Friday, March 8, 2013

The Ballad of the Brown Girl

Countee Cullen (1903–1946)
From Countee Cullen: Collected Poems

In “Criteria of Negro Art,” a speech delivered at the 1926 NAACP conference, W.E.B. Du Bois extolled the “the growing recognition of Negro artists” and shared the following anecdote: “A professor in the University of Chicago read to a class that had studied literature a passage of poetry and asked them to guess the author. They guessed a goodly company from Shelley and Robert Browning to Tennyson and Masefield. The author was Countée Cullen.”*

Du Bois, like other (mostly older) black writers of the era, was thrilled by the prospect that a new generation of writers would help overcome the stereotypes and conventions of minstrel shows, black plantation dialect, and Uncles Remus and Tom. But many younger writers, such as Cullen’s friend Langston Hughes, worried that the pendulum was swinging too far in the other direction, decrying “the urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization.” As Major Jackson writes in the introduction to the just-published and (surprisingly) first-ever edition of Cullen’s collected poems, his reputation as “the Black Keats” was a mixed blessing in a decade that had “begun to favor . . . the raw potential of black vernacular forms over seemingly exhausted Anglo-American gentilities.”

The Ballad of the Brown Girl is a good example of Cullen’s debt to time-honored forms. It was published in 1927 as a small booklet, a format that emphasized “the book’s traditional structure as a medieval ballad,” notes Charles Molesworth in a recently published biography. The original legend on which the poem is based actually features two women with hair of different color, but Cullen altered the descriptions to suggest they are of different races. Molesworth also quotes a letter from Cullen that provides more detail about the origin of the poem: “My latest endeavor is a ballad, quite a gruesome affair with no less than three murders in it. It is founded on an old song which every colored Kentuckian knows.”

This quote inadvertently reveals a biographical detail about Cullen himself. Throughout his life, Cullen often maintained that he was born and raised in New York City, but he was probably born Countee Lucas in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was nine, his mother sent him to live with a family friend (possibly his grandmother) in the Bronx. His new caretaker died when Countee was fourteen and he was adopted by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor of the vast and influential Salem Methodist Church in Harlem. Excelling in high school and later at NYU and Harvard, the young writer would go on to publish all his books as Countee Cullen (although he signed all his correspondence as Countée and pronounced his name “Coun-tay”).

* Two years later, in 1928, Cullen married Du Bois’s daughter in an extravagant Harlem ceremony attended by thousands of well-wishers and officiated by Cullen’s adopted father. The marriage was a catastrophe; Cullen was beginning to acknowledge he was attracted to men and, after living together for only a few months, the couple divorced in 1930.

About the illustrator: The 1927 edition of The Ballad of the Brown Girl features a centerfold illustration by Charles Cullen, who illustrated several of Countee Cullen’s books. The illustration is included in the PDF for with this week’s selection. Not related to Countee, Charles was a familiar presence in Harlem during the 1920s and was later described (with typical snideness) by the artist Richard Bruce Nugent as “White, blonde, and insipid.”

Oh, this is the tale the grandams tell
In the land where the grass is blue,
And some there are who say ’tis false,
And some that hold it true. . . . This story is no longer available. Read other recent selections from Story of the Week.