe. He and Nina divorced two years later. Despite acknowledging his homosexuality, Cullen married another woman, Ida Mae Roberson, in 1940. Even after this marriage, homoeroticism continued to dot his poetry. Though not explicitly gay, a number of Cullen’s collections deal with same-sex desire, which he often tinged with miscegenation. James Smethurst explains:
One of the most interesting aspects of many of these openly homoerotic poems is the linking of explicit homoeroticism with a miscegenation of black and white. Perhaps Cullen’s purpose in making the couples inter-racial was to heighten a sense of transgressive sex that also obscured something of the nature of the real social transgression by figuring sexuality within a racial discourse. These conflicted relationships are filled with anguish, bitterness and disappointment and much of the sexual conflict is displaced into racial conflict, but not to the extent that the homoerotic content of the poem becomes completely obscured. (Though perhaps it is obscured enough to evade the attention of those readers who for various reasons would prefer not to find it.)
On the next page you’ll find one of Cullen’s most homoerotic poems, “Tableau”. We’ve also included two other pieces, “Incident” and “Brown Girl Dead,” which we find absolutely heartbreaking.

Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day,
The sable pride of night.

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare,
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.

Oblivious to look and work
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
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.
“A Brown Girl Dead”
With two white roses on her breasts,
White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;
Lord Death has found her sweet.

Her mother pawned her wedding ring
To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing
To see herself tonight.

Read more on Countee Cullen at Afropoets, Harvard Square Library and Montevallo’s website.

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  • DavidDust

    Thanks for the bit of history – I had never heard of him before. His poetry is haunting.

  • Mr. B

    Countee Cullen! Good job, QT–nice to shed light on a fascinating poet from a fascinating era.

  • GranDiva

    Maybe I’m lucky that I had an urbane and historically aware mother from Western New York. If I had had only my father to rely on, I’d never have learned even the least bit concerning the Harlem Renaissance. The curse of growing up black in the American south.

  • Ana

    This is an awesome post because I’m often at the Countee Cullen library branch in Harlem but I never knew he was gay. And I had forgotten he wrote that very haunting “That’s all that I remember” poem which I have never forgotten since I read it in school.

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