Countée Cullen / Historical photo via

Countée Cullen, Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance (1903–1946)

Oh, Countée Cullen — Harlem boy meteor whose star climbed to the highest, brightest apogee, and then gradually faded.

In 1925, Alain Locke – the first Black Rhodes scholar and a mentor to young African-American men — produced the seminal anthology, “The New Negro: An Interpretation.” In it, he wrote, “[There’s] ample evidence of a New Negro in the latest phases of social change and progress, but still more in the internal world of the Negro mind and spirit … the New Negro must be seen in the perspective of a New World, and especially of a New America … a jump of two generations in social economy and of a century and more in civilization.”

True, the 21st century may view Locke’s aspirational (and male) figure as rooted in a specific vision of class, education, and urbanization, but the break with the past is clear, and with it comes a massive flowering of the new: new poetry, drama, visual arts, journalism, style … Countée was raised among it all.

Abandoned by his parents during childhood, Countée eventually made his way into the Harlem home of prominent Reverend Frederick Cullen, pastor of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church and an icon for competing legs in Harlem life: conservative Christian patriarchal religion and racial uplift dogfight political life. The boy took the Reverend’s name and both his religious and political outlooks.

Countée caught the eye of W.E.B. Du Bois, who’d practically prophesized his coming. Yes, the Du Bois, visionary author of “The Souls of Black Folk,” head of the nascent NAACP, editor, educator, and expounder upon the extravagant flow of all things African American in this new epoch.

Du Bois watched the young man with poetic abilities come alive as he repeatedly won prizes for his work in high school and beyond. In fact, Countée won more major literary prizes than any other Black writer of the 1920s, and at the age of 22, he was not only “the most popular Black poet and virtually the most popular Black literary figure in America,” according to the Modern American Poetry Site (MAPS), he’d already published his first book of poetry, “Color.” The young Countée, “more than any other Black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure.”

Du Bois even gave his only daughter, Yolande, to Countée. She was strong-armed into leaving her jazz musician boyfriend and marrying the poet in what MAPS calls “one of the most lavish weddings in Black New York history,” with 3,000 in attendance, symbolizing “the union of the grand Black intellectual patriarch and the new breed of younger Negroes who were responsible for much of the excitement of the Renaissance.”

Regrettably, it was a disastrous move. The couple went to Europe for their honeymoon on the Guggenheim Fellowship that Countée had scored following his Harvard master’s degree. But he confessed his preexisting and primary love for men to her — and she left, beginning divorce proceedings almost immediately. He stayed abroad with his best man (and lover), Harold Jackman.

The works he published afterward never garnered the same adulation, or even attention, as his prior materials — not even “The Black Christ.” Eventually, he remarried and taught high school English in Harlem. One of his students was James Baldwin, whom he mentored.

In 1950, Countée’s widow, Ida Cullen, established the Countée Cullen Foundation and worked to promote his legacy, spending decades traveling the country. She was instrumental in getting the 135th Street branch library renamed for Countée in 1951. It was the first New York Public Library branch to be named after an African American, according to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

In 1953, Ida married Robert L. Cooper, an NYC psychiatric social worker whose primary career focus was on troubled youth. Countée’s headstone shows two people. One side bears his name, dates, and the inscription, “Poet, Author, Scholar.”

Curiously, the second person on the headstone is Robert L. Cooper, 1909–1966, “Humanitarian, Scholar, Lecturer.” Ida died in 1986 at the age of 86.