How Literature Affected the Harlem Renaissance Biography and Influence of Countee Cullen Analysis of "Any Human to Another" Works Cited
Countee Cullen and Literature
of the Harlem Renaissance
Yet Do I Marvel At This Curious Thing:
To Make A Poet Black And Bid Him Sing !
-Countee Cullen, from Yet Do I Marvel
How Literature Affected the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance introduced America to new forms of almost every kind of artistic expression. African-Americans were now being encourage, primarily by their own community, to celebrate their heritage and beauty through literature in a way that had not been previously achieved; to truly have a style of writing that was wholly their own. Through literature, blacks would encompass the characteristics of "The New Negro": pride in African culture, unique beauty, and a willingness to fight back against an oppressive society.
Three works published in the early 1920's marked the advent of the new Negro's literary voice. Claude Mckay's Harlem Shadows, a volume of cultured poetry published in 1922, was one of the first black works to be printed by the large-scale, national publisher Harcourt, Brace, and Company. This milestone not only encouraged other publishers to consider Negro literature for widespread publication, but also gave support to those who wished to see black music and art uncovered and made public for the nation to experience (Lewis 25). Consisting of short stories, poems, and a short novel, Jean Toomer's Cane, published in 1923, compared and contrasted through documentation the lives of southern, rural blacks with those of the urban north. The book exposed the egregious racism that festered in both regions and demonstrated the literary range and brilliance little believed blacks were capable of. A year later in 1924, writer and editor Jessie Fauset wrote her first novel, There Is Confusion, portraying the lives of middle-class African-Americans. However, America now was made to view Negro life through the eyes of the most vulnerable individual of the 1920's and 1930's, the black woman. The ability and more so the genius of this fresh literature solidified the movement as lasting and spurred further events that more overtly commenced the Harlem Renaissance.
The events that helped the Harlem Renaissance's influence spread and augment were interconnected and momentous. In March of 1924, Charles S. Johnson, a high-ranking official in the National Urban League, hosted a formal dinner in recognition of the new, blossoming literary talent of the black community; the night was also an endeavor to acquaint New York's established white literary enterprise with the rising black writers. The night proved successful and soon the societal-probing and criticizing magazine The Survey Graphic released an entire issue devoted to Harlem the following March. The black philosopher and academic Alain Leroy Locke edited the issue in which a multitude of Negroes contributed work and the aesthetics of black literature and art were defined. Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven was published in 1926 and despite offending a number of blacks it did reveal an accurate representation of life in Harlem; a "Negro vogue" was established through the book's exposure of both the privileged and abject aspects of Harlem and attracted large numbers of both the white and black erudite populations. The buzz surrounding Harlem fueled a national market for black literature and in the latter of 1926 Fire!!, the first solely-black produced magazine, introduced such aspiring writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. There was no single and defined style or ideology that could represent the gamut of artistic expression of the magazine and the era, but an acute interest in the African-American heritage, a sense of newly discovered racial pride, and the yearning for social and political equality were fundamental to both (Lewis 27). The magazine helped spur the over fifty volumes of poetry and fiction published by more than 16 black writers from the mid 1920's to the mid 1930's.
The diversity of the literature written during the Harlem Renaissance truly reflected the growing interest of the subject matter and how much needed to be said about the issues that were being examined. The jazzy poems of Langston Hughes discussing ghetto life, the embittered sonnets of Claude McKay assailing racism, and the ambivalent poetry of Countee Cullen questioning where the African-American truly belonged embodied only some of the literary discourses of blacks during the Harlem Renaissance. Books such as Quicksand by Nella Larson and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston investigated such topics as the psychological effect of the loss of identity of black women and the impact of race and gender on the individual. The success of black literature helped open new opportunities into the mainstream white magazines and publishing houses, though some black leaders denounced such capitulations as reinforcing negative African-American stereotypes. But the writers themselves refused the validity of this attacks and asserted that they intended to express themselves without any chains, despite society's popular beliefs. Literature was where the Harlem Renaissance had begun and it was where it would receive its greatest praise and recognition.
Back to Top
Biography and Influence of Countee Cullen
Countee Leroy Porter was not a conventional Harlem Renaissance
poet; he did not use the gaudy and cultured diction that many of his fellow
colleagues infused into their work in their effort to separate themselves from
the mundane and traditional "white poetry". Rather, Porter made use of
the time-honored poetic forms of sonnets and quatrains in his discourses about
love, beauty, and death. Though his style emulated the classic poetry of John
Keats and Percy Shelley, Countee Porter expressed the Negro experience like few
others of his day.
