Heritage (poem)

Heritage (poem) Summary

In “Heritage,” Countee Cullen asks what importance Africa has for the descendants of slaves in America. The poem is about a confusion of identity. On the one hand, the speaker of the poem describes himself as Christian and is at pains to downplay the significance of an Africa several generations removed. On the other hand, the powerful images of the “copper sun,” “scarlet sea,” “spicy groves” and the “cinnamon tree” suggest that African heritage has a power over him that is both a reason for pride and a source of shame. The speaker describes himself as tortured by the animals, plants, rain, drums, and gods of Africa. While the speaker begins the poem with a self-assured tone and an assertation that Africa means nothing to him, it ends with him wanting to strip off his clothes and worship a black god who looks like him. The poem expresses the pain of being forcibly deprived of one’s heritage and suggests that the ways of the ancestors cannot but live in the blood of the descendants. Despite centuries of repression, religious conversion, and geographical distance, the poem suggests, heritage cannot but continue to matter to members of the African diaspora living in America.