Countée Cullen’s ‘Uncle Jim’ – By Jack Perkin

 
“White folks is white,” says uncle Jim;
“A platitude,” I sneer;
And then I tell him so is milk,
And the froth upon his beer.
His heart walled up with bitterness,
He smokes his pungent pipe,
And nods at me as if to say,
“Young fool, you’ll soon be ripe!”
I have a friend who eats his heart
Always with grief of mine,
Who drinks my joy as tipplers drain
Deep goblets filled with wine.
I wonder why here at his side,
Face-in-the-grass with him,
My mind should stray the Grecian urn
To muse on uncle Jim.

 Uncle Jim by Countee Cullen (1922)

The title of Countée Cullen’s Uncle Jim (1922) concatenates “Uncle” – a signifier of older, African-American men (as in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)), and “Jim”, recalling the African-American ‘Jim Crow’ stereotype of the nineteenth-century. The poem imagines a dialogue between this “Uncle Jim”, the elder figure, and a “[y]oung fool”: it is, in this respect, an illustration of the opposition defined by A. Phillip Randolph in The Messenger in 1919 as “the Old Crowd” and “the New Crowd”, or “the New Negro”[1].

This thesis does not rest entirely upon Uncle Jim’s age or the other, anonymous protagonist’s youth (despite Randolph’s claim that, “the New Crowd must be composed of young men”[2]). Rather, Uncle Jim asserts that “White folks is white”, which, if it means ‘superior’ (thus lending a weight of bathos to the other protagonist’s counter-arguments) strikes one as apathetic in the same way as, “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and “you may take all this world but give me Jesus” which, according to Randolph, “the old crowd still preaches”[3]. This apathy justifies Cullen in his evocation of the pacific Uncle Tom of Stowe’s novel, who is an apologist for his oppressor: “O Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! […] Do the worst you can, my troubles ‘ll be over soon.”[4] The recurring theme is Christianity; Black submissiveness was associated with the ‘virtues’ of Jesus, and Christianity had an active ideological function in the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. After the First World War, many Black intellectuals, particularly on the left, attained a consciousness of this. For example, in ‘Socialism The Negroes’ Hope’ in 1919, W.A. Domingo writes, symptomatically sardonic, “[Socialism] intends to do for human beings what Christianity promises to do for them in less material regions”[5].

Countee-Cullen

To “White folks is white”, the “[y]oung fool” replies “A PLATITUDE”. ‘Intellectual’ diction such as this is incongruous with Jim’s misuse of “is”, and demonstrates that he is “educated”. But the “young fool” is not also a “radical”[6]. Indeed, he is a-political, and not through any want of being “ripe” as Jim supposes. “I wonder why…”, the protagonist asks:

“My mind should stray the Grecian urn/ To muse on Uncle”

The disenfranchisement of African-Americans is ubiquitous; it is a persistent distraction from “the Grecian urn”. This is, of course, a reference to John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819). For Countée Cullen, Keats is a means to transcend politics, just as in his To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime (1925), Keats transcends death itself:

““John Keats is dead”, they say, but I / […] Know John Keats still writes poetry.”[7]

The implication – in this poem as in Uncle Jim – is that art is extraneous to politics. In fact, it is suggested that art is the more permanent: the attic echo of “muse” lingers over the thought of Uncle Jim, and his essentially political, ‘Uncle Tom’ attitude. The suspicion of race and its corollary, politics, as artistic subjects developed after 1927, writes Darwin T. Turner, when “Cullen argued with increasing vehemence that Negro poets should not be compelled to write about their race”[8]. So nascent in Uncle Jim is what Alain Locke called in 1928, “the one fundamental question for us today – Art or Propaganda. Which?”[9]

In his ‘Criteria of Negro Art’ in The Crisis in 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois answered this “fundamental question” with ‘Propaganda’[10]. But a major difficulty in Du Bois’ argument – aside from a prose-style described by George S. Schuyler as “limpid”[11] – is that it confuses the existence of art itself with its subject-matter. It may be so that “whatever art I [that is, Du Bois] have for writing has always been used for propaganda”[12], but as the founder of the N.A.A.C.P., Du Bois’ writing and the Association’s political ideology will have converged more out of co-incidence than necessity. It is more difficult to see how, say, Cullen’s To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime is ‘propaganda’. However, Du Bois is more convincing in his opinion that, “until the art of the black folks compels recognition, they will not be rated as human”[13]. The very existence of African-American art is, Du Bois says, political. Although Cullen’s Uncle Jim is political in that it is a comment on the ubiquity of the ‘race problem’ in the consciousness of a Black poet during the Harlem Renaissance, it is also ‘Propaganda’ by virtue of its existence.

