Waring Cuney, as he was better known among his contemporaries, is often referred to either as one of the minor poets of the Harlem Renaissance or one of the second echelon poets of the New Negro Movement. However, among his contemporaries he was considered one of the favorites of the Renaissance group. This is evidenced in part by the inclusion of his works in anthologies of the period, including Countee Cullens Caroling Dusk (1927), James Weldon Johnsons Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), and in the magazine, Fire!! (November 1926).
William Waring Cuney, the son of Norris Wright Cuney II and Madge Louise Baker, was born in Washington, DC. His father, who was educated in Galveston, Texas and attended the Howard University Law School, worked for the federal government until his death. His mother graduated from the Minor Normal School and taught in the Washington school system.
Waring attended the Washington public schools, graduating from Armstrong High School, then attending Howard University for a brief period. He later matriculated at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and did further study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and at the Conservatory in Rome.
Cuney decided soon after his formal voice training that he would not pursue a career in singing, but would focus his energies on his literary pursuits. It is because of his interest in music and his formal training that he so adeptly incorporated the ballad and blues form into his poetry.
Waring Cuney did not use his musical talents or training to perform professionally; however, he did write lyrics that were performed by others. For instance, Joshua White recorded some of his later poems of protest on the album, Southern Exposure.
Waring and Langston Hughes were both students at Lincoln University during the same period. It was through a chance meeting in Washington on a streetcar that Waring, who was already a student at Lincoln University, told Langston that Lincoln was a fine college. As a result of their conversation, Langston sent for a catalogue of courses at Lincoln.
A friendship was born as a result of that meeting. Further, they were both active as poets while in college, submitting works locally on campus and to magazines and contests nationally.
Cuney was a participant and received recognition in the Opportunity Literary Contests of 1926 and 1927. He was awarded one-half of the first and second prizes in 1926 for the poem, No Images. The following year he received the second honorable mention in the Alexander Puskin Section for the poem, A Traditional Marching Song, and the third honorable mention in the Poetry Category for De Jail Blues Song.
No Images, is the more frequently anthologized of his poems. He wrote it when he was eighteen. When Cuney won the Opportunity prize, he was a twenty-year old student at Lincoln University. The poem and a brief analysis follows:
She does not know
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory.
If she could dance
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river,
She would know.
But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dish water gives back no images.
Lucy Hayden in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (p. 50) provides a clear analysis of No Images:
The poet knows that the brown girl has beauty and glory, but acculturation into a white society and economic poverty have caused her not only to lose awareness of her merit but to denigrate herself. If she were in Africa or the Caribbean, where women like her set the standards for beauty, she would have a different clearer image of herself reflected back by society.
This poem has been hailed a minor classic of the New Negro movement.
Although the public avidly read Warings poems, his works were not collected until late in his career. The first collection, Puzzles, was not published until 1960 by a bibliophile society in Holland. The second collection, Storefront Church, was published in 1973.
It is unfortunate that Warings body of work has been largely overlooked. His poems are unequaled in their use of the language reflecting ghetto life and in affirming racial heritage. His poetry reflects racial concerns and themes that are delivered through folk speech, rhythms, and moods of the ghetto. He is the consummate artist when it comes to drawing vivid sketches of character with brevity and clarity of words.
Hayden, Lucy Kelly, William Waring Cuney, in Dictionary of Literary Biography. vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1987).
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1940.
Cullen, Countee (editor). Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties. New York: Harper, 1927.
Thurman, Wallace (editor). Fire!! New York: Joseph Loventhal, 1926.
Breman, Paul (editor). Puzzles. Utrecht, Holland: DeRoos, 1960.
Lincoln University Poets; Centennial Anthology, 1854-1954, edited by Waring Cuney, Langston Hughes, and Bruce Wright (New York: Fine Edition, 1954).
Storefront Church. London: Breman, 1973.
Woodson, C.G., The Cuney Family, Negro History Bulletin (March 1948): 123-125, 143.
Woodson, C. G., The Waring Family, Negro
History Bulletin (February 1948): 99-107.
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003