Countee Porter's surreptitious demeanor, both in regard to his poetry and private life, has left many facts of his childhood a matter of inquiry. His exact birth location remains a mystery; though the date, May 30, 1903 is indubitable, cities ranging from New York City, Baltimore, and Louisville, Kentucky have all been given as possible places of his beginning. Sometime early in his childhood Porter's mother deserted him, leaving the boy's adolescence in control of his grandmother. At nine, the two moved to Harlem and lived in an apartment near Salem Methodist Episcopal, the region's largest church. His grandmother soon died, and the church's head pastor, Reverend Frederick Cullen and his wife, adopted the young man. Reverend Cullen was a prestigious spiritual and societal leader, helping found the National Urban League and heading the Harlem branch of the NAACP. He would use his influence to get his adopted son enrolled at the highly acclaimed De Witt Clinton High School in Manhattan, where Countee quickly stood out shining as one of the few black students. Making no waste of the excellent opportunity, Countee Cullen became a member of the honor society and was elected editor of the school newspaper; an early poem entitled "I Have a Rendezvous With Life" was published in the school's literary magazine and won a prize (Otfinoski 69). He was accepted at New York University after graduating in 1922.
During his time at NYU, Cullen's talent was fostered by his poetry's success. Soon, distinguished periodicals such as Poetry, Harper's, and the American Mercury showcased Cullen's lyrical brilliance. Following his graduation in 1925, Cullen gained further recognition as the winner of Poetry magazine's esteemed John Reed Memorial Prize for the poem "Threnody for a Brown Girl" (Shucard 56). Another famous African-American poet, Langston Hughes, took second place in the same contest, and the two became close friends thereafter. Hughes's poetry embodied the Harlem Renaissance's vanguard writing style, filled with jazz and color; yet Cullen felt that his friend's work did not belong "to the dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expressions which we call poetry" (qtd. in Otfinoski 57). Cullen's increasing popularity in 1925 allowed for the publication of his first volume of poetry; Color was one of the year's most lauded works and marked a momentous milestone for the Harlem Renaissance; the movement now proved it went far beyond the reactionary literature of a few embittered blacks and reflected the elegance with which poets like Cullen employed a measured line and the skillful rhyme (Collier 73). Now 23, Countee Cullen ranked as the most celebrated black poet in America. He earned his masters degree in 1926, studying literature at Harvard before publishing The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun in 1927, the latter of which critics assailed for containing too few racial poems; an indicative fact of Cullen's belief that he was not a "Negro poet", but rather a poet who happened to be black.
Countee's relationship with Yolande Du Bois, daughter of the famous black writer
and leader W. E. B. Du Bois, held the similar furtive theme that Cullen retained
his entire life. Their marriage, the social apex of 1928 for the Harlem
Renaissance, was not a successful one; the two divorced in less than two years.
Mirroring his private failure, Cullen's literary career began to experience
significant setbacks. His fourth volume of poetry,
Christ and Other Poems, was published in 1929 and, as the title suggests, contained rich
religious imagery. Cullen's first and only novel, One Way to Heaven, took a deep
look at Harlem life. However, both these works were critically berated as inapt
and structurally flawed (Otfinoski 58). Cullen began a career in education,
teaching English and French at the all-black Frederick Douglass Junior High
School in Harlem, when the Great Depression left him without a steady income
based on his literary work. Though his writing greatly waned in the 1930's,
Cullen did translate the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides and managed to publish
The Lost Zoo, a children's book about animals that refused boarding Noah's Ark.
He wedded Ida Mae Roberson, a close friend for ten years, a union that was
considerably better than his previous marriage. Cullen then adapted Arna
Bontemps's novel, God Sends Sunday, into the musical St. Louis Woman, which was
persecuted by black critics for creating a negative image of African-Americans.
Critical harangues worsened Cullen's high blood pressure and on January 9, 1946,
at age 42, he died of uremic poisoning.
