"The Singing Man Who Must be Reckoned With": Private Desire and Public Responsibility in the Poetry of Countee Cullen.
Cullen's creative work is often effetely comfortable and self-consciously vulnerable. (Hill et al. 909)
No other Negro writer of the 1920s was more anxious to use primitive and atavistic motifs than the poet Countee Cullen. It is a bit ironic, because none of the Harlem writers was more formally schooled, none more genteel in inclination and taste, none indeed more prissy than Cullen. (Huggins 161)
In working up to writing about Countee Cullen, I found it difficult to read very far into the scholarship without noticing a drumbeat of sotto voce criticisms, often eloquently stated but revealing themselves as variants of the schoolyard taunts directed toward boys who never quite manage to throw a spiral, who make the mistake of squealing or giggling too often, or whose step across the blacktop may mince a bit too much.  "MY GOD!" the critics seem to agree, "HE WRITES LIKE A GIRL!" Most often this dismissal of the poetry coincides with a dismissal of the man. For Jean Wagner, Cullen lacks McKay's virility, and for the editors of the Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, he has exhausted whatever virility he may have had and is simply effete--perhaps a more politically palatable term than "effeminate." For Darwin Turner he is "childishly petulant" and given to "self-pitying despair" (74). Nathan Huggins thinks he's prissy. For David Levering Lewis, the combination of Cullen's su spect masculinity and his overwhelming popularity among Talented Tenth Harlemites signifies the general fallings of the Renaissance as a whole. He grants literary Harlem some manly discernment by hoping speculatively that "Cullen must have set even Harlem's teeth on edge with Crisis throwaways lisping of a 'daisy-decked' Spring with her 'flute and silver lute'" (77). But Lewis's general dismay at the failures of the black bourgeoisie comes quickly to the fore as he notes, "Harlem loved Langston Hughes, Cullen's only serious rival..., but it revered Countee Cullen. With his high-pitched voice, nervous courtliness, and large Phi Beta Kappa key gleaming on the chain across a vested, roly-poly middle, he was the proper poet with proper credentials" (77).
Alas, poor Cullen! Fat, high-pitched and lisping, childish writer of effete verses. Not a candidate, according to the critics, for man of the year.
To some degree these gendered interpretations echo the masculine anxieties of an Ezra Pound or a T. S. Eliot decrying the effeminate line of the Amygists. It's not my purpose here to defend Cullen from the manly modernist critical tradition by suggesting that Cullen's poetry really is virile after all. What that could mean, I'm not entirely sure. Rather, it seems to me that the critical attention given to Cullen's supposedly flaccid masculinity is responding to a crisis over the nature of black masculinity that Cullen's poetry everywhere embodies. This crisis turns fundamentally on the unresolved tensions it displays over the relationship among blackness, homoeroticism, and Christian ethics, especially given that Cullen is living in a predominantly white, heterosexual, and increasingly secularized cultural milieu. Given the popularity of Cullen's work at the time, it seems possible to hypothesize that Cullen's work was not only popular because of his Phi Beta Kappa key but also because the tensions and contra dictions that drive his work embody the tensions and contradictions of his cultural context, particularly as they revolve around the definitions of masculinity, race, and religion.
During the period that gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance, masculine anxiety coursed like a fever through the veins of Americans both black and white. In the first thirty years of the century the Boy Scouts flourished, as did the Men and Religion Forward Movement, the YMCA, men's lodges and social clubs, and the National Park Service--conceived by Teddy Roosevelt to help combat what he perceived as the effeminacy of overly civilized boys and men. The strenuous life was to save not only the male body and character; it would save the nation. So thought Roosevelt.  So, in fact, thought Countee Cullen's foster father, who devoted a chapter of his spiritual autobiography to the moral and racial uplift that athletics could provide (F. A Cullen 102-105). Birth of a Nation, a wildly popular racist film on the development of the Klan, dramatized the anxieties of white Southern manhood facing both Northern political dominance and a newly assertive black masculine presence.
While often birthed among white Americans, most of these cultural institutions and discourses had close cousins among African Americans. As early as 1903, Du Bois had proclaimed that the "history of the American Negro is the history of this strife--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood ..." (102). In 1923, when Cullen is writing the poems that would establish his reputation, Reverend Reverdy Ransom gave forth on the nature of black manhood:
HE IS NEW, he is old as the forests primeval.
Stark in their nakedness of limb,
His forebears roamed the jungle and led the chase.
Crystalized by the heat of Oriental suns,
God made him a rock of undecaying power,
To become at last the nation's corner stone.
Rough hewn from the jungle and the desert's sands,
Slavery was the chisel that fashioned him to form,
And gave him all the arts and sciences had won.
The lyncher, mob, and stake have been his emery wheel.
TO MAKE A POLISHED MAN of strength and power.
In him, the latest birth of freedom,
God hath again made all things new.
Europe and Asia with ebbing tides recede,
America's unfinished arch of freedom waits,
Till he, the corner stone of strength,
Is lifted into place and power.
Behold him! dauntless and unafraid he stands.
He comes with laden arms,
Bearing rich gifts to science, religion, poetry and song.
Labor and capital through him shall find.
The equal heritage of common brotherhood,
And statesmanship shall keep the stewardship
Of justice with equal rights and privileges for all.
HE KNOWS HIS PLACE to keep it
As a sacred trust and heritage for all.
To wear God's image in the ranks of men
And walk as princes of the royal blood divine,
ON EQUAL FOOTING everywhere with all mankind.
With ever-fading color on these shores, The Oriental sunshine in his blood
Shall give the warming touch of brotherhood
And love, to all the fused races in our land,
He is the last reserve of God on earth,
Who, in the godly fellowship of love,
Will rule the world with peace. (Spencer 453-54)
Registering the same links among athletics, morality, and racial uplift that animated Frederick Cullen's ministry, Ransom saw this messianic figure embodied as early as 1910 in Jack Johnson, a man whose symbolic championing of black manhood in the boxing ring spanned the years of Cullen's childhood.  Gerald Early notes that Johnson symbolized the preoccupations of the Renaissance with masculine self-realization. "This became the basic idea of the New Negro--the black who asserted his rights and his manhood, who wanted to best the white, who was 'reckless, independent, bold and superior in the face of whites'" (26).  When, in "The City of Refuge," Rudolph Fisher's protagonist gawks at a black policeman ordering about white motorists, he is looking wide-eyed into the dawning of a form of black male self-assertion not previously thought possible in the face of white racism.
