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When, Where, And How to Belong in a Portrait: Big Questions in Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance

Countée Cullen, c.1927

Review of Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance by Kevin A. Brown. Forthcoming in 2024 from Parlor Press.

Will our life’s work be considered a lead melody or an accompanying harmony in the symphony of history? Does it matter if one plays first or fourth chair in the orchestra if we are talking about a piece that forever changed modern music? Or perhaps it does not matter how large or small of a role one played as long as one was in the room, because that symphony was situated within a period that created a lasting legacy for music. This metaphor applies to some of the persistent questions posed by Kevin A. Brown in Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance. By the author’s own admission, this collection is not “. . . an autobiography or even a memoir in essays,” and instead walks between genres. Brown’s latest book is as internal as it is an external meditation that invites the reader to be fixed within a specific time while witnessing a life, while knowing that all of these elements—the place that is Harlem, the witnessing of a life shared by a husband and a wife, the focus on one’s legacy, and the behemoth that becomes a historically significant movement—exist on ever-shifting tectonic plates. Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance is all at once a portrait and a sculpture that demands that we explore the different sides with no rose-colored glasses. As readers, we are invited not just as witnesses, but to stay for a while with the price of admission to this symphony requiring that we sit with the aftermath—of the joy, discomfort, and sadness of what has passed—as the layers continue to peel away. This range of feelings exists within Brown’s work as we walk in the day with a most bright sun while we seek familiar parts in a moonless night.

Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance is a multilayered family portrait. As the adage goes, nothing exists in a vacuum, and Brown’s work exemplifies this by placing both reader and writer within one level of the portrait which includes the intimate lives of his great-grandmother, Ida Mae, and her husband, Countée Cullen. Unlike the world of memoir or autobiography—which can sometimes feel insular if not attached to the larger picture—we are with Brown in the very there, neither there nor here, and very here-ness of this text. Brown’s approach, depicting the in-between space of time and the personal (such as where he fits in relationship to his step-great grandfather, Countee, and his own path as a writer) is reminiscent of other works that traverse time, stitching the past, present and future together. In this respect, the book resembles Terrence Hayes’s To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight (2018), which positions Hayes in conversation with the legacy and the work of the poet Etheridge Knight.

The sections of the book prepare the reader for this journey with part one of the book being “Past Imperfect” and part two, “Future Continuous,” creating a bridge that carries Brown seamlessly between all of the times. These grammatical tenses situate us in the experience of what follows as the next level of the portraiture: the context of the Harlem Renaissance. Within Brown’s and Cullens’s past imperfect, we experience a Harlem Renaissance that sometimes feels like a dinner party that we hope will never end, sometimes a party line akin to what we experienced in the 1980’s. We are both situated in time, at a fixed point within an imperfect yet legendary artistic period, and simultaneously moving past it.

It is also clear that attending to one’s legacy, the preoccupation with leaving one’s mark on the world, is an unglamorous, full-time occupation. The question of legacy has a tension within this work as taut as the kinds of internal and external inquiry Brown persistently addresses in his writing. Brown begins with the very sobering, “I’m still not ready yet,” inviting the reader to ask the question, “Ready for what exactly?” This sets the stage for how Brown will continue to break the fourth wall throughout the text. We are invited to ask our own internal questions while we are confronted with questions that Brown himself is asking about the period, about the relationship between Ida Mae and Cullen, and about himself.  Perhaps the declaration speaks to the way that for many of us who have no familial ties to the era of the Harlem Renaissance, we may not be prepared to take those artistic and literary figures off of our mantles of worship. And while we could say this is a reckoning of sorts, Brown is graceful in the way that he presents how Cullen and many of his contemporaries stood within their own shadows.

