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AFTERWORD Countee Cullen and the 4th of July BY LORENZO THOMAS 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 thoselike 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 momentthe centennial of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee 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 There is still much in our country that needs fixing. Bigotry masquerades as patriotism while our political leaders spout arrogant nonsequiturs and a truly ominous level of meanness in public discourse moves us closer to mental lockdown. 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 Yorkor 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 Churchthe 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. 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7/4/03