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Countee Cullen

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Countee Cullen

Unlike many other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen spent his teen years in Harlem and came of age at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. Earning a distinguished reputation by his early 20s, he married into the prestigious DuBois family, but by 1930, had divorced and almost entirely stopped publishing poetry. Keep reading to learn about the tragically short career and life of Countee Cullen.

Biography of Countee Cullen

Biography of Countee Cullen Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of Countee Cullen by Carl Van Vechten, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Biography of Countee Cullen: Early Life

Countee Cullen was born in 1903. His paternal grandmother raised him until her death when he was 15. He went to live with Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, minister at the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. Countee Cullen attended DeWitt Clinton High School where he edited both the school newspaper and literary magazine. While still in high school, he won a city-wide poetry competition that earned him a literary reputation at a young age.

Biography of Countee Cullen: College Education

Upon graduating high school in 1918, Countee Cullen attended New York University where he set himself apart from his peers once again by winning the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize. He graduated in 1925 and published his first poetry collection, Color, the same year. And, in 1926, he graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree.

Biography of Countee Cullen: The Harlem Renaissance

Upon his graduation from Harvard, Countee Cullen became a columnist for Opportunity Magazine. In his column, “Dark Tower,” he reviewed the literary works of other Black authors. It was during this period that he solidified his fame as a Harlem Renaissance writer. In 1927, he published two more poetry collections, Copper Sun and Ballad of the Brown Girl.

Harlem Renaissance

a cultural movement based in Harlem in the 1920s that celebrated black culture, literature, music, and art

In 1928, Countee Cullen was at the center of Harlem’s biggest social event of the year: his wedding to Yolande DuBois, the daughter of civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois. It was the merging of two significant Black families and a source of great celebration in the community. Finishing off a good year, Countee Cullen became the second African American man to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Countee Cullen used the Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to France and, in 1929, he published his fourth poetry collection, The Black Christ and Other Poems. Unfortunately, it received mixed reviews, far from the almost universal praise received by past works. Discouraged, Countee Cullen greatly decreased his output of poetry in favor of other literary forms. In 1930, he returned to Harlem and divorced Yolande.

Biography of Countee Cullen: Later Life

In 1932, Countee Cullen published his only novel, One Way to Heaven, which once again received rather mixed reviews. So, in 1943, he switched things up again, becoming a teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High School and working on a translation of Medea, published in 1935. During these years, he also distinguished himself as a playwright. In 1946, Countee Cullen passed away from uremia. He never saw the Broadway debut of his play, St. Louis Woman.

One of Countee Cullen's students at Frederick Douglass Junior High School was James Baldwin, a notable Black writer of the next generation.

The Beliefs of Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen received a “white” education in that, in school, he learned of the great English poets and the traditional forms and conventions they used. He found inspiration in the likes of John Keats, A.E. Houseman, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. So, when it came to his own poetry, he preferred to work within the traditional English framework. He also encouraged other Black poets to do the same, believing it would prove Black poets were just as capable.

Through his column, “Dark Tower,” we can get a better sense of Countee Cullen’s opinions and preferences when it came to the Black literary canon. He often disapproved of poetry where race was the main subject or motivation, believing that literature should transcend race in an effort to bridge the gap. And, once again, he appreciated English conventions rather than homages to Black culture.

In a “Dark Tower” column, Countee Cullen disapproved of Langston Hughes’ use of jazz rhythms in his poetry and suggested he do without them.

Countee Cullen’s belief that literature could be a means of proving and achieving equality aligned well with the conservative approach to civil rights and earned him the praise of NAACP leaders W.E.B Dubois and James Weldon Johnson.


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; a prominent civil rights organization founded in 1909

Countee Cullen’s Poems and Famous Works

Despite Countee Cullen’s vocal distaste for racially motivated poetry, some of his best and most popular works centered around race. In his first poetry collection, pointedly named Color, he published “Heritage.” The poem centered around a protagonist who suppresses his Black heritage to fit in with white society but still holds it close to his heart:

Not yet has my heart or head

In the least way realized

They and I are civilized.”

- Countee Cullen, “Heritage,” 1925

And Countee Cullen did not shy away from highlighting racial injustices as he did in “From the Dark Tower”:

We shall not always plant while others reap

The golden increment of bursting fruit,

Not always countenance, abject and mute,

That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap”

- Countee Cullen, “From the Dark Tower,” 1927

However, Countee Cullen did not wish to be known as a Black poet, but as a poet who happened to be Black. As we noted earlier, he took inspiration from Romantic poets, such as John Keats. As such, he used similar themes of love, beauty, and mortality. He also wrestled with the themes of doubt and faith, mirroring his own journey from skepticism to belief.

Countee Cullen's Impact on Society

Countee Cullen impacted society as a literary trendsetter during the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most fruitful periods of Black literary expression. Following his divorce from Yolande DuBois and the mixed reviews of the late 1920s, he faded from the literary scene but continued to influence the next generation of Black writers in a new way by working as a public-school teacher.

Countee Cullen - Key takeaways

  • Countee Cullen was born in 1903 and raised by his grandmother before moving in with Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, minister at the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, at 15.
  • He won a city-wide poetry competition in high school before attending New York University in 1918.
  • He graduated in 1925 and published his first poetry collection, Color, to rave reviews.
  • He earned his master's degree at Harvard in 1926 and began work as a columnist and literary critic for Opportunity magazine,
  • In 1928, he married Yolande Dubois, daughter of W.E.B. Dubois, and became the second Black man to win the Guggenheim Fellowship. He went to France and published the relatively unsuccessful, The Black Christ and Other Poems.
  • Upon his return to Harlem, he divorced Yolande and greatly decreased his poetry output.
  • After his only novel, One Way to Heaven. received mixed reviews, he turned to scriptwriting and teaching. He passed away in 1946.

Frequently Asked Questions about Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen lived in Harlem, New York City for the majority of his life.

Countee Cullen was a notable writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

Countee Cullen impacted society as a notable poet and literary critic during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Countee Cullen's biggest contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was his poetry,

Final Countee Cullen Quiz


When was Countee Cullen born?

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Who took in Countee Cullen at 15?

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Reverend Frederick A. Cullen

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Where did Countee Cullen teach?

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DeWitt Clinton High School

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What was the name of Countee Cullen's first poetry collection?

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What was the name of Countee Cullen's column in Opportunity Magazine?

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"Dark Tower"

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What notable family did Countee Cullen marry into in 1928?

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the DuBois family

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What was the name of Countee Cullen's only novel?

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One Way to Heaven

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Countee Cullen preferred to use English conventions in his poetry.

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Countee Cullen had a radical approach to civil rights,

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When did Countee Cullen die?

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