Countee Cullen —
Portrait by Warren Goodson
Poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946), during the 1920s, was a beacon of the Harlem Renaissance era as his poetry was often published to considerable acclaim during that time. An adopted son of a Methodist minister in New York City, Cullen was able to receive the benefits of education, attending a reputable boys’ high school in Manhattan and earning college degrees at both New York University (NYU) and Harvard. It was while attending NYU that Cullen established his substance and style as a poet.
From 1925 until 1929 Cullen published four books of poetry: Color (1925); Copper Sun (1927); The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). He was the recipient of several poetry prizes as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship during these years.
In the early 1930s Cullen published his novel One Way to Heaven (1932) and also acquired his teaching certification from the New York Board of Education. This certification fulfilled a way for him to continue to live in New York City, and by 1934 Cullen began teaching in the New York public schools full time. From the mid-1930s into the 1940s he published a translation of a Greek drama, The Medea and other Poems and two children’s books The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942).
After Cullen’s death in January 1946, at age 42, the work On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, selected by the author was published posthumously in 1947.
If I Should Go
Love, leave me like the light,
The gently passing day;
We would not know, but for the night,
When it has slipped away.
Go quietly; a dream,
When done, should leave no trace
That it has lived, except a gleam
Across the dreamer’s face
Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.
Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.
For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.
For I was born on Saturday—
“Bad time for planting a seed,”
Was all my father had to say,
And, “one mouth more to feed.”
Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.
— Countee Cullen (poems from: Color published 1925)