We see the way that many figures we now know as giants—Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain LeRoy Locke, Jean Toomer, and many others—tangoed with everything from the intersections of self, identity, legacy, and work to the mundane challenges of daily life, yielding a narrative that sometimes reads like the Hollywood Reporter for the dead. In one of Hughes’s letters to Countée Cullen dated July 24, 1943, “Langston reassured Countée, ‘We are still here and strong and nobody has surpassed us.’” Yet, some of the shadows involved what Brown bluntly states, “Let’s not romanticize. The Harlem Renaissance was a factious social network with its fair share of back-biting, bickering, envy, grudges, long-cherished hatreds, infighting, paranoia, resentments and suspicion, reasonable and otherwise.” The passage continues to make it clear that despite our idealization of the period and its people, they were also flawed:

McKay liked Countée as a person but didn’t much care for Countée’s poetry. Now Hughes! There, McKay felt, was a real poet. Countée and Langston had their disagreements, and much has been made of their rivalry. But Arna said that, as poets, Langston and Countée “actually had remarkably little in common.” If Countée’s relationship with Langston was complex, Langston’s relationship with Locke was Byzantine.  Locke’s distrust of Du Bois was mutual.”

Additionally, the Harlem Renaissance co-existed with the Great Depression and many other social shifts. In illustrating the co-mingling of economy, place, and Black arts, Brown writes, “The Great Depression gripped global economies. In a pattern of reverse migration, talent fled Harlem during the late 20s and early 30s, returning south to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee.” Alongside this came what Brown presents as the shift in white patronage, or as he bluntly puts it, “White patrons had their fill of poontang and moonshine.” According to Langston, “a large and enthusiastic number” of whites wasn’t going to stay “crazy about Negroes forever,” while Brown shares that “Zora claimed to have seen through the negro-writer-craze from the get-go.”

Smith’s tell-it-like-it-is tone, while leaving us with some gauzy-can’t-quite-see-straight effects, is very honest and authentic with the persistence of inquiry about who these individuals might have been within the historical record. In presenting Ida’s relationship with Countée, we don’t get a sense of any kind of fairy tale; and yet, it is also about two individuals who shared a life within the macro-system of a movement. Brown also addresses what many of us have long wondered as he writes, “. . . while we’re on the subject of sexual politics, let me with all due respect to members of my family who may currently administer the Countée Cullen literary estate address this particular skeleton in the closet,” referring to Cullen’s complex sexuality, while Ida Mae “. . . couldn’t possibly have married Countée without knowing what she was getting into.” However, within this frank presentation are Brown’s questions that erode the bridge between writer and reader, “What did Ida Mae know? And when did she know it? Some might ask that . . . Tact, discretion and old-fashioned decorum dictate we don’t really need to know more.”

While there might be some spilled tea territory with the ways that we learn who didn’t care for whom, the layers of interrelationship are handled with care, compassion and curiosity rather than reckless leering. It is in the relationships between Cullen, his wife, and others that we always return to the bigger questions that feel reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. We see this within a scene set by Brown in an exchange between James Baldwin and his French teacher turned mentor, Cullen. As Brown illustrates, the exchange was unflinching:

“The interrogatories Jimmy propounded to Countée were questions of life and death. And Jimmy had so many questions. Where should he live? [...] How should he support himself? But the answers Countée gave—the only ones he honestly could give, the only ones that, ultimately, Jimmy really needed—may not have been the ones Jimmy wanted to hear […] How much money, Jimmy asked, could one make writing poems?
Countée was frank: “poetry cannot be considered a means of making a livelihood.”
“Why not?”
“Poetry,” Countée explained matter-of-factly, “is something which few people enjoy and which fewer people understand. A publishing house publishes poetry only to give the establishment tone. It never expects to make much money on the transaction. And it seldom does.”

If you create art of any kind, reading this feels like the moment of replaying the questions you’ve asked or the ones that you might still be asking within yourself. The scene ends with Brown sharing that Cullen tells Baldwin the soundest advice he could give him, “I suggest three things—read and write—and wait.”

