Countee Cullen: “The fruit of the flower”
Countee Cullen is a famous African American poet, mostly known for his works published during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. There are tons of autobiography and articles written about his life. However, as famous and well known as he is much of Countee Cullen’s early childhood life still remains a mystery. There is little information to be found on his biological parents or his records for that matter. Still, we do know that Cullen was adopted by his revered father and saint like mother, making it hard for Cullen and others to have a grasp on his historical identity(Gale 5). From multiple biographies, it can also be inferred that Cullen struggled with his sexual identity making it difficult for him to be in such a religious house hold (Anderson 1). His shadowed sexuality could be a primary reason why he decided to be married to a women twice in is life time, divorcing the first one once she found out of his suspected homosexuality (Norton 3). Cullen may have felt a need to do this to find approval from his adoptive parents and his peers because he felt abandoned by his biological parents and not wanted. This need to conform to other’s views causes a serious identity crisis for Cullen. In aligning Cullen’s family life with his poetry, we can see the way in which his language focuses on the idea of progeny, or family heritage, as a means of accessing questions about identity. (Belonsky 4)
“The Fruit of the Flower”
This sense of progeny, or the idea of descendants, is shown in Cullen’s poem “The Fruit Of The Flower.” On the surface, the poem presents a boy who feels unaccepted by his parents. His parents are introduced as being saint like or you could say, they live a very religious life style. This is shown in the poem when Cullen introduces his parents through the first lines of the first two stanza’s “My father is a quiet man” and “My mother’s life is puritan,”. The image of the “quiet man” shows that the father may be conservative and reserved. The description of the mother as a “puritan” presents the mother’s religious belief. The word puritan connects to the word purity and being pure is something that is looked highly upon and expected from religious women in history.
Cullen’s poem addresses how both parents share a past of sinful experiences. The speaker states
And yet my father’s eyes can boast
How full his life has been;
There haunts them yet the languid ghost
Of some still scared sin.(132)
The fact that the author uses his eyes to sees his fathers memories is very significant. A persons eyes are like windows into their soul it is often time where true emotion is shown. He says he can see through them that his father has had a “full life” showing that his father has experienced different avenues in his lifetime sinful and religious. “There hunts the languid ghost of some still scared sin.” Here it states his father himself has not always done things that are looked down up as holy. It is hard for the speaker to understand why his parents judge him so harshly.
In next stanza the mother’s past is introduced.
And though my mother chants of God,
And of the mystic river,
I’ve seen a bit of checkered sod
Set all her flesh aquiver.(132)
This women is described as having religious values representing Cullen’s adoptive mother. Her hiding her past and desires may be where he lacks a connection with his adoptive mother. She is not able to express that she understands the things that he has been through or is currently experiencing at this point in his life because they do not share a biological connection . The speaker of the poem feels his mother is not being honest with herself or others about her true desires. This reflects the relationship between children and parents. It shows how the child inherits the sins (or secrets) of the past, even as the parents try to keep these ideas covered. This history is inherited by the child.
We learn toward the end of the poem that the speakers mother looks down upon this child as she feel his art is “devil like.” Which means that it doesn’t follow the religious teachings that this family beliefs in. The art is different and unique and true to Cullen however, they look down upon it. This is shown in the following stanza.
Why should she think it devil’s art
That all my songs should be
Of love and lovers, broken heart,
And wild sweet agony?(132)
This stanza shows the disappointment that the speaker feels when the mother does not like his work. He states “Why would she think” showing that his is confused by her response, he did not mean for it to come of as “devils art”. The speaker feels that the art is true and honest to him, so why does something with good intentions get such a harsh response? This shows a point in his life where the speaker tries to make a connection with his family by sharing something that means a lot to him, but instead it is taken out of context. This would cause disappointment for any child, and possibly could created the fear of not wanting to share things again.