Black male self-assertion, the perception of economic insecurity attendant upon industrialization and massive immigration, and the toxic psychology of most Southern whites coming out of Reconstruction proved a volatile brew. Of the 3,513 lynchings of African Americans in the years between 1882 and 1927, two-thirds occurred after 1903, the year of Cullen's birth. Ninety-seven percent of these victims were men (Harris 7). This says nothing of the various race riots, beatings, and other forms of humiliation attendant upon mythologies of maleness. The psychological and ideological threads that provoked such atrocities also wove themselves into the cultural and intellectual tapestry of white Americans. Spengler's work on the decline of Western civilization--wildly popular in many parts of educated white America--is fraught with a masculinist vision of the declining male potency of the West, which is giving way before the sexualized hordes of the colored world. Similarly, as David Levering Lewis points out, even s ympathetic and concerned whites of the twenties romanticized the black male as a sexual and spiritual dynamo. Indeed, Ransom's poem above could easily have been endorsed by any number of white aficionados of blackness, such as Carl Van Vechten. Lewis quotes Malcolm Cowley: "'One heard it said...that the Negroes had retained a direct virility that the whites had lost through being overeducated'" (91). 
While the black bourgeoisie was aware of such stereotyping and its potentially pernicious implications, they seemed to agree with the general assumption that racial and even national salvation lay in a clearly articulated masculine style.  Ransom's rhapsody on the black male is only one good example. But what that style should be was a point of some debate. The gaudy military plumage of the Garveyites? Or perhaps the crisp Victorianism of W. E. B. Du Bois with his cane, his moustache modeled after Germany's Wilhelm II, and his general air of urbane sophistication? Or perhaps the traditionally patriotic sharp lines of the 15th regiment on Fifth Avenue? The "primitivist" hedonism of the working-class clubs and cabarets celebrated by Langston Hughes and Claude McKay? Or perhaps even the proper Christian gentleman, of whom Cullen's adoptive father, Frederick Asbury Cullen, was one of the prime exemplars? All these embodied different masculine styles and indeed suggested different conceptions of blackness that African American men embraced or rejected in the quest for a route out from under the thumb of white America. Thus, much of the aesthetic work of the Harlem Renaissance turned not simply on the question of race but around the nexus of race and gender. From the sharp disagreements between Cullen and Hughes on the proper subject matter for poetry, to the late arguments between Hurston and Wright, the politics of race was also the politics of gender and sexuality. The cultural explosion of the twenties, which Cullen embodied for many African Americans, explores the tricky terrain in which the achievement of manhood is seen to be an achievement of racial self-realization.
Perhaps no poet was more vexed by the dilemma of his masculinity than Countee Cullen. Adopted out of an impoverished childhood, and perhaps illegitimacy, into the upper reaches of Harlem society by a Methodist minister, living a barely concealed gay life while still marrying Yolande Du Bois, Cullen embodied the contradictory social significance of varying masculine styles in his one body. Critics have documented Cullen's anguished bifurcation as a black man dedicated to a dream of Africa and to the intellectual traditions that he imbibed at Clinton DeWitt High School, NYU, and Harvard. In the balance of this essay, I suggest that the crucial and finally insurmountable problem of Cullen's poetry is found not simply in this intellectual problem, but in the problem of his male body, centered as it is at the nexus of several contradictory masculine styles. Because these styles provoked what must have seemed to Cullen to be mutually exclusive desires, none could be affirmed save at the expense of self-mutilation. The most critical of these styles--which I would describe loosely as that of the Christian public servant and the gay lover--brought Cullen's desire for public service, approbation, and racial leadership into conflict with his desire for love and sexual fulfillment.
To some degree, Cullen was aware of all this, as his oft-quoted statement that he could not resolve a Christian upbringing with a pagan inclination makes clear. However, the implications of this conflict for Cullen's quandaries concerning masculine sexuality and race have yet to be fully explored. Critics often note the conflict between Cullen's Africanist longings and his attachment to white traditions, but no one has noted that in Cullen's work "paganism" stands primarily as a marker for erotic desire, a movement toward an object of love or erotic experience rather than a search for origins. For Cullen this "inclination" or desire was primarily gay.  We can thus see the irony of Cullen's position as a man with longings for other men who would become an exemplar of the race by writing poetry. This poetry often evokes an eroticism associated with blackness, which must have often evoked in Cullen his private homoerotic desires, desires which did not clearly fit the heroic black male image embodied by Jack Johnson and the soldiers of the 15th regiment, or even of the Christian public servant embodied by his father and Reverdy Ransom. All of this at least implies that the assertion of blackness and maleness, for Cullen, must potentially have asserted homoerotic desire, the frank revelation and indulgence of which could only have served to diminish his position as a poet laureate. "What is Africa to me?" Indeed.
On this score, Cullen was not simply conflicted among allegiance to Africa, African Americans, and white cultural forms--different forms of cultural/public expression, we might say. Rather this cultural conflict was also a coded conflict between the public persona with its own very real longing and public displays of the body (one thinks of the dangling Phi Beta Kappa key at which Lewis smirks and the rather uncomfortable suits which Cullen always seems to be wearing in publicity photographs) and the private longings of the lover. Indeed, if we follow Houston Baker, Jr., and notice that the predominant motive of Cullen's romantic poetry is love, it seems appropriate to say that his private and illicit desires were the occasion for the lyric poetry that made him famous, that made his public and proper self-display possible at all (53). Cullen embraced a particular form of public "blackness" in his position as poet, but that very public position, which he eagerly wished to maintain, conflicted with a very diff erent form of "blackness" embodied in his private desires for black men. The tension between these different modes of being produced the creative tension out of which much of Cullen's poetry was born.
This split in the body between public face and private desire is, of course, relatively typical to Victorian masculinity in general, figured predominantly in someone like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all manner of vampire novels, even Dimmesdale lashing himself mercilessly/masochistically in the privacy of his closet while his sadistic counterpart, Roger Chillingsworth, leers at the spectacle from the crack in the door. It found a different but related psychological expression among African Americans in the many works associated with the problems of passing or of having to "wear the mask" in a hostile racial environment. This split in Cullen was perhaps inevitable given his homosexual inclinations, since few men of any stripe were openly and assertively gay at this particular point in American history. While Bruce Nugent may have written a short story that openly displayed homosexual desire and behavior, and while Claude McKay may have included a homosexual character in Home to Harlem, these few drops of public literary homosexuality seem meager indeed when compared to the rivers of desire that seem to have flowed among many of the Harlem Renaissance literary masters--Main Locke, McKay, Cullen, Nugent, and Langston Hughes, to name only a few.  Du Bois's scathing denunciations of literary works that depicted bohemian sexual practices--he reviewed or spoke negatively of McKay, Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, and the anthology Fire, which contained Nugent's short story--suggest the degree to which the cultural leadership of the Renaissance subscribed to traditional bourgeois social values, at least as a matter of public discourse. 
The split between public and private was all the more inevitable for Cullen given his situation in his adoptive home. Rumor has it that Frederick Asbury Cullen modeled this kind of split for his son, serving both as exemplary Christian leader of the race and as seducer of choir boys (Lewis 76). Perhaps more pertinent for my purposes is Reverend Cullen's model of responsible Christian maleness, "responsibility" in this case turning on one's public activity on behalf of the race. Reverend Cullen's autobiography is replete with the values of Christian self-renunciation in service to God and others. The elder Cullen transformed Salem Methodist Episcopal from a tiny, struggling mission church to one of the most powerful African American churches of the twenties, with more than three thousand members, large property holdings, and a plethora of ministries to the tidal wave of immigrants from the South. While much has been made of Reverend Cullen's criticisms of the cabaret and club life, as well as the prostitution and sexual peccadillos that his adopted son found alluring, Cullen was far from a simpleminded moralist. Indeed, some of his most important work included public action on issues attendant to the assertion of black maleness in the world. He served as president in the local chapter of the NAACP and helped to organize a protest of the race riot in Brownsville, Texas. He helped send W. E. B. Du Bois to the League of Nations, helped organize the Silent Parade, and helped found the Urban League. Among his most important ministries at Salem was a commitment to the YMCA, through which he hoped to rescue Harlem boys from gang activity in the streets (Ferguson 20-21; Sernett 134). Whatever the limitations of such activism proved to be, it can hardly be said that Reverend Cullen's Christianity encouraged racial self-hatred. Indeed, in many ways, Reverend Cullen stood as an exemplar of that icon of racial leadership, the black preacher, noted by Du Bois as a man at "the centre of a group of men, now twenty, now a thousa nd in number" (199).
Whatever Reverend Cullen's private sexual proclivities, it seems clear that he encouraged his son to replicate his belief in the importance of public leadership and proper public deportment. The younger Cullen's notorious complaint against the lowlife depictions of some Harlem Renaissance work surely reflects his father's moralism. But as his father's position is more complicated, so too is the son's. While not entering the ministry, the young poet was drawn to positions of leadership within his own vocation, serving as editor of journals and anthologies from his days as a school boy until the days he ceased most professional activity as a writer. While Cullen has been critiqued for not having followed an editorial policy more clearly focused on folk traditions when he brought out his anthology Caroling Dusk, he clearly conceived of the project as a form of racial promotion--a way of putting the best foot forward, as it were. Houston Baker has suggested that Cullen's poetic project was "celebrated by black p eople because he demonstrated authentic, poetical achievement to appreciative whites" (47). I would go a bit further and say that it demonstrated such achievement to any number of appreciative members of the black bourgeoisie as well.
What is significant to me here is the public and quasi-political role Cullen knew his role as poet was serving. Commenting on his former classmate, Martin Russak notes that Cullen served as a significant intellectual leader even among some white Americans at NYU, something that in small represented the kind of political and cultural power to which many African Americans aspired in the Harlem Renaissance (Tuttleton 130-31). Little wonder then that many saw in the soon-to-be-disastrous marriage of the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois and the son of Frederick Asbury Cullen the marriage of a new Adam and a new Eve, exemplars of a New Negro race to be. Even according to the editors of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Cullen "was probably the figure from the Harlem Renaissance who most closely corresponded to Alain Locke's idea of the New Negro" (Gates and McKay 1303). Locke seems to have affirmed this in private correspondence with the poet, saying that "you and one or two more very much represent the younger generation as far as my hopes and interests go." 
Seen in this light, Cullen's plaintive longing to be taken as only a poet, not a Negro poet, seems less simply like self-alienation and racial self-hatred than a desperate attempt to mitigate the consequences of being seen as "THE New Negro," a particular mode of blackness that he felt called upon to embrace, and indeed wanted to embrace. But that embrace made his own longstanding and deeply personal embrace of men like Harold Jackman--a man to whom most of his poetry is dedicated in one form or another--excruciatingly complicated indeed, since the public forums where he wished to be taken seriously made little or no room for unconventional sexual practices. 
Cullen himself seemed aware of the significance of public approbation and the costs of public ridicule, and that the public character of his poetry was of paramount importance. In a letter to Harold Jackman, he accuses himself of playing to the public too readily: " 'There is actually no excuse for enjoying the plaudits of the populace as I do. I fairly revel in public commendation. Perhaps I am the one living poet who will confess that he doesn't write for his own amusement, and that what others think of his work can affect him'" (qtd. in Shucard 10). Still, Cullen seems to have been torn by the public significance of his work. When Alain Locke argued that "the present day Negro poet regards his racial heritage as a more precious endowment than his own personal genius, and to the common legacy of his art adds the peculiar experiences and emotions of his folk," Cullen wrote a disturbed rejoinder that argued for the importance of the personal (Shucard 20). Indeed, even Cullen's famous repudiation of the more bohemian school of Hughes and McKay, while clearly concerned with the reception of a white audience, is also simply riven with anxieties about hidden and private things becoming exposed:
There is no more childish untruth than the axiom that the truth will set you free; in many cases it will merely free one from the concealment of facts which will later bind you hand and foot in ridicule and mockery. Let art portray things as they are no matter what the consequences, no matter who is hurt, is a blind bit of philosophy. There are some things, some truths of Negro life and thought, of Negro inhibitions, that all Negroes know, but take no pride in. ("Dark Tower" 171)
Cullen is parroting the aesthetic assumptions of someone like Du Bois, and whatever the degree of racial self-hatred present in Cullen's life, he also seems primarily to be arguing for a particular mode of blackness, a definition of what a Negro is or ought to be, as well as for the freedom not to revel in or reveal the sexuality that threatened his public face.  Crucial here is less racial hatred than a mind riven by fears of discovery, particularly fears of falling short of what a Negro ought to be--at least in his own mind and in the mind of the black bourgeoisie. The quotation moves from a general statement of the imprisoning effects of social ridicule, to a general sense that there are any number of things that Negroes know about but would rather not discuss in public. Only after this does Cullen move to an explicit statement that the receptiveness of white audiences should be taken into account. Cullen is fearful of the consequences of his desires being uncovered as a general principle, not simply o ut of a slavish devotion to the prerogatives of white people--all of which suggests that desire is never a purely personal matter, at least for the person desiring a public voice.