There are many similar moments in which the reader becomes enwrapped in the echo of these questions as Brown brings us into his own journey in attempting to situate himself within this portrait. What Brown is doing isn’t an easy feat with an act that involves taking the micro (one’s individual life) and situating oneself within the macro (time, the cultural and sociopolitical context, a movement, etc.) An act that one might visualize as equivalent to the mall map, but instead of the red dot that says, “You are here,” it is one that appears and disappears or shifts location inviting more inquiry and doubt. Brown presents all of this on the page without any pretense that he knows exactly where he is landing.

This work maintains the tenor of the questions that we can’t afford not to ask ourselves, including: What does it mean to be within a movement and where does one fit within that? How are the grand narrative of a moment, the truths and untruths about a life constructed or maintained? Can we separate ourselves and our work from the bigger movement? Do we risk becoming swallowed by it? How can we shut out the noise to create lasting work?

How do we discern what we will be ready for and when as it relates to legacy?

Cullen’s advice to Baldwin, “ . . . read and write—and wait,” invites a question: wait for what exactly? Brown suggests that the answer is the break, the making it. And within that advice is something about being prepared. Echoing his opening, Brown concludes with the sentiment, “Now I’m ready.”

We spend our own lives trying to get ready to walk the lines between known and unknown. This is certainly true of one’s path as an artist.

Is Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance a very real, no romanticism involved love letter to a period in time that was fraught with as many beauties as complexities? Is this the kind of tender telling that we see in the exchange between Rilke in his letters to the 19-year old officer cadet, Franz Xaver Kappus? Is this an elegy to what never really was in the way we imagined it, ranging from Countée Cullens’s intimate life to all that we know as the complexities of the Harlem Renaissance?

Is this a foreshadowing to every artist, especially writers, about the balancing act it takes to work between living and legacy building through one’s work? Brown explores many aspects of this question:

Whatever the unevenness of his work as a whole, Countée’s impact on African-American culture is greater than the sum of his best poems. Countée was emblematic of a flashpoint in global black culture the likes of which could only have occurred in a select few places at that particular time—Harlem and Washington, DC among them. “Countée was never fully understood as a poet or a writer,” Gerald Early argues, “because he has never been fully understood as a man.” Is Countée’s “failure” as poet to live up to perhaps unrealistic expectations after what Jessie Fauset called such “a brave and beautiful beginning” somehow synonymous with failure in life? No.”

If we are not truly understood, is there a possibility that any work produced might have another life beyond us?

The answer to any of these questions is much like the multifaceted, beautiful, and complex solar system that is the Harlem Renaissance and the man, Countée Cullen, who was an integral figure in it.

Countée Cullen’s Harlem Renaissance is all of these things and will leave you in the collective dark dancing with one of the hardest most human questions of all: Do you want to be the one chord attributed with changing everything or can you be at peace with being one of the many that created the cacophony of sound?


SHANTA LEE is also the author of the poetry collection, GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak Woman in Woke Tongues, winner of the 2020 Diode Press full-length book prize and the 2021 Vermont Book Award. Within this latest illustrated poetry collection, Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press, 2023) is a work that Shanta Lee describes as a 2,000+ year-old phone line opened to Ovid, as well as an interrogation of the Greek mythos, while creating her own new language in this work. Black Metamorphoses has been named a finalist in the 2021 Hudson prize, shortlisted for the 2021 Cowles Poetry Book Prize and longlisted for the 2021 Idaho poetry prize. Shanta Lee is the 2020 recipient of the Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts and the 2020 gubernatorial appointee to the Vermont Humanities Council’s board of directors. Her work within the humanities includes Shanta Lee giving lectures on the life of Lucy Terry Prince (c. 1730-1821) — considered the first known African-American poet in English literature — as a member of the Vermont and New Hampshire Humanities Council Speakers Bureaus. Shanta Lee also serves on the advisory for Jay Craven’s film, Lost Nation which prominently features the life of Lucy Terry Prince.


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