New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse

By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula | Go to book overview

No Heaven in Harlem: Countee Cullen
and His Diasporic Doubles

DAVID JARRAWAY

TO THE PRESENT DAY, THE LIFE AND WORK OF ONE OF THE GREAT LUminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen (1903– 1946), continues to spark controversy. With respect to Cullen’s work, Houston Baker, for instance, observes that it only took Cullen’s first book of poems, Color (published in 1925), to establish “the poet’s place as a leading figure” of the New Negro movement, and reminds us that it was Cullen “who was called by contemporaries the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance” (Poetics 57, 52; see also Douglas, 340). For George Hutchinson, however, “Cullen was never the ‘dominant’ presence in Opportunity” when he was brought on board that important black publication in 1926, “let alone in the Harlem Renaissance.” Cullen was too “respectable,” too “middle-class,” and above all, too “concerned” about “displaying the ‘embarrassing’ aspects of the race to white people” (188, 189). As Darryl Pinckney mordantly sums up the case, “The sadness of [Cullen’s] career lies in his inability to claim as his own the tradition he admired… hand[ing] it back, like a poor relation careful to show his patient good manners” (18).

Respectability and good manners thus act as a further flashpoint with respect to the life informing Cullen’s work. Commenting on “the issue of homosexuality,” arguably central to both respectability and good manners, editor of The Collected Writings, Gerald Early, asserts that there is “no evidence that Cullen was engaged in any homosexual relations with any other figures of the Renaissance,” despite some scholars who “have read letters and poems that seem suggestive in this regard but have offered nothing conclusive” (19). To the contrary, Alden Reimonenq argues for “Cullen’s jubilation over finding his homosexual self” and “acceptance of his gay identity” well before publishing his first book of poetry (144). Reimonenq shows in

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