Heritage (poem)

Heritage (poem) Literary Elements


Lyric poem

Setting and Context

The United States circa 1925, with references made to the speaker's ancestral past in Africa

Narrator and Point of View

First-person, non-omniscient poetic voice
The speaker is an African-American man struggling between embracing his cultural heritage and fitting into white American cultural and religious norms.

Tone and Mood

Defiant; uncertain; fearful; resigned

Protagonist and Antagonist

The part of the speaker that thinks Africa means nothing to him vs. the part of him that recognizes the power of heritage

Major Conflict

Whether or not heritage is important to the speaker and other African Americans. The speaker is attempting to reconcile two very different aspects of himself: his draw toward his African heritage and the need to survive and move forward in American society. He deals with various aspects of this problem in detail as he dreams about his homeland.


The poem ends with the lines "Not yet has my heart or head / In the least way realized / They and I are civilized," emphasizing how the conflict between the pull of heritage and the demands of Western society is a permanent feature of the speaker's life.


The speaker's question at the beginning ("What is Africa to me") foreshadows his investigation into what Africa truly means to him, as well as what it should mean to him and does mean to other people.


"Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes."

While the speaker describes Africa as something trivial and even boring here, this is contradicted by his rich descriptions of the continent.


"birds of Eden" - An allusion to the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis

Jesus of the “twice-turned cheek” - An allusion to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-40):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.


The speaker uses vivid imagery to describe the wonder-filled land of Africa, detailing its fantastic beasts and rich cultural identity. The imagery of stalking predators and thundering stampedes is particularly powerful.


The main conflict in this poem is the attempt to reconcile the speaker with his cultural heritage while simultaneously abandoning that heritage to fit into American society.


In the first stanza, the first and last lines parallel each other, both of which ask, "What is Africa to me?" There is also the repeated refrain of "so I lie."

Metonymy and Synecdoche

"Juggernauts of flesh" is used to refer to elephants in the second stanza.


"[W]hen the rain begins to fall;/ like a soul gone mad with pain"

"tall defiant grass"

"rebellious hair"