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Heritage Countee Cullen

“What is Africa to me?” (Cullen, Line 10). Heritage is an African American poem by Countee Cullen that was written during the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen was born in a primarily white upbringing; therefore he had no experience in African culture or heritage and was confused. His African heritage concerns him; yet, because he must adapt to the orders of a mostly white culture that is not concerned with his cultural origins. This poem is primarily the internal conflict of Countee Cullen on the dilemma of a modern African American aware of his rich Native African heritage but stranded in a sterile conformist American culture that offer him only stereotypical insight into his heritage and no true unbiased perception of his own culture.

In Heritage Cullen uses literary devices such as imagery, symbolism and irony to show that he is conflicted on his view of his African heritage. Cullen uses imagery as a literary device to show his confusion of African heritage. Thus Cullen begins with a question concerning the nature of an abstract and rather remote Africa.

“What is Africa to me, copper sun or scarlet sea, jungle star or jungle track, strong bronzed men, or regal black, women from whose loins I sprang, when the birds of Eden sang” (Cullen, Lines 1-6).

This quote shows how Cullen lists some concrete images which serve as specific emphases for his conflicting views of his native land. This shows an African Americans point of view of Africa. For example in the phrase “jungle star or jungle track”; the first part “jungle star” has a positive connotation and the second part “jungle track” has a negative connotation.

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In a way the positive connotations represent African perspective and the negative connotations represent African perspective. “Sung by wild barbaric birds, Goading massive jungle herds, Juggernauts of flesh that pass, Trampling tall defiant grass, Where young forest lovers lie, Plighting troth beneath the sky” (Cullen, Lines 13-17). In contrast to the first quotes the second imagery quote shows a purely American perspective of Africa. This quote shows the constant stereotypical view of Africa that Cullen was fed for his whole childhood. This quote compared to the first shows that Africa was a wild barbaric place.

These two perspectives really confused him. Not only does Cullen use imagery as a literary device to show his confusion on his heritage but he also uses symbolism as a literary device that show this too. Cullen furthermore uses a symbolism of the drum to show that even if he tries he cannot block out his heritage. “So I lie, who always hear, though I cram against my ear, both my thumbs, and keep them there, great drums throbbing through the air” (Cullen, Lines 19-22). This quote shows that he is trying to block out his heritage.

Despite this effort he still hears the drum which symbolizes tribal beats from Africa. This shows that American culture has forced Cullen to deny the primitive African rhythms that pulses through his body. “Who find no peace, night or day, no slight release, from the unremittent beat, made by cruel padded feet, walking through my body’s street” (Cullen, Lines 64-68). In this quote reassures the point that he feels this tribal beat no matter what he does or what his condition he feels the beat within his blood and bones that he cannot get rid of. Not only does the author use symbolism as a literary device to illustrate his dilemma on his heritage but he also uses irony as another tool to show it.

Finally Cullen uses irony to show that he still has not come to term about what his true heritage really is. “I belong to Jesus Christ… although I speak with my mouth thus, in my heart, do I play a double part, ever at thy glowing altar, must my heart grow sick and falter, wishing he I served were black” (Cullen, Lines 96-101). This quote show irony because he states that he belongs to Christ, but later on he states that truly in his heart he wishes his god was black like him. This show that even if he thinks that he has decided which side to choose he still has not truly done so. “Nor yet has my heart or head, in the least way realized, they and I are civilized” (Cullen, Lines 126-128). This quote shows that he still has not decided yet; but he still ironically he still says “they and I are civilized”. This is ironic because the line before “Nor yet has my heart or head, in the least way realized” contradicts this statement.

In this African American poem to show that he is conflicted on his view of his African heritage, Cullen uses literary devices such as imagery, symbolism and irony. The circumstances he grew up with did not show him the perspective of his people; he was constantly give only the American point of view of Africa. This gave him a great internal dilemma of his own heritage because in his blood he had pride. At the end of this poem he is still conflicted about what his stance truly is. The lesson of this poem is that despite where you live and what biased information you are given you can never forget your roots.

Work Cited

  1. Cullen, Countee. “Heritage.” The Poetry Foundation : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry. The Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Cite this page

Heritage Countee Cullen. (2016, Aug 21). Retrieved from

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