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Countee Cullen Remembered With Exhibits and Celebration

Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen, about 1920. Image ID: 1953595

Celebrate Countee Cullen’s birthday (May 30, 1903) on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, at the Countee Cullen Library with a film screening from 12-1 PM, and readings from Cullen’s work and other artists from the Harlem Renaissance from 6-7:30 PM. In conjunction with celebration, there will also be pop-up exhibits on Cullen at both the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division of the Schomburg Center and also at the Cullen Library. The exhibits will contain rare documents and images from the Schomburg Center’s Research and Reference, Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books, and Photographs and Prints Division. Events for children and teens will also be included during the celebration at the Cullen Library.

By the time the prodigiously talented Countee Cullen was in his mid 20s, his first book of poetry, Color, was released in 1925 and was a literary sensation. He became one of the most influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen was educated at DeWitt Clinton High School, New York University, Harvard, and the Sorbonne in Paris. Sources such as Margaret Perry’s A Bio-Bibliography of Countee Cullen, 1903-1946, state that during his lifetime he worked as an assistant editor for Opportunity, a journal published by the National Urban League. He also taught different subjects at Frederick Douglass Junior High School before his untimely death in 1946. During his career, Cullen’s work spanned a variety of genres including poetry, fiction, children’s literature, music, drama and musical theater.

When Cullen wedded Nina Yolande DuBois (daughter of W.E.B DuBois) on April 9,1928, at the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, it was one of the most talked about events of the year. His wedding attracted a thousands of spectators, and a host of celebrities from around the country and elite African American scholars, educators, socialites and artists attended. An April 10, 1928, New York Herald Tribune article reported that Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps and others notables served as ushers at the wedding. In addition to her maid of honor, Yolande reportedly had sixteen bridesmaids in her wedding party while Cullen’s close friend Harold Jackman was the best man.  A contemporary and fictionalized account of the events leading up to Cullen and DuBois’ short-lived marriage, Knock Me a Kiss, was written by playwright Charles Smith, and is in the anthology New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2000. You can also listen to the reading of a letter that was written by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen to a friend regarding the wedding in this Live from the Reading Room post.

While you’re at the Cullen Library for the celebration, you may also check out circulating works by Cullen or stop by the Schomburg Center to look at items across the collections by and about Cullen including his Papers, 1921-1969, or the Countee Cullen Portrait Collection.  Audio recordings of Cullen’s work  such as To Make a Poet Black: The Best Poems of Countee Cullen Read by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and others are available at Library of the Performing Arts.

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