This bifurcation between public responsibility and private desire is evident throughout "Heritage," a poem that is, of course, about the problematic status of Africa in Cullen's imagination and in the Harlem Renaissance in general, and about the sense of split between a pagan self and a Christian or civilized self. Without denying these readings, I wish to point out that this poem is also clearly about the conflicted desire of the poet's own body, particularly a desire directed toward the male body. The narrator of the poem lies, apparently in bed and alone, meditating on the nature of his own body. In this body he feels "the unremittant beat / Made by cruel padded feet / Walking through my body's street. / Up and down they go, and back, / Treading out a jungle track" (106). The beat alluded to in the first line is a figure for bodily desire in the poem, though Cullen separates this from the body itself and figures his desire as something walking on him cruelly, as if dominating and beating down his body in some all but unbearable manner. A similar linking of anguish and desire occupies the next lines, as the body is no longer simply trod upon by desire but writhes in response:
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;
Like a soul gone mad with pain
I must match its weird refrain;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, "Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover's Dance!"
Rain works on me night and day. (106)
In an old remembered way
The evident anguish here replicates that caused by the cruel padded feet of the earlier line. However, here the poet's body responds by twisting, squirming, and writhing, movements easily seen as sexual passion, but a sexual passion identified with entrapment. Rather than imagining sexual ecstasy as a form of self-fulfillment, the narrator feels himself a baited worm, a body trapped by desires beyond his ability to control, desires in fact that are imperious and demanding, calling for the narrator to "strip" and to "dance," verbs used in the imperative voice.  Desire calls the poet to reveal himself fully and to cease lying; that is, to get up and act on his sexual desires but also to give up his duplicitous, double life, and reveal himself for who he is as a desiring being.
The linking of erotic desire and enslavement is not an unusual combination in the romantic literary tradition. In the context of Cullen's growing awareness of himself as a public figure embodying the hopes and longings of other people, the bifurcation takes on particular resonances. The poem is dedicated to Harold Jackman, Cullen's male lover of longest standing. Given that, it is intriguing that the opening segments of the poem evoke images of sexuality that are clearly heterosexual and/or reproductive in character. The "Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women from whose loins I sprang" and the "Jungle boys and girls in love" are fairly commonplace images of Africa for the time. However, these strong images of heterosexual racial pride are associated with an Africa toward which the narrator has an ambivalent attitude, an identification he can only make through a cerebral engagement with books. More important is the drumbeat within his own blood, the desires that would call him to "strip" and cast aside h is bookish images of Africa in favor of the dance. For Cullen, of course, such book learning was one of the most important sources of his public authority. Moreover, the clothes he is called upon to leave behind symbolize the public face of respectability, the outward symbol of a civilized, educated, and clearly heterosexual Christian gentleman who, writhing on his bed at night, has desires for something which a civilized, educated, and clearly heterosexual Christian gentleman ought not to desire. Thus the dream, or desire, is always deferred. As a black gay man expected to perform in a number of publicly prescribed ways, the narrator here feels the necessity of keeping his desiring black body safely in the closet--or, in Cullen's case, safely encased within his ill-fitting suits and Phi Beta Kappa Key--unstripped, unrevealed, and writhing on his bed of lies.
That Cullen concludes the poem with an imagined prayer to Christ partially replicates this more general effort to protect the body. But at the end of "Heritage," Cullen is attempting desperately to reconcile his reasonable desire for safety with his longing to express his erotic desire for black men, and attempting to reconcile all of this with a desire to assert a black masculinity that will be taken to be fully manly even if it happens to be gay. Thus an angry and erotically compelling black Christ is a "dark god" that Cullen "fashions" so that he can have a black male with whom he can identify. This Christ has "Dark despairing features" that are "Crowned with dark rebellious hair," figures that suggest sexual vitality as well as Cullen's resentment at perpetually deferred sexual self-revelation. Nevertheless, even after fashioning such a Christ, Cullen withdraws from what he takes as an impetuous act of creation, begging forgiveness of the Lord because his "need" or desire "Sometimes shapes a human creed. " Thus, in the poem's conclusion, the narrator follows not the imperative to "strip," as called for by his hot desire, but the imperative of self-renunciation: "All day long and all night through, / One thing only must I do: / Quench my pride and cool my blood, / Lest I perish in the flood." Whereas his days and nights at the beginning and in middle of the poem have been wracked by desire and the imperative to act, even by the imperative to shape a black god who could fill his "need," the poem concludes with an assertion of the need for self-protection.
The rejection of the Black Christ is peculiar on any number of scales. While much has been made of the embrace of a white Jesus throughout much of African American Christianity at the time, Cullen's longing that "he I served were black" is hardly novel to Cullen or to the Black Theology movement of the 1960s. Among the educated and middle-class ministerial circles in which Cullen moved, assertions of a Black Christ were relatively common (Douglas 9-34). Such images also had broad popular appeal in Harlem. In direct appeals to the masses, Garveyites incorporated the notion of a Black Christ, a Black God, and a Black Madonna into their quasi-religious ritualism, and the Cullen household had been known to take the Garveyites seriously.  Thus, proclaiming a Black Christ was not a radical notion, though the depiction of a highly eroticized Black Christ was. However mildly heterodox the notion of a Black Christ might have been, what is truly unique and potentially disturbing to middleclass Afro-Christians or w hite readers is the depiction of an eroticized Christ whom the male narrator finds attractive. When the narrator wishes for a Black Christ so that his heart would not lack "Precedence of pain to guide it," the pain to be recalled within the poem itself is primarily that of the illicit and "unChristian" sexual desire that pierces his body like a hook. Indeed, the narrator reinscribes the problematic public-private split that is complicating Cullen's erotic desires when he wants the Black Christ to be able to feel his pain, "Let who would or might deride it" (107). The narrator longs for an acceptably public male object of desire, one who would release him from the pain of public censure, dismissing those who would deride him. One thinks here of the snickering nubile girls that Lewis evokes in his description of Cullen's social position in the Renaissance (76). In the predominantly Christian environs of Harlem, what could be more publicly acceptable than Christ himself? The problem, then, is not simply the blac kness of Christ, but a black Christ who can experience the pain of desire. While the former was well within the realm of acceptable speculative possibility, the latter could have been scandalous to the predominantly heterosexual Harlemites as well as the proper white folks to whom Cullen's verses appealed, supportive readers who may have indulged the sexual failings of one of their leading lights but could hardly have accepted having those sexual failings baptized in the image of Christ.
So it is not surprising that at the end of "Heritage" the narrator chooses survival. If his heart and head--his private longings, thoughts, and desires-- have not yet realized they are civilized, he at least must guard against the destructive flood their publicity might entail. He seeks to cool his blood, an image of the death of his desire that avoids the social death that his stripping might occasion. Indeed, perhaps it is not accidental that in the collection Color, Cullen chose to follow "Heritage" with "For a Poet," wherein he imagines his dreams wrapped in a silken cloth and buried in a coffin-like box, a form of psychic death that purchases a form of public freedom. 
