“Heritage” begins with a question, repeated throughout the poem: “What is Africa to me?” As the title suggests, this poem is about the speaker’s relationship to his ancestry. In this case, the speaker is a black person who wonders what relevance—if any—Africa has to his everyday life in America. The poem presents confused and contradictory feelings about what it means to be a person of African descent. The poem suggests that there is a split between what the speaker says or thinks and what he feels. While he repeatedly tries to downplay the significance of his African heritage, the lush images describing the plants, animals, people, and religious practices of the African continent suggest that Africa is not so easily rejected after all, even though “three centuries” have passed since his ancestors were enslaved and forcibly taken from their homes.
The question “What is Africa to me?” is repeated at the beginning and the end of the first stanza. While the wording of the question suggests doubts about whether Africa can have any meaning to the speaker, the powerful images of “Copper sun” and “scarlet sea” suggest otherwise. Throughout the poem, there are highly idealized descriptions of Africa, such as the “Strong bronzed men” and “regal black / Women” whom the speaker claims as his ancestors. Similarly, the birds of the African continent are described as “the birds of Eden,” suggesting that Africa is a paradise that has existed since the beginning of time. The speaker then goes on to describe the “scenes his fathers loved,” like “Spicy grove[s]” and “cinnamon tree[s],” with clear affection.
The second stanza focuses on the speaker’s psychological conflict. It begins with another phrase repeated throughout the poem: “So I lie.” This can mean both that the speaker reclines, like the “young forest lovers lie” in the grass, or that he is telling a lie. The images themselves also suggest inner conflict. The flora and fauna of Africa are described with almost nightmarish images: “wild barbaric birds,” “massive jungle herds,” and “tall defiant grass.” He wants to keep these images out of his mind but cannot. The reason these images transfix him, the speaker suggests, has to do with his “somber” (meaning dark) “flesh and skin.” Being black is described both as his “fount of pride” and “joy” as well as his “Dear distress.” His black skin and blood lead him someplace he does not want to go. They threaten to push him past the boundaries of what is socially acceptable, something he depicts with the image of fierce waves pushing past nets that seek to constrain them.
The third stanza begins with the speaker again attempting to put distance between himself and Africa. He describes the continent metaphorically as “A book one thumbs / Listlessly,” meaning he flips through it distractedly and somewhat discontentedly. He then describes the sights of Africa as “Unremembered”—a passive and distancing way of saying “I don’t remember”—but then he goes on to describe the claws of lions and the snakes shedding their skin in great imagistic detail. Of the snakes he says, “What’s your nakedness to me?” The effect of all these descriptive images is that the speaker's explicit statements about his distance from Africa are contradicted by the pleasure he seems to take from describing the “leprous flowers” and the “Jungle boys and girls in love.” Then comes the important metaphor of how the “tree / Budding yearly forget[s] / How its past arose or set.” This image suggests that flourishing may depend on forgetting one's history. Just as the tree forgets the last year, the speaker may need to forget these haunting images of Africa in order to move forward. As important as heritage might be, this line suggests, one cannot and perhaps should not go back to one's origins. His fathers may have loved the “Spicy grove” and the “cinnamon tree”—but “What is Africa to me?” he asks dissmissively.
The next stanza begins with the speaker again “lying,” but he admits that he “find[s] no peace” in his rest. The dominant image here is rain, which seems to represent the power of nature and the undeniable call of one’s heritage. The imaginary sound and feel of rain follow him everywhere, even in his sleep. The rain is an “unremittent beat / Made by cruel padded feet / Walking through the body’s street.” Eventually, he decides to follow the call of the rain, though it makes him “twist and squirm.” The rain threatens to wash off whatever pretense of civilization he has left and strip off his clothes. The speaker describes the rain's effect on him as occurring “In an old remembered way,” thereby contradicting the poem’s earlier description of Africa as “Unremembered.”
The shortest, fifth stanza turns more explicitly to religious themes. The speaker describes African people as crafting altars out of sticks, clay, and stones. They create deities and gods in their own “likeness.” He immediately distances himself from these practices by declaring “Heathen gods are naught to me.” Though the speaker is Christian, his description of his conversion as “high-priced” does suggest that it came at a cost.
The sixth stanza picks up this theme. The speaker begins by confirming his belief in the Holy Trinity but then turns around to admit that this is an “idle boast:” his words say one thing while his heart says another. The speaker confesses that he “Wish[es] He I served were black.” To worship a black God would be more meaningful, he suggests, because such a god would understand pain and share experiences with his black worshipers. Now like the idol-makers of the previous stanza, the speaker admits “I fashion dark gods, too.” He gives Jesus black features, making Christianity a more “human creed” that is relatable. These lines suggest that the speaker’s conversion is not so solid as he suggested before. A “hidden ember” of something older remains in his heart and threatens to become a full-fledged fire. He ends the poem by declaring “Not yet has my heart or head / In the least way realized / They and I are civilized.” While his words may convince himself that he is a Christian who has left all African ways behind, his heart and head remain unconvinced. Having followed the speaker through the twists and turns of his thought and feelings, we end the poem with a much different answer to the question “What is Africa to me” and a renewed sense of the unerasable power of heritage.