Monday, January 12, 2009

Project 1929: "The Black Christ"

The frontispiece from Countee Cullen's The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Illustration by Charles Cullen. Click to enlarge.

One of the writers whose career was fostered by Jessie Redmon Fauset at The Crisis was Countee Cullen (1903-1946), the son of a Methodist pastor, a Harvard graduate, and one of the great poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen was a lyric poet in the tradition of the British Romantics, and made a name for himself with his first collection of poetry, Color, published in 1925. One of the themes that continually resurfaces in his poetry is the inscrutability of a God who would create racial divisions and allow them to be the basis of so much hatred and suffering. In one of his most famous poems from Color, "Yet Do I Marvel," he dwells on what seem like God's arbitrary arrangements. He begins—

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell me why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die...

And ends—

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

In the long title poem that concludes The Black Christ, Cullen wonders what comfort and redemption a white God can offer to the black man in a racist society. The poem briefly tells the story of two black brothers, raised in the South by a devout mother whose faith is a buffer against the racism she experiences. The mother tells her sons:

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.

Her sons (the younger son is the poem's narrator) are not so sure that God is good. As Jim, the older son, says:

Nay, I have done with deities
Who keep me ever on my knees,
My mouth forever in a tune
Of praise, yet never grant the boon
Of what I pray for night and day.
God is a toy; put him away.

The poem reaches its climax when Jim is lynched for being discovered in a romantic relationship with a white woman. My favorite line in the poem describes their love for each other: "Spring was in them and they were spring."

The poem ends with a reaffirmation of the mother's faith, suggesting that the story of Christ's suffering is reflected in the experience of black Americans in a society rife with racial violence. The poem moves from the inscrutability of a God who allows suffering, to the God who suffers, and who is embodied in the black man. The poem is dedicated "hopefully" to White America.

In the same year that The Black Christ was published, Walter White published his study of the culture of lynching in the South, Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch, which was part of a sustained effort by the NAACP and other groups to bring an end to lynchings of black men in the South. In his poem, Countee Cullen connects the lynching of the black man with the crucifixion of the white Christ, and that connection is reflected in the illustrations by Charles Cullen (no relation) that accompany the poem. Here's a slide show of illustrations from the poem:

Thanks to Kristi in the Carleton College Library Special Collections for access to the library's first edition of Cullen's book.


Jim H. said...

In college in those wild and turbulent sixties, we were made to read Countee Cullen (and Le Roi Jones) in an American Lit class. I am thankful for that exposure and for your well-written and timely reminder.

Anonymous said...

Just catching up with your blog - so much to read, what have I been doing? A belated Happy New Year to you too.

ps love the slide show, are you now a technical wizard?

Anonymous said...

I have yet to read Cullen's poetry, but what I have experience so far of his works is uplifting to say the least.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .