Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver-Velez
There are certain poems that open up a Pandora’s box of memories for me. Words that evoke sharp memories of growing up as a Black child in a racist country that will never allow me to be not othered. One of those poems was written by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, whose birthday is today.
Here is Elijah Anderson, the Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University reading Cullen’s “Incident”
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
My “incident” took place when I was about 5 years old, in 1952, not in Baltimore, but in Princess Anne, Maryland which is on Maryland’s Eastern shore. I was living with my parents and baby brother on the campus of Maryland State University, now named The University of Maryland Eastern Shore; an Historically Black College (HBCU).
My mom had taken me with her into Princess Anne to do some shopping. There was an ice cream parlor in town, where Blacks were not welcome because of Jim Crow, with a big glass front window. A little white boy was standing in the window as we passed. He was eating an ice cream cone. I looked wistfully at it. He licked it, grinned, and then stuck his tongue out at me, shaking his head and wagging his finger at me. He was aware that I couldn’t go in. No, he did not call me nigger. He thought it. I heard it in my head as my mom pulled me past, saying I could have some ice cream when we got back home, on campus.
Funny how that one image stays with me. I have no other memory of Princess Anne. I can still see his face. This is what drew me so strongly to Cullen’s poem.
So just who was Countee Cullen?
Bachelor & Master has this biography:
Countee Cullen was one of the most important Harlem Renaissance poets, novelist, anthologist, children's writer, translator and playwright. He was one of the African American poet who won most of the prestigious awards from his high school days that continued with his later life. His exact birth place was unknown and his parents’ identity was also not clear.
He is said to have been raised by his parental grandmother until the age of 15 and later he was adopted by Carolyn Belle and Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, a conservative minister at the famous Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem.
In 1918 he went to DeWitt Clinton High School. He won a city wide poetry competition and also edited the school literary magazine. He joined New York University and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. There he won Bynner Poetry prize. In 1925, he published his first collection of poetry called Color which gave him instant recognition and praise from the reputed poets and critics. It was regarded as the landmark for the Harlem Renaissance. This poetry collection praised the black beauty and at the same time condemned the racial issues. ‘Heritage’ and ‘Incident’ are the most noted poems in this collection. In 1926, he got a master’s degree from Harvard University and joined, and worked as the editorial staff of Opportunity magazine. After the publication of Color, Copper Sun and The Ballad of the Brown Girl were immediately printed.
Here is Cullen reading one of his most famous poems — Heritage
It opens with:
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Cullen, who frequented the original 135th Street Branch, was one of the few leading members of the Harlem Renaissance who grew up in Harlem. Born Countee LeRoy Porter, he changed his last name when Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the influential pastor of Harlem’s Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, and his wife Carolyn, unofficially adopted him at age 15. Earning acclaim in literature at DeWitt Clinton High School (then located at 899 Tenth Avenue in Manhattan), New York University, and Harvard University, the young Cullen, “more than any other black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure,” writes author Gerald Early, who also notes: “If any event signaled the coming of the Harlem Renaissance, it was the precocious success of this rather shy black boy. … If the aim of the Harlem Renaissance was, in part, the reinvention of the native-born Negro as a being who can be assimilated while decidedly retaining something called ‘a racial self-consciousness,’ then Cullen fit the bill.”
In 1925, Cullen published his first book of poems, Color, which soon after was one of the 135th Street Library’s earliest acquisitions for its newly-created Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. The latter half of the 1920s was his most prolific as a poet. By about 1922, Cullen had confided in Locke, who became a kind of father figure, about his attraction to men. Locke introduced him to Edward Carpenter’s gay-affirming Ioläus (1917), which helped the young poet embrace his same-sex desires. In a letter to Locke, Cullen wrote:
It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it.
Though closeted and married twice to women, Cullen was likely gay rather than bisexual. He had sexual relationships with men throughout his adult life and dedicated poems to his lovers or friends with whom he was infatuated. Many of Cullen’s poems have coded gay language, including “Tableau” (dedicated to his former white lover, Donald Duff, after his death), “Fruit of the Flower,” “For a Poet,” “To a Brown Boy” (dedicated to Langston Hughes), “More Than a Fool’s Song” (dedicated to his then-lover Edward Perry), “The Black Christ,” “Yet Do I Marvel,” and “Song in Spite of Myself.”
