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James Baldwin Meets Countée Cullen

  • National Book Critics Circle


Chapter 13, from «Countée Cullen & The Harlem Renaissance: A Personal History» (forthcoming, 2023)
Kevin Brown
Black Boy
One September, dressed in ragged clothes and ragged shoes, James Arthur Bald-
win began his academic career at 139. Runty, effeminate in his mannerisms, pre-
cise in his diction, little Jimmy had trouble fitting in at first. They called him “frog
eyes.” In spite or perhaps because of his glowering intensity, he was a target for
bigger boys, whom he watched furtively, with envy and admiration.
What he lacked in size, he made up for in intelligence. Tense, withdrawn, he
spent time alone at the 42nd Street library, reading A Tale of Two Cities, delving
deep into the history of Harlem. Countée, the school’s most widely published
author, was quick to recognize, value and put to use the raw talent of his school’s
most gifted writing student, who’d already appeared in print by age 12. As Coun-
tée had before him, Jimmy wrote poems, plays and songs but largely gave up
poetry for prose during those years at 139 due, perhaps in part, to the faint praise
Countée expressed when Jimmy showed them to him.
“It’s an awful lot,” Countée said, “like Hughes’.”
Soon, Jimmy was contributing essays and short stories to The Douglass Pilot,
rising to the rank of contributing editor. His final year at 139, he was named
Around this time, Jimmy’s stepfather suggested he quit school and get a job
so he could help feed the family. Countée insisted not only that Jimmy gradu-
ate from 139 but that he attend his own alma mater, De Witt Clinton, then
one of New York’s most rigorous high schools. In a Bronx neighborhood where
streets were clean and tree-lined, in an academic environment where most class-
mates were white and competitive though friendly, Jimmy worked with student-
photographer Richard Avedon on The Magpie. Sensitive in an environment that
rewarded sensitivity, Jimmy found acceptance at De Witt Clinton, published
plays and short stories, and flourished, as Countée knew he would.
Kevin Brown
Jimmy was now an editorial staffer on The Magpie. Helping fellow students
prepare an anniversary issue, he was searching for a story. Countée had recently
published a children’s book, and was rumored to be at work on another. So, a
faculty advisor suggested Jimmy pay him a visit. What Countée may not have
realized the day those two squared off in a vacant classroom at 139 was that this
interview was for Jimmy more than just a schoolboy exercise. Countée did realize
that something was troubling Jimmy. Rumors reached him that Jimmy, oldest of
eight and de facto head of household, labored under the burden of working after
school to help feed his deteriorating father, his mother and his many siblings.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States went to immedi-
ate war footing, and factories hummed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Jimmy
was working in Jersey, at a munitions plant. Began cutting some classes, and
hopelessly failing others. Had strayed from the church, eventually left his father’s
house, and was seen more and more frequently in the Village. If war abroad
didn’t maim a boy like Jimmy, other wars waged daily on the New York City
streets would: the gun; the needle; the bottle. Defying his father’s wishes, Jimmy
turned his back on the pulpit. Was grimly determined to be a writer. Nothing
and no one would stand in his way—certainly not naysayers who scoffed that, in
this world of white devils, it was madness at best for a poor black boy to dream
of becoming a famous writer and sinful pride at worst to try.
Both Mr. Cullen here and Richard Wright, Jimmy’s hero, who’d now succeed-
ed Countée as the world’s most acclaimed black writer, were living proof it could
be done. Hopeful, and defiant, Jimmy wagered that writing would be his escape
from that world of walking wounded he staggered in. In a very real way, the ques-
tions he was about to pose were matters of life and death. And Jimmy had so very
many questions. Where should he live? France, during the War, seemed out of
the question. How should he support himself? But the answers Countée gave—
the only ones he honestly could give, the only ones that, ultimately, Jimmy really
needed—were probably not the ones Jimmy wanted to hear at the time, any more
than Countée’d wanted to hear from Walter White that premature publication of
Color might actually hurt rather than help his chances of gaining admission to
Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.
How much money, Jimmy asked, could one expect to make writing poems?
Countée was frank: “poetry cannot be considered a means of making a liveli-
hood.” “Why not?”
“Poetry,” Countée explained, matter-of-factly, “is something which few people
enjoy and which fewer people understand. A publishing house publishes poetry
only to give the establishment tone. It never expects to make much money on the
transaction. And it seldom does.”
“I never knew that.” Jimmy was aghast. “I guess a teaching job comes in pretty
Fiction International 51
handy, then.”
“Also, I like to teach.”
So what was the secret of literary success?
Countée cautioned that there was “no secret to success except hard work and
getting something indefinable which we call the ‘breaks’.”
The only secret, Jimmy later learned, is survival. Still, he had so many ques-
tions. What should he do?
“I suggest three things—read and write—and wait.”
Countée’d done all he could for Jimmy. His star pupil must find his own way,
betwixt fires still smoldering since the 1935 riot described by Claude McKay in
The Nation and the powder keg from which, 24 hours after Jimmy’s 16th birth-
day, Harlem once again exploded.
Richard Wright went to Paris the year Countée died, and lived the remainder
of his days in exile. Jimmy worked odd jobs until he won a writing fellowship.
He then left for France, to what extent influenced by his French teacher he never
once admitted, and wrote his way into immortality. In Paris, Jimmy wrote Go
Tell It on the Mountain, exploring themes he would return to again and again
throughout his career: childhood; the black church; fathers and sons. By the time
I encountered Jimmy, a year before his death, he seemed burnt out.
Uncharitable as Jimmy’s feelings toward Countée may seem, I think I under-
stand them. Jimmy’s feelings toward Richard Wright were also famously mixed.
Probing an artist as he was, Jimmy couldn’t imagine Countée’s childhood, wheth-
er because Jimmy was so preoccupied with the horrors of his own or because
Countée bore his suffering silently. Personally, I can think of many alternate his-
tories I might have lived. But I can’t think of one better suited to make me the
writer I’ve become. But the fundamental irony of the foregoing scene escaped
Jimmy’s notice: Countée was himself, at that very moment, hoping for something
called the “breaks”.
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