The Gay Love Letters of Countee Cullen
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
The black American poet Countee Cullen (190346) 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,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 (190060), 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.
COUNTEE CULLEN TO ALAIN LEROY LOCKE
234 W. 131 St.,
My dear friend,
SOURCE: From the Alain Leroy Locke Papers, published by permission of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.