Almost always listed among the greatest poems to come out of the Harlem Renaissance and very often singled out as the ultimate achievement of that massively talented movement, Countee Cullen’s “Heritage” was originally published in Survey Magazine. Under the editorial guidance of Alain Locked, philosophy instructor at Howard University, the long road that “Heritage” would travel to rise to such elevated spheres began with the March 1, 1925 issuance of that periodical.
A few months later, “Heritage” enjoyed what would become the first of many republications in New Negro. Situated between these two external journals would be the celebrated publishing of Cullen’s first collection, Color, in which “Heritage” joined such other landmark works by the poet as “Yet Do I Marvel” and “Incident.” Since its appearance in the second edition of James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1931, it has become one of the most anthologized poems not just of the Harlem Renaissance, but in the entire history of African-American literature.
The dedication of the poem by Cullen to Harold Jackman—a patron of the Renaissance often referred to as the Most Handsome Man in Harlem—has fueled speculation now wildly accepted as fact that Cullen—despite being married twice—was homosexual. Nevertheless, the content of the poem seems to be far from sexuality as the speaker reveals a painful sense of ambivalence toward his African heritage while at the same time offering a strong argument against the conventional view of the superiority of white society.
Ultimately, what has made “Heritage” outlive its original controversial origins is the passionate struggle outlined in the verse of a black man ripped from his homeland to reconcile his relationship with God through the lens of a being made in that God’s image yet placed in a hostile environment of racism to be faced every day. “Heritage” even without Cullen’s artistry and aesthetic sensibility is a poem that many in the negro-black-African-American timeline of evolution can instantly relate right from its opening interrogation: “What is Africa to me”