Incident Race and poetry in the Harlem Renaissance

Countee Cullen was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, but his ideas about art and politics often diverged from other major figures of the period. In 1928 he remarked that: “Good poetry is a lofty thought beautifully expressed. Poetry should not be too intellectual. It should deal more, I think, with the emotions. The highest type of poem is that which warmly stirs the emotions, which awakens a responsive chord in the human heart.” In this way, Cullen thought the role of poetry was to address the everyday emotions shared by all people. As an extension of this, he was skeptical of there being such a thing as “African American poetry” (in the 1920s, this was called “Negro poetry”). He thought poetry was simply poetry, whether the person writing was white or black. Similarly, Cullen told Hughes: “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet.”

This universal approach to art contradicted the approach of other key Harlem Renaissance figures. In his review of Langston Hughes’ celebrated 1926 book of poetry The Weary Blues, Cullen wrote that Hughes’ poems “tend to hurl this poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple.” In particular, Cullen was critical of Hughes’ use of African American slang, his portrayal of “seedy” environments like jazz nightclubs, and his experimental poetic style.

Perhaps ironically, despite thinking poetry should not be limited by race, many of Cullen’s most famous poems (“Yet Do I Marvel,” “Africa,” and “The Ballad of the Brown Girl”) are about the experience of being an African American, racism, and his feelings about African heritage. In this way, Cullen’s own story mirrors the one he tells in “Incident”: one consequence of racism is that society marks African Americans by race even when they would prefer to experience the world unmarked by specific racial categories. As one scholar writes of Cullen: “Strangely, it is because Cullen revolts against [...] racial limitations—technical and spiritual—that the best of his poetry is motivated by race. He is always seeking to free himself and his art from these bonds. He never entirely escapes, but from the very fret and chafe he brings forth poetry that contains the quintessence of race consciousness.”