"Heritage" is often taken to be Cullen's best poem. In many ways it foreshadows the obsessions that mark Cullen's poetry throughout the rest of his career, particularly an obsession with the need to sacrifice individual desire for some greater good, often but not exclusively associated with Christianity. In "Judas Iscariot," the clearly homosocial and suggestively homoerotic bond between Judas and Jesus is broken when Jesus asks Judas to betray him to fulfill God's work of salvation.
Then Judas in his hot desire
Said, "Give me what you will."
Christ spoke to him with words of fire,
"Then, Judas, you must kill
One whom you love, One who loves you
As only God's son can:
This is the work for you to do
To save the creature man." (126)
In this reading, Judas is the most faithful disciple to his friend/lover Christ. He gives the "young Christ heart, soul, and limb / and all the love he had" (128), but he gives that love precisely by giving up Jesus as the object of his "hot desire" for the higher purpose of the people's salvation. In "The Ballad of the Brown Girl," the doubting "Lord Tom" gives up on the true object of his desire in order to marry a "nut-brown maid" with riches and social standing.
Many of the poems that appear in Copper Sun and in The Black Christ deal with the problem of lost love, failed love, the failure to love--too many to analyze individually. While some of this can be attached to his failing marriage with Yolande Du Bois, it also seems clear that Cullen is crestfallen at his decision to leave behind male lovers for a publicly acceptable marriage, men whom he cast in the role of poetic muses. During this period Cullen writes Alain Locke, complaining not only of his sexual failures in marriage but of his loss of social contact with male associates who have since been identified as gay (Reimonenq 150). Further, in the dedicatory poem for The Black Christ, Harold Jackman and two others are described as three who have not bowed the knee to "grasp a lock / Of Mammon's hair." Instead, they are those "Who have not bent / The idolatrous knee, / Nor worship lent to modern rites ... / Three to whom Pan is no mere myth / But a singing Man / To be reckoned with" (180). Pan, as Gerald Early points out, is a mythological figure noted not only for his singing abilities but also for his sexual prowess, a predilection often directed toward young males (180). For the poet, Jackman appreciates the powers of a highly sexualized singing man. If Cullen's marriage to Yolande Du Bois was a way of sealing his position in acceptable social circles, it seems that Cullen's lamentations of the lost loves and desires of his youth have less to do with Yolande than with the losses required to achieve social acceptance.
Ultimately, Cullen begins to associate the loss of private desire with the loss of poetry itself. The tensions and creative interactions among sexual desire, creative production or "singing," and the temptations of social acceptance form the central conflict of much of "The Black Christ." Its inability to resolve these conflicts marks the dying fall of Cullen's poetic project. "The Black Christ" makes explicit what remains lurking just beneath the surface of "Heritage": that the realization of illicit forms of desire results in death, a death Cullen is finally unwilling to undergo.
Whereas the drama of desire and self-renunciation in "Heritage" is figured as a split within the one body of the narrator, in "The Black Christ" these are divided into various characters: the mother who becomes the feminine figure of Christian patience and forbearance; the white mobs who embody the threats that remain mostly felt but not seen in "Heritage"; the rebellious brother Jim who represents both sexual desire and to some degree the inspiring spirit of lyric poetry; and, of course, the narrator, who in the end represents nothing so much as the poetics of self-renunciation. The poem, in fact, opens with an act of self-renunciation similar to that which concludes "Heritage," as the narrator pleads to God for forgiveness, partially because he believed God would not act on his behalf. The burden of his guilt is something that the poet will carry with him to eternity, and his only response can be to sing "For all men's healing." His poetry must serve a public social purpose nobler than the failures of his individual soul which is "of flaws / Composed" (207).
Thus we already know before things get started what the appropriate mode of masculine behavior is to be: that of repentance and self-renunciation. Whereas the combination of desires in "Heritage" at least makes the narrator "writhe" with both ecstasy and indecision, creating a dramatic tension that needs to be resolved, in "The Black Christ" the plea for forgiveness and the enunciation of social purpose dissolve all dramatic tension from the outset. Ironically, the poet goes on to ask a few lines later why no powerful manifestations of masculine presence can be found in the present:
We cry for angels; yet wherefore,
Who raise no Jacobs any more?....
No men with eyes quick to perceive
The Shining Thing, clutch at its sleeve,
Against the strength of heaven try
The valiant force of men who die;
With heaving heart where courage sings
Strive with a mist of Light and Wings,
And wrestle all night long, though pressed
Be rib to rib and back to breast,
Till in the end the lofty guest
Pant, "Conquering human, be thou blest." (208)
Despite the sublimated suggestion of homoerotic desire in bodies that "wrestle all night long, though pressed / Be rib to rib and back to breast," the poem's opening lines clearly indicate that all the wrestling that needs to be done has been in the past. Rather than wrestling blessings from angels, the narrator needs somehow to wrestle a pardon from God that he will not receive until the last day.
This effort to erase desire before it can ever really be articulated structures the entire poem. In the second stanza, the conflict is set between the desiring Jim and his mother, whose voice emphasizes stasis, rootedness, and acceptance over the writhing and dissatisfied activity of the desiring body:
I count it little being barred
From those who undervalue me.
I have my own soul's ecstasy.
Men may not bind the summer sea,
Nor set a limit to the stars;
The sun seeps through all iron bars;
The moon is ever manifest.
These things my heart always possessed.
And more than this (and here's the crown)
No man, my son, can batter down
The star-flung ramparts of the mind.
So much for flesh; I am resigned,
Whom God has made shall He not guide? (211)
The mother's voice resists the very masculine striving that the narrator purports to long for in the figure of the athletic Jacob. Her feminine counsel to patience and forbearance implicitly opposes the longings of Jim's body, insisting that the beauty of creation amply compensates for the exclusion and imprisonment of the body. While awaiting a heavenly kingdom, she provisionally accepts the prison bars that immobilize and hide the body.
The mother's image is complicated in that, besides being a sign of Christian pacification, she is also clearly presented as an origin of black identity, whether linguistic or biological. The father is dead. The mother is presented in nearly mythical terms as an ur-mother, the black Southern woman at one with the earth, a figure of the Southern roots of authentic black culture common to such works as Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Toomer's Cane, and Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. She is the source of language, conveying a form of black cultural heritage to her rebellious sons through "legends" of an enslaved people whom God saves after a long and arduous patience (212). In passing on these stories to her sons she is the figure of intergenerational connection, indeed the figure of generations, of blackness itself. She also seems to represent the fount of language itself, the mother tongue that makes it possible to articulate desire at all. While of a different class and geographical location, she symbolizes a mode of blackness with which Cullen would have been quite familiar, one marked by Christian longsuffering. But she is also the source of the Christian stories which framed much of black public and private discourse, stories which shaped a great deal of Cullen's poetry.