A year after Cullen's death, a volume aptly entitled On These I Stand was published containing a selection of poems the author thought to be his best. Countee Cullen's best work was achieved as a young man, and though his classical style separated him from the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, it was attacked as lacking the vitality and liberating force of contemporary black culture. Criticism of Cullen points to his uncontrollable perfectionist form, "In a personal way, using poetry as a device to maintain control worked for him, but for that to happen, he frequently lapsed into over-control, sacrificing the blood of poems to structures and language" (Shucard 124). Countee Cullen represented the other half of the brassy Jazz age, the highly intellectual influence of the Harlem Renaissance that inculcated the minds of 1920's and 1930's America.
Click here for a chronology of Cullen's life
Click here for Cullen's thoughts on Blacks, literary tradition, and modernity
Back to Top
Analysis of "Any Human to Another"
The ills I sorrow at
Not me alone
Like an arrow
Pierce to the marrow
Through the fat
And past the bone.
Your grief and mine
Like sea and river,
Be fused and mingle,
Diverse yet single,
Forever and forever.
Let no man be so proud
To think he is allowed
A little tent
Pitched in a meadow
Of sun and and shadow
All his little own.
Joy may be shy, unique,
Friendly to a few,
Sorrow never scorned to speak
To any who
Were false or true.
Your every grief
like a blade
Shining and unsheathed
Must strike me down.
Of bitter aloes wreathed,
My sorrow must be laid
On your head like a crown.
Click here to read more of Cullen's poetry
Countee Cullen's "Any Human to Another" stands distinctly apart from
many of the poetry African-Americans were writing during the Harlem Renaissance.
While it was the goal of the majority of blacks to celebrate, through
literature, their uniqueness and separation from the white culture they had been
oppressed under, Cullen's poem reaches a higher level of intellectuality by
commenting on the ubiquitous Harlem theme of pain, but through a universal
approach; he makes his point clear that what every human has to share, whether
white or black, is the sorrow he or she feels and thus can relate to through
The poem's opening stanza runs six lines of the same sentence and contains an unconventional rhyming scheme of abccab. Cullen achieves his point of relating the individual's pain as part of the overall whole, though remaining an independent being, through this broken up sentence; each line contributes to the amalgamation of a complete sentence yet remains distinct, standing alone on its own line; the entire poem is written using this symbolic syntax. The opening lines introduce unspecified "ills" of which the speaker indicates he does not feel alone. Though the exact troubles the speaker refers to go unnamed throughout the poem, the severity of their impact is clearly indicated through the concluding four lines of the first stanza. The ills are "Like an arrow" (3), they "Pierce to the marrow, / Through the fat / And past the bone" (4-6). This simile, comparing human grief to an arrow that egregiously harms the health of "any human", serves to prove the authenticity of the deep-seated pain experienced particularly by blacks during the time period (Wasley 3). Of the stanza's twenty-two words, at least six have negative connotations, each carefully chosen. "Ills' gives a more absolute feeling of pain since it encapsulates both mental anguish and physical agony, repercussions of the era's racism. The placement of "alone" is indicative of the poem's theme; the implication of the line refutes the words connotation, "Not me alone" (2), thus though it appears in the poem, its function is to convey its opposite; this was the precise dichotomy Cullen wished to reveal about the era. Though human distress is a personal emotion, it commonly results from a connection with another human, and for blacks during the Harlem Renaissance, grief was a shared sentiment; each feeling society's prejudice separately, but collectively embodying the epoch's ignorance. "Pierce" denotes an almost unnoticeable type of cut, though stinging and lasting in effect. The glamour and attraction of 1920's America makes the pervading undercurrent of racism at times inconspicuous, but the racially bias climate of the time period had enduringly noxious effects on the lives of African-Americans.
The poem's theme of shared grief is extended in the second stanza's six lines, consisting again of an unusual rhyme scheme, but one entirely different from that of the first stanza. In fact, every stanza has at least an altered rhyme scheme of any of the others; every human has grief (each stanza has a rhyme scheme), every human feels it in different ways (no rhyme scheme is doubled), and every human's grief contributes to the world's oceans of misery (each stanza serves as a part of the entire poem). Lines 7-12 explicitly convey the author's feeling about the interconnectedness of human suffering, using the fitting comparison of grief to water bodies. The speaker directly addresses the reader when he claims "Your grief and mine / Must intertwine / Like sea and river" (7-9); the origins of the grief are never given and may not be the same, therefore indicating how closely related any human's grief is to another; their sorrows "must" come together and constitute a portion of the entire world's troubles, just like smaller, separate bodies of water come together and concertedly empty out into a larger body of water. Cullen's personification of grief being "fused" and "mingling" explains how grief is shared among humans, even though each human experiences a "diverse" and "single" sorrow. Cullen stresses the equality, particularly of blacks and whites, by combining the most prevalent and experienced emotion of mankind: grief. The closing line of the second stanza again stresses the absoluteness of human suffering and the universality that the poem's title introduces, proclaiming that grief intertwines "Forever and forever" (12). The third and fourth stanzas give a grave warning against the sin of pride and express the inclusiveness of sorrow.
