Countee Cullen and the Argument for Multiculturism


I started this as a response over on Dylan's blog, but realized it was too long-winded and too intricate for a mere comment box. So please bear with the thank you section (or skip it).

First to Dylan--thanks for introducing or reintroducing me to Countee Cullen. Not enough good can be said of what you have done for me in terms of poetic life. Before I get mawkish and embarrassing, let me leave it, but let me also say to everyone who blesses my blog with a visit--you would do yourself a great favor by visiting Error 503--La Vita Nuova every day to see what treats Dylan has very courteously prepared for you. I have noted that if you are very nice to him, he will even go to the extent of laying out special things on occasion. That said, on with the main thrust of this portion of the blog.

Of recent date, I've become a Cullen evangelist, wondering why he isn't in more of our text books. You've read some of his selections here and at Dylan's blog, and you can recognize fine poetry. Too often textbook publishers and anthologists in their desperation to represent diversity include some of the most incredibly awful second- or third- rate poetry by modern Hispanic and/or African American authors. Were one to judge from such texts, one might conclude that the tradition of African American poetry in this country began with Nikki Giovanni and culminated with the writings of Maya Angelou. And I am certain both of these fine writers would be among the first to try to disabuse you of the notion.

However, the name of Countee Cullen rarely, if ever shows up in the annals of poetry from this century taught at anything below the college level. I know that in eighth grade students are often reading, if not analyzing sonnets--why is his writing not included. Here is where I draw the line in the sand.

I am not a multiculturalist for the sake of representation. I find that kind of nonsense does a service to no one. However, true multiculturalism--people who with an eye to good writing return to the writers of the past who have been glossed over and neglected, for whatever reason--these people should be taken seriously and respected. African American writers have contributed extensively to the American Idiom and to the poetic venture. And yet we seem to neglect, with impunity, such fine writers as Countee Cullen and Phillis Wheatley.

People who have championed the multicultural cause have done us all both a great service and a grave disservice. Those who seek to rewrite history and literature to enhance the contributions of underrepresented writers simply damage the integrity of the cause. But those who have directed our attention to much neglected writers such as Countee Cullen (a deeply religious poet), Phillis Wheatley, and, on the African Continent, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tuoela, Chinua Achebe, and others, serve us all well. Great poetry, great writing, greatness of heart should not be judged by presence in the established pantheon nor by skin color or any other external attribute. I can think of a dozen frequently anthologized white and minority poets who I could easily dispense with for the sake of the real art embodied in some of these writers.

The purpose of multiculturalism--to bring to a struggling people examples from the past and present of persons to emulate, to show that our culture isn't composed solely of the writings and thoughts of white men of the past--are admirable. Where the goal goes astray--seeking to entirely eradicate the contributions of white males as representative merely of the oppression of past years, or overbalancing in favor of writers who have neither influenced nor contributed much, if anything, to the mainstream of American Writers--multiculturalist should be criticized. But when a person says to me, "Countee Cullen has not influenced poetry as much as he would have had he been given proper representation in materials presented to students," I find myself nodding in agreement.

People who truly love the arts serve us all well when they hold up examples of extraordinary work. Dylan does this consistently at his blog. I attempt to do it, but I admit to diluting the overall effect by including things that I may like regardless of their actual merit. (In case you couldn't tell I'm extremely fond of poets prior to 1770, or so. I like a lot after that as well, but it seems most people would probably be better acquainted with poets from those centuries. Moreover, it is perhaps better to stay with what you love because you can at least explain what it is about the poem that you find meaningful or important.) I am profound grateful for every blogger who takes time to post even a single poem or great piece of prose. Great writing is only one of the gifts God has showered upon us, but in such a medium it is certainly one that we can all share and enjoy.

Thank you all for your patience, and I would dearly love to continue the discussion of multiculturalism if anyone would like to take up the thread.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 7, 2002 5:05 PM.

Some Misconceptions about Detachment was the previous entry in this blog.

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