Category: Online Poetry
U.S. poet, born in New York, N.Y.; wrote of comedy and tragedy in life of black Americans with lyric, wistful beauty. The poet Countee Cullen was one of the major contributors to the 1920s literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Through his verse, Cullen gave expression to the character of African-American life as he experienced it.
The Harlem Renaissance, a period of great achievement in African-American art and literature, was pushed to a new high with the 1925 publication of Cullen’s volume of poems entitled Color. His sensuous lyric verse expressed themes in the life of his race and shed light on social reality. Cullen’s other verse collections include: Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927) and The Black Christ (1929). His novel, One Way to Heaven, appeared in 1932.
Cullen was awarded the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Prize from New York University. According to his friend and literary collaborator Arna Bontemps, Cullen was much preoccupied with the question of whether he would be remembered as a poet or as a “Negro poet.” “Almost his only public comments about the art in which he expressed himself were pleas for an evaluation of his work strictly on its merits, without racial considerations. He was to learn, however, that this was no easy matter.” –The Saturday Review, March 23, 1947 p. 44. In the monument pictured below, the artist has rendered the question rather than the answer, exploring an issue we still face today, 50 years after the poet’s death. A bronze-colored Countee Cullen is portrayed reaching out to a bust of himself in the traditional representation of a poet: a white marble-colored bust crowned with a laurel wreath. His other hand holds his book “Color.”
The two portraits of the poet are made of cement, brown and white cement, imitating the colors of the two most traditional sculpture media: bronze (brown cement) and marble (white cement). By making both pieces out of cement the artists is telling us that we are all made of the same stuff regardless of our “color.” This sentiment echoes Cullen’s words:
“And when your body’s death gives birth
To soil for spring to crown
Men will not ask if that rare earth
Was white flesh once or brown”
The monument rests on a base inscribed with quotations from Cullen’s poetry. The composition also owes something to Rembrandt’s painting of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer.” The monument was originally created for an exhibition at the Woodlawn Cemetery where Countee Cullen is buried and it is shown here on that site. The exhibition sponsored by the cemetery and the Bronx Council on the Arts ran for a year in 1995-1996. The monument has a permanent home now at the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library.