‘Tableau‘ was first published in Color, Cullen’s debut collection, in 1925. It is one of the most important books of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that Cullen was incredibly influential in. The poem is relatively short, with only three stanzas totaling twelve lines. This means that each word, and every choice the author made, is even more important.
Tableau Countee Cullen Locked arm in arm they cross the way The black boy and the white, The golden splendor of the day The sable pride of night. From lowered blinds the dark folk stare And here the fair folk talk, Indignant that these two should dare In unison to walk. Oblivious to look and word They pass, and see no wonder That lightning brilliant as a sword Should blaze the path of thunder.
‘Tableau’ by Countee Cullen is an effective poem that describes the hostility that the Black and white communities presented towards an interracial couple.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by describing a Black man and a white man walking down the street, arm in arm. They are a beautiful sight. One is described as bright like the daytime sun and the others as beautifully dark as the night. The speaker ensures that readers are presented with a positive description of both.
They add that the members of both communities stare and gossip about the two men, outraged that the two are spending time together and are willing to show themselves as partners on the street. The poem concludes with a description of the two men continuing to walk down the road, uninterested in what other people think. They aren’t surprised by what people are saying about them, but their feelings clear a path for them through the gossip and cruelty.
Structure and Form
‘Tableau’ by Countee Cullen is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are written in the standard ballad meter, accompanying the rhyme scheme. The lines rhyme ABCB and follow common meter, or use alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “fair folk” in stanza two and “word” and “wonder” in stanza three.
- Juxtaposition: can be seen when the poet contrasts two things by placing them next to one another. In this case, the “black boy” and “the white.” He also contrasts the “The golden splendor of the day, / The sable pride of night.”
- Simile: occurs when the poet creates a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.” For example, “That lightning brilliant as a sword / Should blaze the path of thunder.”
Locked arm in arm they cross the way
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day
The sable pride of night.
In the first stanza of ‘Tableau,’ the speaker describes two men, one white and one Black, walking down the street together. The two appear to be romantic partners since they are “Locked arm in arm.”
The speaker adds that the tow is not shying away from attention. They are shining like the “splendor of the day” and the “sable pride of the night.” Both are beautiful in their different qualities. It’s also clear from the beginning that the speaker appreciates these two and the statement they’re making by walking together.
From lowered blinds the dark folk stare
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.
In the second stanza, the speaker notes that people from inside their houses are peering out at the men. The “dark folk” and the “fair folk,” or the neighborhood’s Black and white men and women, are talking about them. They are “Indignant” that the two are spending this time together and are not hiding their partnership. There is an equal about of spite and indignation shown from both sides.
Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
The final stanza turns back towards the two men and describes their experience. They aren’t bothered by the looks they’re getting or the whispered cruelty that’s aimed at them. They “pass,” and their feelings for one another forge a path through the words spoken against them. They feel strongly enough about their relationship that they don’t need anyone else’s approval.
The purpose is to show how proud and beautiful an interracial couple, or close friendship, can be. The two are unbothered by other people’s opinions and are willing to show their love for one another in the open.
The theme is love and how it can combat prejudice and racism. It is strong enough to stand up against the gossip and cruelty of the white and Black communities that same-sex and biracial couples faced and still do face.
The speaker appreciates the statement the two are making by walking through the street openly. But is also aware of how engaged in one another the two are. They don’t care about the speaker’s or anyone else’s opinion.
‘Tableau’ was published in 1925 in Cullen’s first collection of poetry, Color. To this day, it remains one of the most important books of the Harlem Renaissance.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Atlantic City Waiter’ should also consider reading some other Countee Cullen poems. For example:
- ‘Any Human to Another’ – the speaker describes how essential human interaction is. He also reveals how one person suffering affects everyone.
- ‘From the Dark Tower’ – a thoughtful poem about the Black experience. It suggests that there is a brighter future on the horizon.
- ‘Hey, Black Child’ – a moving and memorable poem that is directed to and dedicated to all the black children who have been taught by the world that their lives can’t amount to anything.