W.E.B. DuBois, the leading African-American intellectual of his time, from Molesworth’s new biography of Countee Cullen. Both Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes were championed by DuBois, who was an influence to both poets. DuBois’ famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, appeared in 1903. DuBois published Hughes’ first nationally published, and most signature, poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in his journal The Crisis, in 1921. And DuBois was, for a time, Cullen’s father-in-law. This photo is by Carl Van Vechten, white chronicler and patron (and contributor) to the Harlem Renaissance, who will be the subject of a future blog on white contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.
By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
November, 24, 2013
The Dalenberg Library isn’t all mystery & science fiction, pulp magazines and comic books. The poetry section is bigger than most bookstores, or libraries, that I know. So we should look at a poet or two every month.
Generally speaking, poetry is more to the literary end of the spectrum covered by the Antique Popular Literature collection, but despite that, let me say that I don’t have much truck with university poets. Poets need to have something to say, and that something needs to come from some kind of life other than that of an academic with a “publish or perish” agenda. The Dalenberg Library is more interested in William Carlos Williams, because he was a doctor, or Wallace Stevens, because he was an insurance attorney. These poets had lives outside of poetry. Give me a war poet who penned his lines with bombs dropping all around him. Give me a street poet any day over a university professor. Give me a rapper laying down some rhymes. Give me LL Cool J or Eminem over some PhD.
It’s a topic for another essay, but there is a lineage to be traced from the jazz poets of the Harlem Renaissance to the Beat poets of the 1950’s to the hip-hop emcees of today. Today, we’ll start at the beginning of that lineage, in the Harlem Renaissance.
The two most celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s were Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and Countee Cullen (1903-1946.) For some reason, the past year has been a time of resurgence for both these men. Langston Hughes’ play Black Nativity is getting a big screen musical treatment this year, opening in theaters on November 27. Countee Cullen has seen a biography out this past year (And Bid Him Sing by Charles Molesworth, University of Chicago Press) and a Collected Poems (American Poets Project—The Library of America, edited by Major Jackson.)
Both Hughes and Cullen were promising young men who wrote memorable work right out of their teens. Hughes’ signature poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was written when he was 18. Cullen’s most famous two poems were written in his early 20s (“Yet Do I Marvel” and “Incident”). Both men enshrined the hustle and bustle of Harlem life in their youthful poetry, imbued with heavy doses of commentary on their African-American culture. They were both much influenced by (and in turn respected by) the black thought leaders of their day, men such as Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson. Countee Cullen’s first book of poems, Color, appeared in 1925, and it signaled the arrival of a kind of black poetic messiah, a young writer who could discuss black themes in the same language as the famous (mostly white) European poets that preceded him. Langston Hughes first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. Hughes’ poetry was a freer, looser form of expression than Cullen’s (which was very formal, metered and rhymed and sticking to classic forms.)
Starting with that first book, Langston Hughes helped originate what later came to be known as jazz poetry. It was characterized by references to jazz/blues culture and with lyrics that had rhythms, refrains, and chants equally suited to jazz music as to poetry. Because of his eschewing traditional forms and evoking popular music in his lyrics, some critics since have lampooned Hughes for being a lazy poet, or at least a not very literary one. But his work remains accessible, and at its best it evokes its surroundings and its era. Hughes achieves a distillation of his time and place into his poetry. Poems like “Harlem Sweeties,” “Mother to Son,” and “The Weary Blues” transport you to Harlem in the 1920s while at the same time having more timeless things to say with resonances that still make them relevant. “Mother to Son,” with its refrain “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” may be autobiographical about a certain young man and his mother in a certain place at a certain time, but it generalizes to become an encouragement for all people everywhere to rise above humble origins.
Countee Cullen gets criticized for exactly the opposite reasons as Langston Hughes. Cullen was devoted to traditional verse forms, so in a time (the 1920s) when art was trending toward modernism, he wrote in an archaic style. Some mostly black critics have faulted him for not being original enough, for being too devoted to forms created by his white poetic predecessors, for essentially being a sell-out to a kind of white poetry written by a black man. On the other hand, some who praise him for sticking to traditional verse forms go so far as to say the only reason he’s still known is because he was a black man writing about black topics, and other than that he’s not that great of a poet. Neither of those critical approaches to Cullen does him justice. Such criticisms point up a dilemma that still haunts African-American artists today. If they become too accessible to the general non-black audience, they get dismissed by their own people as being “Oreos”, black people who are really white inside. At the same time, the successful African-American artist runs the risk of being dismissed by white people as only have “got there” because he had the affirmative action advantage of being black.
