Heritage (poem)

Heritage (poem) Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does the narrator's description of Africa contradict his claim that he cannot connect to it?

    The speaker repeatedly describes the difficulty he has in considering Africa as a real place, the land of his ancestors and the home of a rich culture. He says that the popular view of Africa is the view one might get from listlessly paging through a textbook before bed: dull and far-off, information that is nowhere near viscerally real for the holder. In his descriptions of Africa, though, the narrator reveals that his imaginative connection to his homeland is stronger than he lets on. He includes vivid descriptions of the continent's native inhabitants and exotic wildlife, speaking of the place as if he had been there before. The speaker brings Africa to life on the page, destroying his own accusation that Africa seems foreign and dead to Americans, including himself.

  2. 2

    What is the importance of blackness in the poem?

    The speaker describes his "somber" (dark) "flesh and skin" as his "pride" and "joy" but also his "dear distress." His black skin threatens to push him beyond the bounds of what is considered acceptable in white, Christian, American society. He goes on to describe his black flesh and blood as strong waves that cannot be constrained by any nets. Further, the speaker admits that he “Wish[es] He I served were black.” In other words, he wants God to be black. A black God would be more relatable to black worshippers. The speaker admits that he "fashion[s] dark gods" like the idol-makers that he imagines in Africa. That is, he gives God black features. In this way, blackness is important both as a symbol of suffering and also a tie that binds people of African heritage together.

  3. 3

    Discuss how some of the natural imagery of trees or animals help illustrate the poem's larger point about both the necessity and impossibility of embracing African heritage.

    The speaker describes a “tree / Budding yearly forget[s] / How its past arose or set.” This image suggests that sometimes it might be necessary to let go of the past. Just as the tree forgets the previous year, the speaker may need to the Africa of his ancestors if he is to survive. Another important natural image is the rain. The rain is an “unremittent beat / Made by cruel padded feet / Walking through the body’s street.” Here, it symbolizes the power of heritage for African Americans. Just as the rain keeps beating, the speaker cannot forget this history. When he follows the rain, it leads him to strip off his clothes and wash off the "civilized" attitudes that alienate him from the past. In all these ways, the natural imagery of the poem furthers the more abstract themes it explores.