Harlem World covered the rest of his story
When Cullen married Yolande Du Bois in April 1928, it was the social event of the decade, but the marriage did not fare well, and he divorced in 1930. It is rumored that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman (“the handsomest man in Harlem”), was a significant factor in the divorce. The young, dashing Jackman was a school teacher and, thanks to his noted beauty, a prominent figure among Harlem’s gay elite. Van Vechten had used him as a character model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). It’s very possible that the conflicted Cullen was in love with the homosexual Jackman, but Thomas Wirth, author of Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, says there is no concrete proof that they ever were lovers, despite newspaper stories and gossip suggesting the contrary.
Jackman’s diaries, letters, and outstanding collections of memorabilia are held in various depositories across the country, such as the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. At Cullen’s death, Jackman requested that the name of the Georgia accumulation be changed from the Harold Jackman Collection to the Countee Cullen Memorial Collection in honor of his friend. When Jackman, himself, succumbed to cancer in 1961, the collection was renamed the Cullen-Jackman Collection to honor them both.
By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. The title poem of The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) was criticized for the use of Christian religious imagery – Cullen compared the lynching of a black man to the crucifixion of Jesus.
As well as writing books himself, Cullen promoted the work of other black writers. But by 1930 Cullen’s reputation as a poet waned. In 1932 appeared his only novel, One Way to Heaven
, a social comedy of lower-class blacks and the bourgeoisie in New York City. From 1934 until the end of his life, he taught English, French, and creative writing at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City. During this period, he also wrote two works for young readers: The Lost Zoo
(1940), poems about the animals who perished in the Flood, and My Lives and How I Lost Them
, an autobiography of his cat. In the last years of his life, Cullen wrote mostly for the theatre. He worked with Arna Bontemps to adapt Bontemps’s 1931 novel God Sends Sunday
into St. Louis Woman
(1946, published 1971) for the musical stage. Its score was composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white. The Broadway musical, set in poor black neighborhood in St. Louis, was criticized by black intellectuals for creating a negative image of black Americans. Cullen also translated the Greek tragedy Medea
by Euripides, which was published in 1935 as The Medea and Some Poems
with a collection of sonnets and short lyrics.
In 1940, Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson, whom he had known for ten years.
Cullen died from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
I’ll close with one more:
Yet Do I Marvel
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
News round up by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
Gia Gray seems like a dream client for any bank: a well-off family doctor living in an exclusive Bay Area town, in a 5,000-square-foot mansion with a master bath bigger than my office.
With a credit score topping 800, she expected little drama when she and her husband decided to refinance their Danville home and two other investment properties in 2020 to capture some of the lowest interest rates in recent history — remember when 3% loans were a thing?
But after endless excuses and delays in her applications, “I started feeling Black,” Gray told me. Her bank, Wells Fargo, flat out turned her down on the investment properties, she said, and slow-rolled the application on her residence, coming up with new requirements as the process dragged on.
“At the visceral level, I felt that something was not right,” she said.
Across the country, other borrowers have had similar experiences. Earlier this year, a federal court in Northern California, where Wells Fargo is headquartered, consolidated the claims of Gray and seven other Black plaintiffs into one case that may be certified as a class-action suit in coming months.
On Thursday, Wisconsin Republican Representative Glenn Grothman used his time on the floor of America’s Capitol to complain that President Joe Biden has not nominated enough straight “white guys” as judges.
“Apparently in his first two years, President Biden had appointed 97 federal judges. Of the 97 federal judges, I was expecting maybe 25 or 30 were white guys, because I know President Biden wasn’t heavy on appointing more white guys,” Grothman started. “Five of the 97 judges were white guys,” he continued with a tinge of disgust. “Of those, two were gay. So, almost impossible for a white guy who’s not gay apparently to get appointed here.”
According to the American Constitution Society, over 68 percent of federal judges are white.
Still, it seems to Grothman that you can either be a straight white guy, or you’re everything else. And, well, he doesn’t seem to be a big fan of “everything else.”
In 2015, Grothman was one of 37 co-sponsors of a House resolution that defined marriage as “consisting only of the union of a man and woman.” The resolution prohibited either the Constitution or even states to be required to recognize marriages of “any other union.”
