In 1619 the first Africans were taken from their homelands, enslaved, and brought to the British colonies in America. For newly enslaved people, Africa was not abstract but a reality. As scholar Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden writes in African Americans and Africa: A New History: “For the first generation of enslaved, ‘Africa’ was not the concept or place it would become in the imagination of their descendants. They were physically tied to it, having been born on the continent, and with a real connection to it. They were Igbo, Yoruba, Kongo, Mende, Ewe. If asked what Africa meant to them, they would have given concrete answers: named places, told stories, spoke languages of the communities from which they came.” Even though the children and grandchildren of this first generation would not have the same first-hand knowledge of Africa, elements of their ancestors' culture would live on in art, music, ways of speaking, and cuisine.
Yet there was always strong pressure to renounce African culture. Phillis Wheatley, a West African woman who was sold into slavery as a child and brought to North America, learned to read and write and published a book of poetry in 1773. The European, Christian education she was given taught her that Africa was a place of ignorance. In her famous poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” she wrote:
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too.
Here she echoed a common justification of slavery known as “providential design,” the idea that enslavement, however brutal, led slaves to Christianity. She continued in the same vein:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
Their colour is a diabolic die.
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refi n’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Here Wheatley echoed the racist idea that blackness is “diabolic,” but that Africans can be redeemed by religious belief. Cullen's "Heritage" shows how later poets would reject this notion, even if it was still difficult for Cullen to fully embrace the idea of non-Christian religious practices or even a Black Jesus.
In the 19th century, new currents challenged these stereotypes about Africa and Africans. The Back-to-Africa movement grew once Liberia and Sierra Leone became independent countries. Though few freed slaves actually returned to the African continent, this movement allowed for new understandings of African heritage. In 1859 the abolitionist and novelist Martin Delaney, who invented the slogan “Africa for Africans,” was able to visit Liberia. In the 1910s, Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey moved to the United States where he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League which encouraged pride and self-sufficiency among the African diaspora.
These ideas influenced Harlem Renaissance writers who wanted to reclaim the importance of Africa for African Americans and challenge the idea of the continent as a “heart of darkness.” Langston Hughes’ famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) described the Euphrates, Nile, and Congo rivers as the sources of world civilization and stressed the central contributions of Africans throughout history. Gwendolyn Bennett’s poem “Heritage,” published two years before Cullen’s poem of the same name, describes the animals and plants of Africa and stresses the importance of pride in one’s ancestors and history. Yet poets like Claude McKay also recognized how difficult it could be to reach this distant legacy. In “Outcast” (1922) he wrote: “I was born, far from my native clime,/ Under the white man’s menace, out of time.” The more some writers reached for Africa, the more distant and alien it felt. Cullen’s “Heritage” unites these conflicting approaches and emotions.