Frankly, most of the aforementioned criticisms about both these writers don’t amount to much, and they certainly do not detract from an appreciation of their poetry. Both poets are worth reading today, both as poets in general outside of their context, but especially if you put them in the context of when and where they were writing. As you read Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen today, you realize that they both shouldered a tremendous burden as representatives of their race, and that they knew about that burden, and that they took it seriously. This was an important motif of the Harlem Renaissance, that black artists should be creating art that reflected on black origins, black culture, furthered the African American struggle for civil rights and social equality, and put the lie to the notion of white supremacy. W.E.B. DuBois was very impressed that Cullen’s verse could be mistaken for Browning or Tennyson, because for him it was proof that African Americans were equal to their white counterparts. About black artists creating black art, DuBois actually made the statement, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” There is a kind of revisionism today that has exalted the works of the Harlem Renaissance (the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, for instance) to a status equal to the works of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, etc, in the mainstream of American literature. Maybe it is high time that happened. But to look back to the 1920’s and place ourselves in the shoes of the black thinkers and black artists of those days, they were acutely aware that their art was not on the same shelf as Hemingway, and that the function of black art as propaganda for the black people was very important. Countee Cullen’s solution was to excel at telling the black story with the same skill and using the same techniques as white writers, proving to W.E.B. DuBois and the world that a black writer could be every bit as skillful and powerful as, say, Longfellow. Langston Hughes’ solution was to tell the exact same story (Cullen’s and Hughes’ subject matter often overlapped, because they were surrounded by the same inspirations) in a language inspired by the sights and sounds and music indigenous to African-American culture.
Ironically, it is W.E.B. DuBois himself who sets up an apparent contradiction as we strive to appreciate the work of the Harlem Renaissance writers. The contradiction consists in whether black artists should stick to black messages or graduate to being artists in general with a more universal appeal. DuBois was thrilled that Countee Cullen had the skill to be mistaken for Tennyson, but DuBois also reveled in black art as black propaganda. DuBois is one of the originators of the concept of “whiteness studies,” a discipline which makes much of the unstated advantages of being white in our society. “Whiteness studies” outline the advantages that white people take for granted but that people of color (black, Hispanic, etc) see as obvious, glaring inequalities. One of the things you always hear about in “whiteness studies” is that white people are free to write about or create art about anything, but that African-Americans are artistically shackled because it is always expected that their writing or art must be some kind of referendum on their race. Thus, the standard set by thinkers like DuBois in the 1920’s for “Negro” artists, that their art should be about blackness and serve to further black causes, has become a difficult thing for black artists to deal with and move beyond in the decades since. Even Cullen during his lifetime chafed at this limitation placed on him by his racial identity. In a 1924 interview, he proclaimed, “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET.” It can be argued that Langston Hughes has stood the test of time better than Cullen, because unlike Cullen, Hughes embraced modernism in his poetry, Hughes’ lyrics sang more true to his “race” than Cullen, who was a black poet singing with a voice indistinguishable from, say, Keats. In fact, Keats was a big influence on Cullen, whereas you could say that his own autobiography and the goings-on in the street was a bigger influence for Hughes. Nowadays, black artists continue to be frustrated that everything they do is interpreted with reference to their “race.” But often, when the same artists cross over to mainstream success, they get accused by their own people of selling out. Black people stopped buying M.C. Hammer albums when white people embraced his music. The soul of W.E.B. DuBois still casts a long shadow. Even in death, he’s still praising black artists for propagating a black message, but he’s giving them kudos for achieving a level of indistinguishability from white artists.
Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, for all their similar backgrounds, using the same backdrop of Harlem in the 1920’s for inspiration, stand at opposite ends of the poetic spectrum. The content of their poems is similar, the things they are trying to say. But the form of their works are quite different when compared, Cullen’s rigid versifying in meters, stanzas and rhyme, and Hughes’ free-form jazz poetry. Here is an example of the difference, comparing two poems about the same subject, drawn from the streets of Harlem in the 1920’s. Like Langston Hughes, Cullen also draws from his own autobiography for his poetry, as this poem isn’t just about streetwalkers, but it is also richly informed by Cullen’s own struggle with heathenism versus Christianity, as he was the adopted son of a minister who struggled life-long with his own doubts about his adopted father’s faith.
by Countee Cullen
These have no Christ to spit and stoop
To write upon the sand,
Inviting him that has not sinned
To raise the first rude hand.
And if he came they could not buy
Rich ointment for his feet,
The body’s sale scarce yields enough
To let the body eat.
The chaste clean ladies pass them by
And draw their skirts aside,
But Magdalens have a ready laugh;
They wrap their wounds in pride.
They fare full ill since Christ forsook
The cross to mount a throne,
And Virtue still is stooping down
To cast the first hard stone.
by Langston Hughes
Her dark brown face
Is like a withered flower
On a broken stem.
Those kind come cheap in Harlem
So they say.