Countee Cullen's Role in the Harlem Renaissance: An Analysis of Heritage

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  • 0:05 Harlem Renaissance
  • 1:00 Countee Cullen
  • 1:43 Heritage: First Four Stanzas
  • 5:05 Heritage: Final Three Stanzas
  • 7:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

The Harlem Renaissance exposed the world to everyone from W.E.B. DuBois to Ella Fitzgerald. In this lesson, we'll explore one of the movement's most iconic and resonant poems, Countee Cullen's 'Heritage.'

Harlem Renaissance

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.

Countee Cullen

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,

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