Countee Cullen and the 4th of July

July 2002 marked the sesquicentennial of Frederick Douglass’ magnificently searing oration “What to the American Slave is Your Fourth of July?” Looking around him in 1852, Douglass declared that it was not enough to praise the Founding Fathers and laud their high principles.

“The feeling of the nation must be quickened,” he said, “the conscience of the nation must be raised; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

Now, I’m all for celebrating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the principles of liberty and equality inscribed in that document. To my way of thinking, that means also remembering and celebrating those–like Frederick Douglass–who insisted that it is our duty to make the daily reality of American life match the beautiful rhetoric of our national credo.

This year, amid all of the alarms and alerts that beset us, we are also in danger of overlooking an important historical moment–the centennial of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946).

Cullen was born May 30, 1903, in the midst of a period of extreme racial turmoil when “mainstream” politicians were working overtime to install legal segregation in much of the country. On July 10, 1903, in a New York Times article entitled “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages,” poet Paul Laurence Dunbar followed Douglass’ instructions and bitterly compared a spate of recent lynchings and “race riots” to the slaughter of Russian Jews at Kishinev. “Sitting with closed lips over our own bloody deeds,” Dunbar wrote, “we accomplish the fine irony of a protest to Russia. Contemplating with placid eyes the destruction of all the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stood for, we celebrate the thing which our own action proclaims we do not believe in.”

The years between 1903 and the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance were not at all promising for black folks. The Ku Klux Klan claimed a nationwide membership of more than five million and its members marched in full Halloween regalia on the streets of major cities including Washington, D.C. The lead article in the January 1924 issue of North American Review was a supposedly reasoned and impartial discussion of the revitalized Ku Klux Klan. “There is no doubt,” wrote William Starr Myers, “that literally thousands of sincere, honest and patriotic Americans are members of the Klan, and for the most conscientious reasons. They feel that the very existence of their country and its institutions is in danger, and they are striving to protect it.”

One must, however, give credit when it is due. Unable to deny the organization’s participation in mayhem and murder, Myers did maintain that the heartland’s good people eventually “will react to better counsels and greater wisdom” and reject the Klan.

It was at this moment that young Countee Cullen burst upon the literary scene. Biographical information about his early years is scant. He was born in New York–or maybe Baltimore or Kentucky. His grandmother raised him until her death, when Countee was about 11. He was then taken in and later adopted by the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Asbury Cullen. Rev. Cullen was pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church–the second largest church in Harlem. Often-quoted poems such as “Heritage,” “Pagan Prayer,” and “Black Magdalens” reflect the young poet’s conflicted response to his Victorian-style religious upbringing. Serious about poetry, indeed, young Cullen was also sociable, modishly well-tailored, debonair.

During 1924 and 1925 his work appeared in The Crisis, H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, Vanity Fair, Poetry, and in Alain Locke’s ground-breaking anthology The New Negro. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University, and in the fall of 1925, while Cullen began working on a master’s degree at Harvard, Harper published Color, his first book. His popularity–along with his book sales–was surpassed only by that of the equally magnetic Edna St. Vincent Millay. While continuing to publish poetry, Cullen wrote a novel and taught at New York’s Frederick Douglass Junior High School, where James Baldwin was among his students.

Cullen was a gifted lyricist whose impeccably crafted poems often reflect a deep spiritual doubt and the soul-tormenting struggle to manage racism’s assaults and contradictions. He was also capable of clever humor. “A satiric or bitter aftertaste is likely to linger in his most ostensibly flippant verse,” wrote one contemporary critic.

In “The Shroud of Color” (1924), Cullen dramatically protests the way his life chances are circumscribed by racism:

forewilled to that despair

My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt

Beneath my brother’s heel; there is a hurt

In all the simple joys which to a child

Are sweet . . .

In these lines he anticipates the eloquent examples that James Baldwin and Rev. Martin Luther King would employ in the 1950s and early 1960s to force white Americans to understand the price that others paid for the privileges they took for granted in a segregated society.

During the last days of World War II, Cullen collaborated with poet Owen Dodson on The Third Fourth of July, a short play that was published in Theatre Arts magazine. The play depicts mirror-image families, one white and one black, who have sons serving in the Army overseas. A fateful and dreaded telegram reporting that a soldier has been killed in action is delivered to the wrong family, allowing them to truly understand the vulnerability and humanity of the other.

Incorporating symbolic masks and interpretive dance, the play contrasts racial prejudice and residential segregation with patriotic self-sacrifice. The drama ends on a hopeful note with “The Freedom Song”:

Let us live life’s span,

Each a free-born man,

On Freedom’s sod, under Freedom’s God

Given the intense recent concern for our rescued POWs–Pvt. Jessica and Spec/4 Shoshana–Cullen and Dodson’s fable gains in timeliness. While our “blonde, waif-like” private from West Virginia became the subject of editorials and was pursued to her hospital bed at Walter Reed with TV movie offers (the trailer for which might be the Army’s own videotape of her rescue), her Panamanian-born African American counterpart–who was actually shot during the ambush–returned to a considerably quieter welcome at El Paso’s Ft. Bliss. In other words, the modern myth-makers who program the loom of our common culture are hardly color blind–or evenhanded.

few months before The Third Fourth of July appeared in print, Dodson was called upon to write Cullen’s obituary for the Atlanta University journal Phylon. Cullen suffered from uremia and died of kidney failure, at 42, on January 10, 1946.

“If you asked literary critics,” Dodson wrote, “they would tell you that Countee Cullen was one of the most brilliant American lyric poets; that in his work he combined emotion and intellect with skill and power. If you asked any Negro what he found in Cullen’s poetry, he would say: all my dilemmas are written here–the hurt pride, the indignation, the satirical thrusts, the agony of being black in America.”

In Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance (1966), biographer Blanche E. Ferguson adds that “in his poetry he tried to show that the agony of his people was in itself a sort of spiritual triumph.”

The end of slavery after the Civil War–celebrated in Texas as “Juneteenth”–was our second chance to make the words of the Declaration of Independence ring true. Never mind that African Americans served with bravery and honor in every American war; we threw away that chance. Systematic disenfranchisement reinforced by Supreme Court decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and outright terrorist intimidation of both black and white citizens, led to decades more of inequality and oppression.

Recalling Frederick Douglass’ words–”the conscience of the nation must be raised . . . the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed”–they still ring true today. There is still much in our country that needs fixing. Bigotry masquerades as patriotism while our political leaders spout arrogant non- sequiturs, and a truly ominous level of meanness in public discourse moves us closer to mental lockdown. But there is also hope and the power of thoughtful reflection.

Let this Fourth of July 2003 be the “third chance” that Cullen and Dodson’s play suggested: one more chance to make the great words of the Declaration of Independence mean what they say. As Douglass pointed out, there’s no need to slander the Founders. Even if the problem was Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, they ain’t here now–and haven’t been able to do us any damage for a long time. Nor do we need to declare them saints to appreciate the importance of the words that Jefferson drafted and that Washington fought to defend. But it is always worth celebrating the great principles upon which the United States was founded and the efforts of those who remind us to never lose sight of those principles.

So, Happy Birthday, Countee Cullen! Happy Birthday, America!

Lorenzo Thomas teaches American Literature at University of Houston-Downtown. Chances are Few, a new expanded edition of his poems, appears this month from Blue Wind Press.

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Published at 12:00 am CST