You know Spider Man, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers and the rest of the Marvel comic book superheroes? Well, Countee Cullen doesn't have any magical powers, but he certainly was one of African American literature's heroes. And "Yet Do I Marvel" is his anthem.
The poem was penned during the Harlem Renaissance, which was an outpouring of artistic expression by African Americans who challenged the racial stereotypes that had stuck around after the Civil War in America. Sometimes called the New Negro Movement, this era was somewhat of a cultural revolution when, in the 1920s and 30s, black artists and writers in—you guessed it—Harlem finally came to the forefront of American letters.
Cullen, a major figure of the movement along with Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, was celebrated for his formal poetry, like "Yet Do I Marvel," which sought to prove that African American writers had a place in the traditional literary canon. Influenced by fancy folks like Shakespeare, Keats, and Housman, Cullen sought to address both universal themes and African American ones in his work, and 1925's "Yet Do I Marvel" does just that.
In this poem, Cullen tackles the paradox of believing in a good God when there's so much stinkin' suffering in the world, and particularly that of black people in America. God is supposed to be good, so why curse this poet by making him black in a world where black poets suffer all kinds of misfortune, like racism, disrespect, and being misunderstood? Hey, it's a fair question.
It's as if Cullen's speaker feels divided between two identities: black and poet. Hmm. That sounds familiar to Shmoop. W.E.B. Du Bois, a major civil rights leader during the Harlem Renaissance, coined the term "double consciousness" as a way of describing the African American plight of being both "American" and "black." He saw blacks as having two cultural identities to contend with and coexist at the same time. Cullen tackles that "double-ness" in his poem by trying to reconcile his race with his calling.
And that's not easy. It's curious, he says, that God should make a poet black in a world where black people were not considered part of American literary culture. How can a black man in the early 20th century participate in an art form that traditionally belonged to white culture?
Well, Shmoop thinks Cullen punched that paradox right in the nose, and penned a poem for the ages. Sure, this doesn't seem unusual today (being a poet and black), but back then, black artists were just beginning to make a major impact on American culture, and we have Cullen to thank for paving much of the way.
We know what you're thinking: formal poetry written ninety years ago? Yawn, let's go see the new Bond flick. But before you click over to search for movie showings, think about how often you've wondered why there's so much suffering in the world.
Come on, you know you've forgone counting sheep in favor of pondering this pickle more than a few nights in your life. If life is supposed to be so good, why are people starving? Why are we plagued with illness? Certainly there's an explanation, but we just can't figure it out on our own. And Countee Cullen is just like us. This question probably kept him up a few nights, too. But more importantly, it resulted in this poem.
What makes Cullen's poem so marvel-worthy is that it's technically brilliant and addresses this major question of suffering while tying it into his experience as a black writer during a crucial cultural movement in America. That's a whole lot of tasks for a tiny poem. Cullen's genius is that he universalizes a personal theme of race in a classic poetic form, celebrating art, identity, and, well, life. We're not saying Bond won't be entertaining, but certainly, you'll find something to relate to, connect with, and even enjoy in this fourteen-line poem.