To extend this, it might be said that the influences upon which African-American art of the Harlem Renaissance chose to draw – and therefore how it saw itself within a wider tradition – is propagandistic. In Uncle Jim, Cullen is the inheritor, via John Keats, of the Greco-Roman tradition. When “face-in-the-grass” with “a friend” (who may or may not be Uncle Jim), Cullen is drawing on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (especially Section 6[14]). The irony of a socially disadvantaged African-American poet recalling the author of Democratic Vistas[15] is effective. Langston Hughes does much the same thing in his I, Too (1925)[16], albeit more explicitly than Cullen. It must not be forgotten, of course, that to draw on poets such these entails a simultaneous rejection of Modernism (Uncle Jim was published in 1922, the same year as Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land). There is nothing definitively ‘Modernist’[17] about Uncle Jim’s aesthetics (aside from the capitalised “PLATITUDE”), and I would suggest that Cullen and other Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, including McKay, felt alienated from Modernism because of its interest in Primitivism. By way of example, of Josephine Baker at the Folie Bergère in 1926, E.E. Cummings wrote for Vanity Fair “And still we find ourselves remembering the jungle”[18]. This is symptomatic: Baker fulfils Cummings’s pre-conceived idea (it must be pre-conceived in order to be “remembered”), and is not an active generator of her art.

In terms of its pre-occupations, Uncle Jim (1922) is of a complexity that belies its simplicity. It is less influential today, of course, than in 1922 if only because it is less readily-available. Whereas in 1926 W.E.B. Du Bois talked specifically of “the recognition accorded Cullen”[19], he is today conspicuously under-represented in both criticism and anthologies of African-American literature. The achievement of Uncle Jim is to express disillusionment with the “all art is propaganda”[20] dogma (which, in Du Bois’ formulation, it anticipates) in ways that are themselves subtly propagandistic, and subversion of this kind surely ought to be less short-lived than Cullen’s popularity.

References 

[1] A. Phillip Randolph, ‘A New Crowd – A New Negro’ in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance ed. by Nathan Irvin Huggins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 18-20, p. 18.
[2] Ibid., p. 20.
[3] Ibid., p. 19.
[4] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: Everyman’s Library, 1995), p. 456.
[5] W. A. Domingo, ‘Socialism The Negroes’ Hope’ in The Messenger Reader: Stories, Poems, and Essays from The Messenger Magazine ed. by Sondra Kathryn Wilson (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), pp. 332-4, p. 332.
[6] Randolph, ‘A New Crowd – A New Negro’, p. 20.
[7] Countée Cullen, ‘To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime’ in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 1314-15, p. 1315.
[8] Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), p. 70.
[9] Alain Locke, ‘Art or Propaganda?’, National Humanities Centre Resource Toolbox (2007) <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text10/lockeartorpropaganda.pdf&gt; [accessed 04 March 2014], (para. 1 of 5).
[10] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, W.E.B. Du Bois.org (2008) <http://www.webdubois.org/dbCriteriaNArt.html&gt; [accessed 04 March 2014], (para. 29 of 38).
[11] George S. Schuyler, Black No More (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2011), p. 54. Schuyler actually describes the prose of “Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard”, a thinly-disguised parody of W.E.B. Du Bois.
[12] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, (para. 29 of 38).
[13] Ibid., (para. 37 of 38).
[14] Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose ed. by Christopher Bigsby (London: J.M. Dent, 1993), pp. 27-80, pp. 31-32.
[15] Ibid., pp. 496-550.
[16] Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’ in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 1258.
[17] That is to say – although an imperfect definition of ‘Modernism’ – ‘self-consciously experimental’.
[18] E.E. Cummings, ‘Vive La Folie!’ in Miscellany ed. by George J. Firmage (London: Peter Owen, 1966), pp. 159-63, p. 62.
[19] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, (para. 18 of 38).
[20] Ibid., (para. 29 of 38).

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