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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 saleswas 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. 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 \\Xforld 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 mirrorimage 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 POWsPvt. Jessica and Spec/4 ShoshanaCullen 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 her Panamanian-born African American counterpartwho was actually shot during the ambushreturned 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 blindor evenhanded. Afew 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 herethe hurt pride, the indignation, the satirical thrusts, the agony of being black in America.” In Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance 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 Warcelebrated 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 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 nonsequiturs, 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 nowand 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. 7/4/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31