Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem

You are disdainful and magnificent—
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise—
Your shoulders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.


This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 25, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” was first published in Countee Cullen’s anthology Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927). In Chapter Nineteen of A Companion to Modernist Poetry (Wiley, 2014), Karen Jackson Ford, professor of English at the University of Oregon, writes that the poem “equates the sonnet’s formal mastery and authority with its subject’s artful performance of racial identity. [. . .] If the sonnet’s history as the form of love poetry par excellence serves the speaker’s expression of admiration for the Negro sauntering through Harlem, it simultaneously casts his portrait in an esteemed poetic genre that will not be effaced by racist scorn. Still in print nearly a century later, the poem has preserved ‘each footprint’ of the celebrated Negro in the measured feet of poetic tradition.”