His poems are of “lovers and broken hearts” which can show that the speaker may have experienced some of that in his own personal relationships in his youth. Being that neither of his parents supported the idea of homosexuality it made early relationships hard once he realized he had an attraction to other boys. It then says “and wild sweet agony”. Agony can mean extreme physical and mental suffering. This could be alluding that while the speaker may have enjoyed the relationships he had, it was still difficult for him mentally and even painful at times to accept these things that were different about himself. Especially because neither of his parents accepted him (adoptive or biological). I feel Cullen had to conform to his adoptive parents religious ideals and beliefs to feel like apart of a family.
His father deems having him as a son is “pure mischance” “A son of his fain” meaning that he only has him as a son due to their circumstances and not by choice. This shows that Cullen has no support from either parent and not only has he been abandoned by his biological parents now his adoptive ones don’t even want him or claim him as their own child. How would this make any child feel?
He says he feels this way because he has a son that wants “to do a naked tribal dance each time he hears the rain” . This could be alluding to Cullen’s sexual identity his actions may be considered flamboyant to his father. So now that Cullen adoptive father doesn’t wan’t to claim him and it is tied to Cullen’s sexual identity it may make Cullen feel as if he has to marry a women to have love and acceptance by him.
The speaker in this poem doesn’t understand why his parents treat him this way as if they haven’t both done sinful things in the past as well. He feels as if they treat him as just a situation due to circumstance and not like a product of their own blood and their own seed. In the last stanza it talks of the reproductive system, here Cullen could be addressing the fact that his birth parents left him.
Overall, I feel Cullen is addressing the importance of knowing your descendants and how that shapes a persons identity. The fact that Cullen lacks this knowledge makes it hard for him to find himself. Which is something he has no control over just like his sexually identity. However, neither of his adoptive parents seems to care enough to help Cullen through this difficult time in is life. This instead is forcing him to conform to their lifestyle causing him to have an identity crisis. This poem shows how Cullen expresses his life through his poetry, focusing on progeny to show the importance of tension of heritage in his own life.
The Scholarly Conversation
Charles Molesworth states in his article “And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Cullen”:
“in the context of his life, which has its mysteries — beginning with scant records of his birth and childhood and including semi covert homosexuality (which neither of his two wives seemed to know about).”
This shows Cullen’s lack of identity and truth. As he searches to find his true self it is a “mystery” because he can’t even start at the beginning with knowing who his biological parent are. This causes him to feel incomplete in his life. Since he does not know the truth I feel it make is hard for him to give the truth to others, like his wives about his sexual preference. This is shown in the next article written by Norton.
“Cullen’s early failures at sustaining a gay relationship perhaps caused him to turn to women, and he married Yolande DuBois in 1928. Their marriage soured within six months, and she divorced him when he told her he was gay; she acknowledged a “feeling of horror at the abnormality of it”. Cullen’s lifelong soulmate was the handsome West Indian Harold Jackman (1900–60), who was the “best man” at his wedding, and whom he had known from late 1923 when Cullen attended New York University.”
The fact that it is suspected that his soulmate was actually his “best man” at the wedding comes to no surprise. It seems that Cullen has been aware of his desires to other males for quite a while now. However, with his childhood and adult experiences of being raised in a church I feel that it makes it hard for Cullen to truly accept himself. Which is why he marries to a woman twice.
Cullen began to express his homosexuality in a way that would not offend people or embarrass his adoptive parents. This quote speaks of the poem Tableau written by Cullen as he figures out sexuality within the racial discourse that is portrayed:
“Perhaps Cullen’s purpose in making the couples interracial was to heighten a sense of transgressive sex that also obscured something of the nature of the real social transgression by figuring sexuality within a racial discourse. These conflicted relationships are filled with anguish, bitterness and disappointment and much of the sexual conflict is displaced into racial conflict, but not to the extent that the homoerotic content of the poem becomes completely obscured. (Though perhaps it is obscured enough to evade the attention of those readers who for various reasons would prefer not to find it.)”
