Today is the birthday of American Romantic poet COUNTEE CULLEN (d: 1946). He was one of the leading African American poets of his time, associated with the generation of black poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Surely, Cullen’s race created problems for his creative expression, but his sexuality posed even greater dangers. Although married to W. E. B. DuBois’s daughter Yolande early in life and Ida Roberson only six years before his death, Cullen had a steady string of male lovers in the United States and France. Furthermore, Cullen was a premier member of a thriving Gay coterie in Harlem.
Cullen and most Gays of the period were, understandably, closeted publicly. This closetedness worked to protect Cullen from certain discrimination while it also held a firm grip on his creative imagination. Although difficult to decipher, the influence of Gayness on Cullen’s literary imagination can be seen through the coded references to homosexuality in much of his poetry. From his earliest attempts, Cullen developed a multifarious poetry that, on the surface, followed the British Romantic tradition. Cullen’s break from these writers can be seen in his use of racial themes and in the complex integration of male-male relationships as a significant though veiled subject.
In Color, for example, the poems “Tableau,” “The Shroud of Color,” “Fruit of the Flower,” “For a Poet,” and “Spring Reminiscence” can be classified as Gay poems in which the speaker decries the oppression of those who are different. Copper Sun (1927), Cullen’s next book of verse, has several thinly veiled Gay poems, including “Uncle Jim,” “Colors,” and “More Than a Fool’s Song.” “The Black Christ” (1929) was Cullen’s attempt to write an epic poem on the subject of lynching.
This 900-line piece exemplifies Cullen’s brilliant poetic layering of racial and Gay themes. The main character, Jim, can be viewed not only as the persecuted black who is falsely accused of rape, but also as the victim of heterosexism. When Jim is lynched at the end of the poem, Cullen puts him in the company of Lycidas, Patroclus, and Jonathan–all characters who have had long-standing associations with Gay readings of their respective texts. In many ways, “The Black Christ” is key to Gay re-readings of Cullen’s poetry; for, in this text, we are alerted to the homosexual coding that marks the earlier poems as well as many in The Medea and Some Poems (1935).
Understanding Cullen’s poetry in the context of the Gay closet in which it was written is the cornerstone on which to rebuild Cullen’s reputation as a Gay poet laureate and as the inaugurator of a black Gay male poetic tradition.