COUNTEE CULLEN was born Countee Leroy Porter on May 30, 1903. He was probably born in Louisville, Kentucky, although both New York City and Baltimore have been cited as his birthplace. Orphaned in childhood, he was raised by a Mrs. Porter, who was probably his grandmother. In his teens he was adopted by African Methodist Episcopal Church minister Frederick Asbury Cullen and his wife Carolyn, who encouraged Countee to write. Cullen's poetry was already seeing regular publication by the time he graduated from New York University in 1925. His first book, Color, appeared that same year; Cullen won the Harmon Gold Award and critical praise for his Keatsian verse and his frank depiction of racial prejudice.
Cullen received an M.A. from Harvard in 1926, then became assistant editor of the National Urban League journal Opportunity. In 1927 he published the acclaimed Copper Sun and The Ballad of the Brown Girl, and edited Caroling Dusk, a historic anthology of work by black poets. The following year he married Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, and traveled to Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Yolande filed for divorce before he returned; their relationship inspired the tortured love poetry of The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929).
Back in the United States, Cullen published a novel of life in Harlem, One Way to Heaven (1932), and a verse adaptation of Euripides' Medea (1935). From 1932 to 1945 Cullen settled into a teaching position at a junior high school in New York City. In 1940 he married Ida Mae Roberson and published a children's book of verse entitled The Lost Zoo (A Rhyme for the Young, but Not Too Young), sharing the bylines with his pet, Christopher Cat. Two years later he published a prose work for children, My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942), which purported to be Christopher's autobiography. Cullen authored and coauthored a number of plays, most of which were not published; his own selection of his best poems was published posthumously as On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (1947). Countee Cullen died on January 9, 1946. Gerald Early has