Thus, the mother provides the narrator with the languages necessary for poetry, but the contours of that language conflict with the realization of male desire. This is not to say that personal concerns and desire are necessarily opposed to racial solidarity, as Jim's anger at the world is often provoked by the death or humiliation of other black men. But within the ideological framework of Cullen's perception of Christianity, Jim's desiring and desirable body, with its seemingly inexorable thrust toward sexual consummation, presents the central problem for Christian longsuffering. Thus the body is in a conflicted relationship with the available language that can bring its desire to linguistic expression. Throughout the poem, the mother constantly attempts to quell and quiet Jim's desire, reading that desire as potentially self-destructive.
Nevertheless, this body is constantly threatening to break out beyond the mother's words that seek to control it through "sorely doubted litanies." Indeed, we first see Jim lying abed, not unlike the protagonist of "Heritage": "Jim with a puzzled, questioning air, / Would kick the covers back and stare." Jim's language at this stage of the poem is primarily interrogative, a linguistic marker of his desire since the question moves toward its future answer rather than accepting the mother's hortatory litanies that refuse to assault the "ramparts" of God's mind and will. Jim kicks back the covers, exposing his body to the air, not unlike the writhing lover of "Heritage." His body contains an "Aetna" that seethes with passion and fury. His bones reveal themselves through the skin of his hands "like white scars" when he is enraged at the death of some other black man. He imagines himself speeding "one life-divesting blow / Into some granite face of snow." If the mother's words speak of spirit, Jim seems to be all body, naked and exposed. His physical expressions of rage are immediately "covered" by the mother's words.
When such hot venom curled his lips
And anger snapped like sudden whips
Of lightning in his eyes, her words--
Slow, gentle as the fall of birds
That having strained to win aloft
Spread out their wings and slowly waft
Regretfully back to earth--
Would challenge him to name the worth
Contained in any seed of hate.
Ever the same soft words would mate.
Upon her lips: love, trust, and wait.
Here a disembodied language is opposed to desire, using language to cool the blood rather than inflame it, to deflect and blunt desire. Although Cullen attaches a sexual metaphor to the mother's words, the mating that occurs is of "soft words" and words that call for self-renunciation and the deferral of desire: "love, trust, and wait."
Jim's early but still restrained questioning and anger are linked to his gradual revelation as an erotically attractive male. As with "Heritage" the body of a young male is the only desiring and desirable body in the poem. A few lines after "hot venom" curls his lips, Jim is "handsome Jim" who, something of a cavalier, sets out to present his sexuality in the most overt and provocative ways possible:
But Jim was not just one more fly,
For he was handsome in a way
Night is after a long, hot day.
If blood flows on from heart to heart,
and strong men leave their counterpart
In vice and virtue in their seed,
Jim's bearing spoke his imperial breed.
I was an offshoot, crude, inclined
More to the earth; he was the kind
Whose every graceful movement said,
As blood must say, by turn of head,
By twist of wrist and glance of eye,
"Good blood flows here, and it runs high."
He had an ease of limb, a raw,
Clean hilly stride that women saw
With quickened throbbings of the breast.
There was a show of wings; the nest
Was too confined: Jim needed space
To loop and dip and interlace;
for he had passed the stripling stage,
And stood a man, ripe for the wage
A man extorts of life; his gage
Was down. (215)
The language here is clearly akin to that of "Heritage." Desire is figured in the blood--in this case, "high" blood. Moreover, his high blood provokes restless movement as Jim has a "clean hilly stride." He "needed space / To loop and dip"--language reminiscent of the command to dance the lover's dance in "Heritage."
Unlike the narrator in "Heritage," Jim doesn't hesitate to express desire. However, desire still throws him into conflict with the social world. While the narrator of "Heritage" struggles against the expression of desire, finally killing it to preserve the body, Jim expresses his desire openly and defiantly. Sexual expression becomes a means of challenge, of throwing down his "gage." He is lynched in short order. 
As I indicated in my opening, the ritual of lynching is centered on the white obsession with and fear of black male sexual desire. We might say that lynching is the public evocation of black male sexual desire on the part of white Americans so that it might more securely be controlled or cut off from public expression. On the one hand, that Cullen focuses on a lynching scene makes him part of a long literary tradition that includes Baldwin, Morrison, Wright, and others. Nevertheless, that this lynching takes place within a poem that is obsessed with and unnerved by black male desire leaves Cullen's rendering of the lynching and its aftermath deeply troublesome.
First, just as the lynch mob erases Jim's body for his sexual and social transgressions against white Americans in the Jim Crow South, the narrator's language gradually erases Jim's physicality. After first attempting to hide the body away in a closet, the narrator turns to discover Jim miraculously reappearing before the mob itself, as if offering himself in sacrifice for the life of his family:
Each with bewilderment unfeigned
Stared hard to see against the wall
The hunted boy stand slim and tall;
Dream-born, it seemed, with just a trace
Of weariness upon his face,
He stood as if evolved from air;
As if always he had stood there ....
What blew the torches' feeble flare
To such a soaring fury now
Each hand went up to fend each brow,
Save his; he and the light were one,
A man by night clad with the sun. (227)
This is the first of two subtle but important transformations in Jim's body. The language here gradually removes the threatening sexuality that had characterized Jim only a few lines earlier in the poem. Earlier a man in full bloom whose "gage" is down, here he is a "hunted boy" who is "slim and tall." Earlier characterized by movement, here he simply stands "As if always he had stood there," the desire signified by movement apparently drained from the now undesiring body. He is "evolved from air" and "Dream born" rather than being the product of the sexual relations of the mother and the absent father who is elsewhere in the poem described as a "dandy." Finally, of course, he is described as a "night clad with the sun," a phrase which echoes an earlier description of the mother as a sun lightening a dark sky. If we understand the mother as an unmoving and desexualized bearer of Christian light to her angry children, then whatever Jim was before the moment of the lynching, he is now gradually being covered or "clad" by the mother's vision--static, patient, and deferring every personal desire.