Calls for unity dominated Thursday’s 60th anniversary celebrations for the continent-wide organization preceding the African Union (AU) that represented 55 member states. But critics say the AU has become a paper tiger where there’s plenty of talk, but not much much real clout to enforce its mandate.
Africa Day events across the continent honored the founding of the AU’s predecessor — The Organization of African Unity (OAU) — whose original purpose was to fight colonialism before evolving in 2002 to incorporate the aims of defending it’s members sovereignty and independence as well as encouraging their socio-economic integration.
In Addis Ababa where the AU is seated, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed underscored that unity is “no more a catchphrase but a means of survival” in an increasingly complex world. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed Abiy, appealing for unity and to “uphold the bonds that frame our destiny.”
Hundreds of people helped clean and restore a sculpture of a seated Black woman by the US artist Tschabalala Self, which was vandalized on May 15.
The ten-foot-tall bronze work entitled “Seated,” from 2022 — which has been temporarily installed outside the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea on England’s south coast (until October 29) — was defaced when “the perpetrator covered the entirety of the woman’s skin with white spray paint,” according to a statement from the pavilion. Volunteers were invited to “help remove the paint and bring the community together in an act of peaceful resistance.”
A pavilion spokesperson said that around 300 people subsequently attended. “We had to extend the event to make sure everyone who had been queuing could participate due to the high turnout,” the spokesperson said. Seated will continue to be restored professionally and will re-open on June 3.
In a statement posted to Instagram, Self said: “I am very disheartened that my sculpture ‘Seated’ was targeted and attacked by vandals. Despite my disappointment I am not surprised as Black, female — and especially Black female bodies — are often targets for abuse. ‘Seated’ proudly represents the beauty of both blackness and femininity, and for these very reasons she has been harmed: covered by her assailant with white spray paint in a futile attempt to erase her color and, in my mind, her strength.”
A 2015 video produced to promote tourism in Salvador, Brazil’s blackest city, went viral that year for all the wrong reasons.
It opens with a pale white woman floating on her back in a pool and then cuts to some iconic visuals of Salvador — the Elevador Lacerda, its wide tropical beaches, the Bay of All Saints. By the time Black people appear in the commercial, they fall neatly into stereotypes as capoeira athletes, musicians, street food vendors and practitioners of the Candomblé religion. Only one of the more than 30 leisure and business travelers appearing in the commercial can be considered Black. Black Brazilians denounced the video, which was produced by a chamber of commerce promoting tourism to Salvador.
“This video hurt my eyes,” said Leticia Santana, a Black Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro who travels to Salvador every year. “It makes no sense because the Black community considers Salvador the mecca of Brazil.” Salvador, a city of three million people, is considered to be the largest Blackest city in Latin America. More than 80% of its three million inhabitants self-declare as Black, and it has long been considered the cradle of Black music and culture in Brazil.
It looks like Halle Bailey got the last laugh! Prior to the premiere of The Little Mermaid (2023), Mena Massoud, who was the title character in the live-action Aladdin (2019) took to Twitter to lay out his doubts about The Little Mermaid’s predicted success in the box office tweeting, “Our film was unique in that audiences went to watch it multiple times. It’s the only way we reached the billion dollar mark with our opening. My guess is TLM doesn’t cross the billion mark but will undoubtedly get a sequel.”
The internet didn’t take kindly to Massoud thinking out loud, throwing insults at him and the Aladdin remake, and protecting Halle and her movie. Massoud’s doubts were added to a list of issues that people have with The Little Mermaid remake, all stemming from the fact that Halle Bailey, a Black woman, is playing the iconic Disney princess, Ariel.
Although The Little Mermaid hasn’t reached the billion-dollar mark yet, since it was only released May 26, it’s definitely a possibility, blowing Aladdin’s premiere box office numbers out the window. Aladdin made $113 million over the 2017 Memorial Day weekend, while The Little Mermaid made a whopping $118 million over the 2023 Memorial Day weekend, making it the fifth-highest-grossing Memorial Day weekend premiere in history behind films like Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).
It looks like all that hating only added fuel to the fire prompting more people to watch Halle get her mermaid fin turned into legs! When the backlash got to be a little too much, Massoud decided to deactivate his Twitter, probably not expecting so many people to come after him for his hating comments.
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