Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Soul Windows

The Gay Love Letters of Countee Cullen

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Photograph of Countee Cullen

The black American poet Countee Cullen (1903–46) was the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. His homosexuality is central to his work, although most African-American scholars ignore it or suppress it. His attitude to his homosexuality was as mixed as his attitude to his blackness: simultaneously affirmative and condemnatory, celebratory and troubled. He wrote poems for his lovers, and dedicated poems to his closest gay friends: Alain Locke, Harold Jackman, Carl Van Vechten, and Leland Pettit. Though closeted, he was well known in the gay underground. His first confidant was Alain Locke, a professor at Howard, with many contacts in Harlem, and a misogynist. His relationship with Cullen was close but probably not sexual – a characteristic gay friendship of love, trust, and secrecy. Cullen acted as Locke's pimp in the latter's pursuit of the more famous and more openly gay black poet Langston Hughes. Cullen was only nineteen when he experienced self-recognition after reading Edward Carpenter's pioneering anthology of gay love, Iolaüs, at the suggestion of Locke. In his letter thanking Locke he mentions his relationship with Ralph Loeb, which, though important for his own coming out to himself, lasted for only a month. He explained to Locke on April 5, 1923 that he felt "compelled to relinquish all hope in that direction . . . . I am afraid to attempt to bend the twig the way I would have it go, lest my way be the wrong way for it." But he had already moved on to a white lover, Donald Duff, an equally serious affair that again lasted little more than a month. Duff was a pacifist, on the literary fringe; he died on December 7, 1942, Pearl Harbor day, and Cullen dedicated his poem "Tableau" to him:

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.

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 two men were called "the David and Jonathan of the Harlem twenties", but it is not absolutely certain that their relationship ever became sexual, though they were both gay. Cullen found an "adjustment" (his code word for sex) in the arms of Llewellyn Ransom from 1924, a "gift" sent to him from Locke. Other lovers included Leland B. Pettit, the organist of the All Saints Cathedral Choir, who was said to have committed suicide over some boy, an incident fictionalized in Blair Niles's powerful novel Strange Brother (1931). Cullen had a succession of French boyfriends following a trip to Paris in 1927; his love letters to them, and their replies, are held by Tulane University, New Orleans. Lastly, from 1937 to 1945 he had a secret affair with Edward Atkinson, fourteen years younger than he, whom he met with regularly on Friday evenings; their secret correspondence, full of cyphers and codes which need interpreting (Cullen usually begins his letters "D.B.", meaning "Dearest and Best"), is held by Yale University.


234 W. 131 St.,
New York City
March 3/[19]23

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 "Iolaüs" 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 comaraderie 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

SOURCE: From the Alain Leroy Locke Papers, published by permission of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

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