Contemporary identity politics is a confusing and complicated game, played in deadly earnest. Once we have begun to consider how Countee Cullen articulated his poetry with regard to race, we inevitably hear the following footsteps . . . "Race, class, gender." And we want to know how Cullen’s poetry is implicated in other sorts of politics than those out in the open in Harlem dialogues over the "New Negro." A reasonably complete accounting of Cullen’s work to satisfy such demands will have to wait for a study with great biographical and historical scope, one which focuses on his intentions and specifically on his formalist poetics as they shape and are shaped by his ideas about race politics, and the covert politics of homosexuality in a milieu anxious at once for (or about) independence from and acceptance by wider white audiences. But gender politics in his work does demand attention even so, given recent claims of Cullen’s homosexuality.
Considering Cullen’s poetics as a matter of queer gender politics as well as one of race politics adds a notable dimension to our reading of his poems. An excellent example that poses the issues pointedly is "Tableau."
We should read this poem three times. In our first reading, the shock to the sensibilities of the "fair folk" and "dark folk" is summed up in the way the visual sign, the two boys walk arm in arm, the lightning, precedes the thunder of their actions reverberations. In our second reading, queer politics makes us wonder about certain details: Both boys are attractive, "golden splendor" and "sable pride." The adjective "indignant" is ambiguous in its application: are the staring dark folk or the talking white folk indignant? Or both? If both, could they be indignant more at the display of male to male affectionate touching, the arm in arm walk, only compounded in its outrage by the crossing of the racial line? And then does the "path of thunder" suggest something of the electric connection between two lovers as much as the shock their collocation delivers to the viewers? In our third reading, we should realize that the hints toward a queer plot in the poem are small indeed. In fact the possibility of an intended double audience, an inside story for the queer audience and a more obvious story for those not sensitive to the queer possibility, is the most we can do toward "queering" this poem. Thus, the "queer" meaning of the poem does not undercut but rather supplements the "straight" "black" meaning, which itself hints only distantly at debates among Harlem Renaissance cultural contributors over double-audience (black/white) address of the work of art–by the single allusion to W. E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk, with the single word "folk," repeated perhaps to draw attention to it and the allusion. (And especially considering that the case argued for Cullen’s homosexuality is hinged fundamentally on the swift and "surprising" failure and annulment of Cullen’s marriage to Duboise’s daughter.)
Similarly, were we to undertake to nuance Cullen’s debate with Langston Hughes over what constitutes a "proper" African American poetics, while we would need to untangle how Cullen’s sexual preferences might inform his thinking, we would have the same task to do with Hughes, for the same attribution has been made about his identification. Thus, we could not easily attribute either Hughes’ essentialist black poetics or Cullen’s African American formalism to sexual difference, since both presumably faced the same difficulties in advancing a black homosexual identity in a Harlem Renaissance literary milieu.