Here Belonsky states the importance of reading between the lines when it comes to Cullen’s poems. It is hinted in the poem “The fruit of the flower” his parents looked down upon his work at an early age so it can be inferred that he adjust his poem to express his feelings in a less obvious way.
In the article “The Too-brief career of Countee Cullen” it talks of Cullen’s relationship with his adoptive father Michael Anderson states:
“Cullen never liberated himself from his adoptive father, the redoubtable Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, pastor of one of Harlem’s foremost churches, Salem Methodist Episcopal; indeed, he remained in the Reverend Cullen’s fourteen-room brownstone virtually all of his adult life. The father constantly urged him to write explicitly devotional verse; the son’s efforts to comply are predictably banal:”
This shows that Countee Cullen was influenced by his adoptive father until much of his adult life. He even influenced Cullen to make art in ways that were not unique or true to Cullen as Anderson says “predictably banal”, only true to his adoptive fathers beliefs. A main factor in Cullen’s identity crisis is him having to conform when it comes to love and sexuality. By doing so he losses his originality that come with his true identity.
Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day,
The sable pride of night.
From lowered blinds the dark folk stare,
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.
Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
This is the poem where Cullen is figuring out sexuality through racial discourse. (Belonsky 4)
This is a letter Countee Cullen writes to his “dear friend” Alain Locke confessing his feelings of disappointment and confusion about another male. We can infer that the male he speaks of is a relationship of more than friends. Cullen find comfort in Locke we can see this ass he trust him with his deepest feelings.
234 W. 131 St.,
New York City
My dear friend,
I am feeling as miserable at this writing as I can imagine a person feeling. Let me explain — The Monday following our Saturday evening together I secured Carpenter’s “ Smethurst” from the library. I read it through at one sitting, and steeped myself in its charming and comprehending atmosphere. It opened up for me Soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it, and thanked you a thousand times as as many delightful examples appeared, for recommending it to me. Tuesday young Loeb was to have come to see me. He did not come. I was keenly disappointed. He wrote no letter. Thursday morning I wrote to him, asking him to attend a concert with me to-morrow (Sunday) afternoon. It is now Saturday night and, although there has been time a-plenty, I have not heard from him. So what I had envisioned as a delightful and stimulating camaraderie is not to be. I believe the cause may be defined as parental, for I feel certain that the attraction was as keenly felt by Loeb as by me. I know you will understand how I feel. But I suppose some of us erotic lads, vide myself, were placed here just to eat our hearts out with longing for unattainable things, especially for that friendship beyond understanding. If you wish to write Ralph Loeb his address is 39–41 West 129 St. — But don’t mention me! Speak for yourself.
I have just written to Langston asking him to come here for that Poetry recital on March 21. I told him you would be here on that night (I am not sure of that, but I ask you to bend every effort to be here on that date. Your presence will be helpful; some will be there for curiosity, but I want someone there who is interested in me for my self’s sake.) And besides, Langston might come.
May I not hear from you before then? And in your own handwriting?
Yours most sincerely,
Countée P. Cullen
P.S. — Sentiments expressed here would be misconstrued by others, so this letter, once read, is best destroyed.
P.P.S. — Send your poem when you write.
Countée P. Cullen
1. Anderson, Michael. “The Too-brief Career of Countee Cullen.” New Criterion. Vol. 31. N.p.: Foundation for Cultural Review, 2013. 24–27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.
2. “And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen.” Booklist 109.2 (2012): 12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.
3. Norton, Rictor. “Soul Windows.” Gay Love Letters through the Centuries: Countee Cullen. Howard University, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
4. Belonsky, Andrew. “Homo History: Countee Cullen.” Queerty. Queerty, 01 Oct. 2007. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
5. Gale, Thomas. “Cullen, Countee 1903–1946.” Contemporary Black Biography. Encyclopedia.com, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
6. Locke, Alain, and Arnold Rampersad. NEW NEGRO. N.p.: n.p., 1961. Print.