Gerald Early and James Smylie have both suggested that the resurrection actually inverts the traditional Christian emphasis on self -renunciation by having God approve of and embrace the life of the rebellious Jim, just as the resurrection in the Christian gospels is taken to be the seal of God's approval on the perfect obedience of Jesus. By this accounting, Jim would become the fully realized, rebellious, and desiring Black Christ that is desperately longed for at the end of "Heritage." However, this analysis fails to recognize the dramatic shift in Jim's persona at the resurrection scene. Just as "Heritage" concludes with an imperative to self-renunciation that rejects all that had made that poem most interesting, Cullen resurrects a Jim divested of all that had made him a desirable and powerful character in the first place. While the lynching is occurring, the narrator laments his brother as "My Lycidas... My Jonathan, my Patrocles," saying, "For with his death there perished these" (232-33). Lycidas and Jonathan are common traditional figures of homoerotic desire, while Lycidas is linked with the production of poetry and Patrocles with warfare against the enemies of Greece. If these died with Jim, one might have thought they would be resurrected with Jim as well, but this is clearly not the case. Although the narrator insists that Jim's "vital self" has been resurrected, that the vision is of the "Live body of the dead," we in fact get the barest glimpse of that body. The narrator approaches his resurrected brother like a doubting Thomas and for the briefest moment passes his fingers "down his slim / Sides, down his breathing length of limb" (233). This all-too-brief moment of physical intimacy may be manifesting Cullen's homoeroticism, but the narrator immediately withdraws and says, "No more." He cries, "this is too much / For one mad brain to stagger through." This repudiation is strikingly similar to the repudiation of the sexualized black Christ at the end of "Heritage."
Jim's resurrection has an ironic effect on the narrator; rather than confirming Jim's life and the image of sexual desire and rebellion that he embodied, the resurrection provokes the narrator to confirm the mother's vision that men should not assault the ramparts of God's mind. Indeed, despite Jim's reappearance, it is as if even his physical presence is too much for the poem itself, and he disappears without explanation. In the last 100 lines of the poem, the narrator moves away from touching Jim's resurrected body to strong assertions of Christian orthodoxy. The disturbing and exciting aspects of the poem that the tension between the mother's language and Jim's body had provoked are dissolved. The anger and desire to which Jim had given voice are trumped by his mother's disembodied patience, as there is now "No sound then in the sacred gloom / That blessed the shrine that was our room / Except the steady rise of praise / To Him who shapes all nights and days / Into one final burst of sun" (234).
Given the association of the mother's Christianity with a sun that blots out the blackness of Jim's night, and with soft words that quiet Jim's angry, questioning desire, these lines suggest that Jim's resurrection has killed the possibility of a poetry of individual desire and love, a poetry that Cullen at one time sought to preserve. Such private desire is replaced with the publicly accessible music of hymn and prayer. There are no sounds, no individual voices, only the collective sounds of Christian hymns repeating the longing for heaven that the mother's earlier legends and litanies evoked. Romance, eroticism, human love--the stuff of lyric poetry associated with a figure like Lycidas are as effectively dead now as they were at the culmination of the lynching and, indeed, as they have been from the very beginning of the poem--perhaps more securely so because the narrator has interpreted Jim's death and resurrection not as a compelling call to follow in the footsteps of Jim's rebellion, but as a call to e rase his desire in accepting the public responsibilities of Christian behavior.
As the poem concludes, in fact, Jim disappears entirely, and we see the narrator united in the stasis with which the poem began, united not with Jim or anything that looks like him, but with his mother in self-renunciation:
while I who mouthed my blasphemies,
Recalling now His agonies,
Am found forever on my knees,
Ever to praise her Christ with her,
Knowing He can at will confer
Magic on miracle to prove
And try me when I doubt His love.
Intriguing at this juncture is that the narrator praises "her Christ with her." So strong is the element of self-renunciation that the narrator does not even own the substance of his own praise by singing to "my Christ" or to "our Christ." The structure of prayer and praise at the end of the poem is dependent on the same renunciation of desire that Cullen felt compelled to invoke at the end of "Heritage." The difference between "Heritage" and "The Black Christ" is that in the latter poem Cullen sought to write poetry that negates desire from the beginning, in order to affirm a publicly acceptable form of masculine presence, one that urges him to repeat the legends and litanies of the people of Israel that he has inherited from his stepmother and father. "The Black Christ" makes clearer that Cullen is not simplistically denying a readily given "blackness" in favor of the approbation of white audiences. Rather he is acceding to a particular mode of blackness in the public face of the New Negro. In doing so he g ives up the poetry of private desire that cannot find its way out of the closet. Or rather, it could only find its way out of the closet at the expense of a social death Cullen was not willing to endure.
To some degree Cullen's quandary reflects the quandary of any black man of the Harlem Renaissance who felt he must put aside, or at least hide, personal desires in the name of racial leadership and responsibility. Certainly Du Bois reflected this split in different ways, maintaining the facade of a happy marriage while pursuing a variety of love affairs. Langston Hughes kept his sexuality under such tight wraps that as late as the 1980s Arnold Rampersad refused to say definitively that Hughes had homosexual lovers. The encompassing realities of racism exacerbated the kinds of splits required of such public leaders, but it would seem that Hughes and Du Bois managed this tension with more energy and aplomb than Cullen could muster--perhaps in part because neither Hughes nor Du Bois took the specifics of Christian belief with such seriousness. The irony of Cullen's position is that, in giving up on his desires in the name of a publicly acceptable poetry more akin to hymns than homoerotic lyricism, he also seem ed to give up on poetry altogether and lived off the public reputation he had already established by the time "The Black Christ" was published. Mostly Cullen turned to prose works for children and, interestingly, to the publicly responsible position of teaching.
In choosing the poetry of Christian ethics, Cullen gradually gave up on being the sexualized Pan who is the "singing Man to be reckoned with." But in doing so, he complicated the reading of a man who was a failure to his race. Indeed, what is clearest in this reading of public responsibility versus private desire is that Cullen was a poet who--when he could not find a way to reconcile his private desires--tried to sacrifice them in order to be the public "Voice of the Harlem Renaissance." Rather than abandoning race, in "The Black Christ," he abandons desire and embraces a particular notion of race in the figure of the mother who tells the legends and litanies of the people, a figure of heterosexual reproduction that Cullen tried briefly to embody in his marriage to Yolande Du Bois, a figure of generational passage and biological inheritance upon which notions of race must in some fundamental sense rely. In embracing his role as "THE New Negro," Cullen tried, in the complicated and sometimes noble tradition of Christian self-renunciation, to sacrifice desire in order to be canonized as a saint.
Peter Powers is Assistant Professor of English at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where he teaches African American literature and creative writing. His earlier work on ethnicity and religion has appeared in MELUS and in South Atlantic Review. His work on Countee Cullen is part of a manuscript investigating the relationship among masculinity, religion, and race in the 1920s.
