Countee Cullen was a primal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, establishing himself as the movement’s unofficial poet laureate. At the time that he was elevated to this sphere of distinction, Cullen was considered the most important African-American poet to emerge since Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the century since the 1925 publication of his first highly acclaimed first collection of verse—titled simply Color—Cullen has slipped somewhat from that lofty position. This revision of his aesthetic scale applies to the entirety of his canon; what was considered his most sublime efforts in the 1920’s are still just as highly regarded.
For instance, “Yet do I Marvel” continues to be a mainstay of poetry anthologies and textbooks just as frequently as ever. “Heritage” is considered by many to be the single greatest poem to come out of the Harlem Renaissance and it is not entirely uncommon to see it referred to as the “black Waste Land.” The reference to T.S. Eliot’s groundbreaking poem situates that works theme of the alienation of the individual facing a world expecting him to conform at every turn within the specific milieu of the racial divide that is the “heritage” extended to African-Americans.
By the publication of his third collection in 1929, The Black Christ and Other Poems, the other divide at the center of much of Cullen’s most powerful work—the gulf between white Christianity and black paganism—appeared to show evidence of a reconciliation in which his Christian upbringing had been declared the victor. The result for many critics is an unwelcome intrusion of Christian mysticism whose absence in his earlier poems proved to make them all the strong in comparison to what came after.
By the 1930s, a focus of attention on other genres ranging from children’s literature to translations of the works of the others essentially brought a halt to Cullen’s poetry output following the 1936 publication of The Medea and Some Poems.