Heritage (poem)

Heritage (poem) Themes

Alien and Exile

“Heritage” is considered one of the greatest examples of the alien-and-exile theme in African-American literature. This theme encapsulates the double sense of alienation experienced by the descendants of chattel slavery in America. The opening line situates the theme exquisitely. The speaker asks “What is Africa to me” and it becomes an existential conundrum. Millions of African Americans have a connection to an ancestral homeland about which they know little, if anything—and usually nothing, thanks to the enforced severing of all ties that happened during slavery. The speaker in this poem is an iconic figure asking where these generations of dispossessed own their allegiance: to a continent they have no tangible connection to, or to the country that bears the responsibility for dispossessing them of that history and cultural identity?

Race and Christianity

Another important theme explored throughout the poem is the difficulty of being a committed religious believer within a religion subsisting on racially divided iconography. In addition to seeking a way to unite his mysterious African heritage with the present reality of his American life, he is also working toward a unification of traditional white Christian symbology with the paganism of his ancestors. He is most especially distressed with the manner in which Christianity is a white religion not just in terms of physical representation, but in its denial of the darker passions of humanity, viewing the latter as the first step toward this integration:

“Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features”