Countee Cullen was a black writer and translator who won more major literary prizes than any other black writer of the 1920’s. Cullen began winning poetry contests as a teenager. His first three poems in the 1920’s were: Color, Copper Sun, and The Ballad of the Brown Girl. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University. Cullen later became the second black poet to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Little is known about his childhood, but he claimed to be born in New York in 1903 and was unofficially adopted as a child. Until 1918, he was known as Countee Porter. He had a difficult relationship with his father, the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen. Frederick Cullen was a devout Methodist pastor who had been raised in poverty. As a child, he wore girls’ clothing at the urging of his mother. His inner-conflict about his own sexuality was said to have deeply affected his relationship with Countee.
Despite a struggling patriarchal relationship, Cullen’s work spoke to literary buffs as a mirror of great poets such as John Keats and Percy Shelley. Though he was associated with the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen failed to embrace the literary style of most black poets in the era. However, his work continuously reflected racial themes with political points and black satire. Cullen, who had been raised in predominately white surroundings, was even ridiculed by some who believed that he failed to present a true black perspective in his work.
Cullen received first prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry contest in 1925, Poetry magazine's John Reed Memorial Prize, the Amy Spingarn Award of the Crisis magazine, second prize in Opportunity magazine's first poetry contest, and second prize in the poetry contest of Palms. His list of accolades and prizes were extensive.
In 1928, Cullen married Yolande Du Bois, the only daughter to W.E.B. Dubois. Their marriage was a production and made a symbol of unity among the intellects. Unfortunately, it only lasted two years and their divorce caused a major upset. Cullen’s future works were said to be lackluster in quality and may have been a result of the intense separation.
Cullen worked as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High. He would write a novel, One Way to Heaven, in 1934. Cullen wrote children’s literature and was working on a musical called “St. Louis Women” at the time of his death.
Countee Cullen died from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946.