(1.) I'd like to thank the many readers of early versions of this manuscript, especially my colleague Julia Kasdorf and the respondents in panels at MLA (Toronto, 1997) and MELUS (Howard University, 1998). Their insights and criticisms have been invaluable.
(2.) For a good overview of issues surrounding American masculinity, particularly but not exclusively among white Americans, see Kimmel 117-56 and 191-222.
(3.) Said Ransom on the eve of Johnson's fight with Jim Jeffries, "'What Jack Johnson seeks to do to Jeffries in the roped arena will be more the ambition of Negroes in every domain of human endeavor'" (qtd. in Early 26).
(4.) The connection among athleticism, spirituality, and racial deliverance has a long history worthy of a paper of its own, only one important instance being Muhammad Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. See Wilson Moses 155-82 for the most significant investigation of this relationship to date.
(5.) This fascination with the supposedly superior virility of the African American male is, of course, not restricted to the Harlem Renaissance. Writers as various as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka have analyzed it, and white writers such as Norman Podhoretz in "My Negro Problem--And Ours" and Norman Mailer in "The White Negro" were stating this fascination bluntly in the 1960s. For a brief survey of the place that black men occupy in the minds and imaginations of white men, see hooks 74-75.
(6.) As with white romanticizing of the black male, the equation in African American political and cultural rhetoric of blackness with maleness, and indeed even with a virulent form of heterosexual masculinism, is longstanding. Books such as Michelle Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, bell hooks's Ain't I a Woman, and the anthology But Some of Us are Brave have clearly chronicled this tendency. For a brief overview of the tendency in black nationalist thinking to link racial uplift with a forcefully articulated heterosexual black manhood, see hooks 76-88.
(7.) The choice of terminology here is difficult. Strictly speaking, gay is anachronistic, and the term homosexual was of relatively recent provenance, used in psychological and psychoanalytic circles to indicate a sexual pathology rather than a form of sexual identity. Indeed, for Cullen the obsessive gay narrative of sexual self-revelation is only useful in a limited sense, since the idea of having a positive gay "identity" is a relatively recent phenomenon. I have chosen most often to use the words gay and homosexual since they will serve as the best shorthand description for the practices and desires familiar to a contemporary audience. I have also chosen to use the phrase gay desire or other words indicating desire rather than phrases indicating identity. This choice avoids the somewhat anachronistic question of whether or not Cullen had a "gay identity." What seems to be clearly the case is that he periodically desired various attractive women. He also seems to have more regularly desired attractive me n, desires which came into conflict with his public role as poet laureate, so much so that he seems to have been willing to make a bad marriage to Yolande Du Bois. For a good reading of the complications surrounding homosexual narrative, see Allen. For a thorough biographical description of the various sexual relationships that Cullen developed with men throughout his life, see Reimonenq.
(8.) See Eric Garber for a description of the gay and lesbian subculture in Harlem.
(9.) The degree to which homosexuality was accepted within the African American community prior to the 1960s has been a matter of some debate. Marlon Ross makes the persuasive argument that homosexuality was far more visible and acceptable within the African American community than the white community at least up until the 1970s. Nevertheless, even Ross seems to suggest that the tolerance of homosexuality was a matter of degree that fell somewhat short of endorsement. As he puts it, "How could the white homosexual understand that black society's embracing of their homosexual sons was not the same as black society's embracing of homosexuality itself" (201). Henry Louis Gates points out that the organizing force behind the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, was not named director of the March because he was a homosexual. The example of Rustin is particularly telling for my purposes since it suggests that the limit of homosexual acceptance turned on the public face of African American political and cultural ac tivity. So while some in Harlem may have been aware of Cullen's sexual preferences and didn't run him out of town with baseball bats, Cullen apparently was concerned enough about the relationship of his sexual practices to his public image to keep them well-hidden from cultural leaders like Du Bois, upon whom his position as a "poet laureate" partially depended.
(10.) For a description of the symbolic characteristics of the Cullen-Du Bois wedding, see Huggins 306. For a fuller description of Cullen as a public representative of the Harlem Renaissance, see Shucard 118-20.
(11.) Cullen wasn't the only poet to deal with this dilemma. De Jongh points out that, while one Atlantic City church invited Hughes to read his poetry, the pastor threatened to remove Hughes from the pulpit if he read "any more blues" (24). While the blues would not necessarily signify homosexuality, they did evoke the illicit sexuality that many members of the Afro-Christian bourgeoisie saw as unacceptable and demeaning to the race. The championing of jazz and blues as a "natural" expression of the best of blackness in the work of someone like Amiri Baraka would seem to be primarily a phenomenon of the last two-thirds of the twentieth century, a phenomenon that Hughes was instrumental in constructing.
(12.) See Baker (61-63) for a description of Cullen's commitment to artistic freedom for African Americans over and against the prescriptions of a white discourse or what he took to be somewhat faddish indulgence in low-life Harlem among other poets of the era.
(13.) My colleague Samuel Smith has suggested that the worm upon the hook is a medieval image of the Christian doctrine of the atonement, wherein the worm is the physical body of Jesus designed to lure Satan into a trap set for him by God. Whether Cullen had this image in mind is impossible to say, but to follow out the analogy, the divine action of God in the medieval image becomes the sexual passion of the hook in Cullen's poem. The possibility is intriguing here given that Cullen goes on in the poem to portray a highly sexualized Christ and to long for that sexualized Christ so that he can identify with Cullen's suffering. The link is also suggestive in that Christ's suffering is typically referred to as his "passion." But from what I have been able to discover thus far, such a reading would have to remain within the realm of speculation.
(14.) From Rev. Cullen's autobiography: "While sight seeing we met Mr. and Mrs. Marcus Garvey, my old friend, who had been forced out of the United States for his aggressive race loving spirit" (90).
(15.) I'm much indebted to Amitai F. Avi-ram's study of Cullen, though he is far more interested in the specifics of poetic form than am I. Avi-ram reads the coffin/box of "For a Poet" as the homosexual closet in which Cullen hides his sexual identity. The only aspect of Avi-ram's otherwise excellent formalist reading that troubles me is the tendency to rely too uncritically on a late-twentieth-century notion of Cullen's sexual identity." See n6 above.
(16.) The political connotations of sexual activity are inevitably troubled in the racial climate that the United States is only slowly overcoming. Given that so much of the ritual brutalization of African American men focused on sexuality, it is perhaps not surprising that the display of sexual prowess has been seen to have political connotations in some quarters, notably in the work of someone like Eldridge Cleaver, who at one point equated rape with a revolutionary act, or in the work of some contemporary rap groups. For the pernicious effects upon women of such forms of black nationalist consciousness, see hooks.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2000|
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