An element of spirituality, which is continued later in the poem, cautions the reader against pride, one of the seven deadly sins of Christian doctrine. The word "confident" in line 14, typically carrying a positive connotation, is warned against as well; Cullen uses the word, rather, to imply the "arrogance, pomposity, and self-importance" with which society was ruled by during the gilded 1920's, characteristics that "go against the poem's theme of equality and universal fellowship" (Wasley 3). The speaker then mocks any man who thinks "he is allowed / A little tent / Pitched in a meadow / Of sun and shadow / All his little own" (15-19). These lines convey the foolishness of isolating the self from the undeniable connection each human shares with the world; the repetition of the word "little" in line 16 and 19 stresses the speaker's contempt for those who deny themselves the experience of unity and equality, scorning how small their worlds then become. The adjectives describing "joy" in the fourth stanza set up the stark contrast between happiness and sorrow. While joy is "shy, unique / Friendly to a few" (20-21), sorrow ramifies into the lives of any human, whether they be "false or true" (24); therefore, grief, contrasting to happiness, affects all people regardless of the morality with which they live their lives; this truth augments the power and authenticity of grief's impact on "any human". Again, Cullen personifies sorrow as capable of scorn and speech, creating a much bolder image of the emotion than that of the coy and less-felt sentiment of joy.
The concluding stanza both continues previous motifs of the work and also introduces new ideas that enhance the theme and effectiveness of the poem. The speaker again addresses the reader directly when he states that "Your every grief / like a blade / Shining and unsheathed / Must strike me down" (25-82). Here, the word "must" is used again, this time to signify that the speaker needs to feel the brunt of the reader's sorrow because human suffering becomes dignified when it is collective; though the blade will strike the speaker down, Cullen feels that "shared grief is given a noble quality" (Wasley 4), symbolized by his description of it as "shining and "unsheathed" (27), like a knight's sword. Cullen, by making the line the only one not capitalized in the poem, symbolizes the importance of the comparison of grief to a blade, both serving complex functions of inflicting pain, yet containing a noble quality. The speaker, after accepting the reader's sorrow, demands the reader accept his own sorrows; this mutual acceptance may be difficult, but it will allow each person's grief to be healed, it will be a "bitter aloe" (29). The last two lines of the poem reintroduce the religious motif of the poem; the speaker declares that his own sorrow "must be laid / On your head like a crown" (30-31). This religious allusion, comparing the reader to Jesus Christ, symbolizes how important absorbing human sorrow is to spiritual growth. In Christian belief, Christ suffered the most painful death to atone for the sins of all humans; the crown of thorns placed on His head before his crucifixion symbolized the king-like quality of his nature, though it resulted in even further pain. Cullen, then, proudly proclaims that each man may serve to be another's Christ if he or she is willing to endure the sorrow of gaining such knowledge.
Though not representing a typical Harlem Renaissance poem, Countee Cullen's "Any Human to Another" establishes a greater level of unanimity and responsibility among every individual. It addresses the racially tense climate of the era, but allows any human, white or black, to understand and relate to its universal message of equality.
Back to top
Collier, Eugenia W. "I Do
Not Marvel, Countee Cullen." Modern Black Poets: A Collection of
Critical essays. Ed. Donald B. Gibson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1973. 69-83.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946). Ed. Walter C. Daniel. 18 January 2003.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
Otfinoski, Steven. American Profiles: Great Black Writers. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1994.
Shucard, Alan R. Countee Cullen. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
"The Harlem Renaissance". 18 January 2003. http://www.unc.edu/courses/eng81br1/harlem.html
Wasley, Aidan. "Any Human to Another". Poetry For Students: Presenting Analysis, Context,
and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Detriot, MI:Gale
Research. 1998. 2-5.