Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.
With very few exceptions, the American cultural scene, including writers, thinkers and musicians, was dominated by white artists pretty much right through World War I. Then came the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a major cultural movement in the 1920s and 1930s in which African American artists moved into the mainstream. What had been sporadic voices became a flood of amazing talent, offering their own perspectives, history and culture.
It was the age of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Jazz, that uniquely American music, became huge in both popularity and importance, as audiences first heard Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. And there were exceptional works published by authors, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay.
There was also poet Countee Cullen. He was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, literally and figuratively. He came of age in Harlem, burning brightly for several years. How significant was he? Well, when he married W.E.B. Du Bois's daughter, Nina Yolande Du Bois, in 1928, it was the black community's royal wedding, with thousands attending. Its significance was akin to Michael Jackson marrying Lisa Marie Presley. (And, in fact, both marriages ended badly after just two years.)
In this lesson, we're going to focus on one of Cullen's major poems: 'Heritage.' This poem was published in his debut collection from 1925, Color.
'Heritage:' First Four Stanzas
The poem begins:
'What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?'
This first stanza delivers the central question of the poem. For an African American man in the 1920s, what is Africa? It was three centuries earlier that his ancestors were stolen from its shores as slaves. He's never been there, so he's questioning what Africa means to him and his life.
In the second stanza, he elaborates:
'So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.'
He is thinking, dreaming of Africa. He's using stock images - the juggernauts of flesh might be elephants - to describe a place he's never been. Then he romanticizes Africa with the lovers in the grass. Notice the powerful nature of the diction - words like barbaric and massive. Even the grass is defiant.
We soon get to his conflict:
'So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
With the dark blood dammed within
Like great pulsing tides of wine
That, I fear, must burst the fine
Channels of the chafing net
Where they surge and foam and fret.'
He is connected to Africa through his skin color. With an allusion to the nets that brutally captured his ancestors, he describes his African pride that is deep within, wanting desperately to emerge. That pride is surging and foaming and fretting.
But in the third stanza, we learn how distant he feels from his homeland:
'Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink...'
Africa is not a memory to him but a place in a book. Notice in those first two lines how dramatically the language softens. The book is 'thumbed, listlessly' while going to sleep. It's incredibly passive. And, again, this is a place he doesn't know from being there. He doesn't remember the bats or lions. They are 'unremembered.' He only knows them from a book.
When he goes on to say:
'What is last year's snow to me,
Last year's anything?'
We see that he's not at home in America either. He's a man without a home. He's three centuries removed from Africa. And America has no ancestral meaning to him.
In the fourth stanza, there's more of this internal conflict:
'So I lie, who find no peace
Night or day, no slight release
From the unremittent beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body's street.'
'Heritage:' Final Three Stanzas
The fifth stanza is a short one, but it packs a punch in bringing religion to the table:
'Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.'
Here, we see the contrast between the gods of Africans and the white, Christian God who was passed on by white evangelists and slave owners to the black community.
In the sixth stanza, he reflects further on his Christianity:
'Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had borne a kindred woe.'
In other words, if Jesus were black, our speaker would feel a closer connection to his suffering. His African ancestors made their gods in their own images, as most cultures do. But, as is still often too true today, Jesus is portrayed as a white man.
Then we get to the final stanza. Here, Cullen's inner turmoil is fully brought into focus. There is this perpetual war raging inside him, and it's always on the verge of bubbling over:
'All day long and all night through,
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.'
We could interpret this poem as saying that African Americans are in two worlds: Africa and America. Yet they fully exist in neither.
As a major poem of the Harlem Renaissance, 'Heritage' is a revelation. On one level, it describes a uniquely African American experience. It's a voice that wasn't represented in popular American poetry before the 1920s.
But like so much great art of the movement, it speaks more universal truths about the human condition. You don't need to be a descendent of slaves to identify with the themes in this poem. We all struggle with our identity and our place in society. We all grapple with finding our way in the context of those who came before us.
In this lesson, we explored Countee Cullen's 'Heritage.' This poem is one of the most representative works of the Harlem Renaissance, that amazing period in the 1920s and '30s when works of African American writers, musicians and thinkers exploded into the mainstream.
'Heritage' wrestles with the role of Africa in the hearts and minds of African Americans. In some ways, it is more a place in a book than a real part of themselves. The poem suggests that African Americans are stuck belonging to two worlds but wholly existing in neither. Like other great works of the Harlem Renaissance, though, 'Heritage' transcends the African American experience to offer insights into struggles we all face.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall the importance of the Harlem Renaissance to the Africa-American community and mainstream America as well
- Understand the influence and themes of Countee Cullen's poem, 'Heritage'
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack