An Expanded Reading of Countee Cullen’s “A Brown Girl Dead”
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The 1920s and the 1930s marks a period in American History known as the Harlem Renaissance. It is the time when Blacks showcased their talents in literature and the arts and were somehow able to establish a name for themselves. Among the Black writers of this time was Countee Cullen who wrote “A Brown Girl Dead” in the late 1920s, perhaps as a positive response to the idea of fostering cultural unity between Blacks and Whites during the Harlem Renaissance. An expanded reading of the poem shows that the poem is indeed broader than its title and that the author himself and his life have greatly influenced the theme.
Expanded Reading/Analysis (Steps 5-10)
5. Countee Cullen was a poet during the Harlem Renaissance and had the peak of his career as a poet in the 1920s. His poem, “A Brown Girl Dead,” is a poem about racism, which was the topic he mainly wrote on.
This particular poem included some references to religion and the religious ceremony for the dead, perhaps because Cullen himself has been raised as a Methodist since he was a child and was in fact even adopted by a Reverend of the Methodist Church.
In the poem, there was also a mention of the word “white” which contrasts the word “brown” in the title, which may symbolize a merging of blacks and whites in society. And with this, the dead girl in the poem seems to be happy for she would “dance and sing to see herself tonight” (Cullen). Cullen’s seemingly happy and positive, or less negative, treatment of racism in this poem may have been influenced by the fact that he attended a high school mainly composed of white boys, and during which, Cullen somehow felt that he was not that alienated for he achieved greatly. His achievements were not only in citywide poetry contests but also as Vice President of his class, an editor of the school magazine, and a member of the Arista Honor Society. He also attended New York University and Harvard, and was married just prior to the writing of this poem. The tone of the poem seems positive because of the fact that despite the struggle against racism during Cullen’s time, he himself seemed to have been more privileged than the other blacks.
“A Brown Girl Dead” was actually written in 1928 in a collection of poetry known as The Ballad of the Brown Girl, the year when Cullen was first married. This may be an explanation for the reference of the “wedding ring” in the poem.
6. The title of the poem, “A Brown Girl Dead,” clearly tells us that the one who died was a black girl. However, the overall tone of the poem, especially the last lines, speaks of happiness, and this greatly contrasts with the otherwise gloomy and morbid title.
7. The “speaker” or “narrator” of the poem is clearly “inside” the poem and seem to be one of the visitors during the wake. Nevertheless, the last two lines of each stanza seem to be the speaker’s own thoughts and not necessarily something he can see during the wake. The speaker may be a Methodist for his optimism in death seems to reflect the Methodist belief of a blissful death.
8. This poem seems to be representative of the period in which it was written – the Harlem Renaissance. The poem brings up the idea of racism but not necessarily in a bad light but in a sort of freedom. As we can see in the poem, the death of the Brown Girl seemed to be the only way for her to be laid out in white, and she is happy about it. This sort of symbolic merging of black and white is clearly indicative of the Harlem Renaissance where Blacks have finally found their voice and have somehow established ties with the Whites by showing them who they were and what they were capable of. In the poem, the death of the “Brown” Girl and her wearing of a “white” dress seems like a moment of transition and personal celebration.
9. The poem seems to be set in the memorial grounds where the dead girl is to be buried. The white candles and the white roses as well as the mention of the line “Dark Madonna of the grave she rests” (Cullen) all indicate that the girl is about to be buried. There is, however, no mention of the people attending the funeral service. Therefore it can be that the funeral is privately attended or the dead girl is still in her house.
10. The theme of this poem may be the joy from the union between Blacks and Whites. The death of the girl in the poem, as well as the symbolic adornment of everything white, may be symbolic of this transition and that Cullen may have viewed the Harlem Renaissance not only as a very positive personal experience for him but also a great opportunity for Blacks to be recognized by Whites and thus establish cultural unity with them. The theme cannot be that of the gloom of death itself for there is celebration at the end of the poem as the dead girl would “dance and sing to see herself tonight” (Cullen), and that even “Lord Death has found her sweet” (Cullen), which indicates a seemingly positive experience. However, it should be noted that the line “Her mother pawned her wedding ring” (Cullen) in order to purchase the white dress may symbolize the idea of Cullen that such a cultural union between Blacks and Whites may entail great sacrifice, maybe on the part of the Blacks. In short, in order to create such unity, Blacks may have to make the first move and may even have to risk important things such as their wedding rings, which may represent marriage or personal property.
Contrast with African American Experience prior to 1900
If we compare Cullen’s “A Brown Girl Dead” with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 classic masterpiece Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the former stands out as a rather more positive portrayal of the plight of Blacks in America while the latter remains as a tragic account of the horrors of slavery. The pain and injustice against Blacks reflect the theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The happiness experienced by the dead brown girl in Cullen’s poem is no match for the mental and physical torture that the African American slaves Eliza, George and especially Uncle Tom had to go through in Stowe’s novel.
Countee Cullen’s “A Brown Girl Dead” is a literary work that speaks of a period of transition from racism to a sort of cultural merging between Blacks and Whites. There may be a number of factors that make it stand out as a more positive work on racism compared to works on slavery prior to 1900. Perhaps one of the factors is that it was written by a man whose background was not as poor and unprivileged as his African American ancestors. However, more importantly, it was written during the Harlem Renaissance when finally the once muffled Negro slave voice was finally heard and somehow honored by America.
Cullen, Countee. 2010. “A Brown Girl Dead.” Countee Cullen Poems. Famous Poets and Poems.com. May 25, 2010. <http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/countee_cullen/poems/2425>
Cullen, Countee. “A Brown Girl Dead.” Withered Arm and Other Stories. Ed. George Bess. New Jersey: Viking Penguin, 1999. Print.