An Exploration of African Heritage in Countee Cullen's "Heritage"

Categories: Harlem Renaissance

The poem "Heritage" by Countee Cullen serves as a profound exploration of African heritage during the Harlem Renaissance, capturing the collective longing of black individuals to reconnect with their ancestral roots. This essay will delve into the poem's structure and thematic elements, examining the use of auditory, organic, and visual imagery to vividly convey the narrator's emotions, sounds, and visions associated with Africa.


The title "Heritage" coupled with its attribution to Harold Jackman immediately sets the stage for an exploration into the rich cultural tapestry of African heritage.

Cullen, driven by the prevalent social issue of oppression faced by blacks, utilizes this poem to articulate the deep-seated desire of the black community to return to their ancestral homeland. The context of the Harlem Renaissance and the negritude movement further contextualizes the poet's motivation.

Auditory Imagery

Cullen masterfully employs auditory imagery to immerse readers in the sounds experienced by the narrator when contemplating Africa. From the majestic sounds of large animals to the melodious songs of birds in the sky, and the rhythmic beats of drums, the reader is transported into the auditory landscape of the continent.

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Line 12-30, in particular, sees the narrator describing the vibrant soundscape, including the purposeful use of drums—a cultural element with dual significance, associated with both celebrations and wartime. This literary device effectively captures the essence of what the narrator might have heard in Africa, fostering a profound connection between the reader and the cultural experiences portrayed.

Organic Imagery

Organic imagery takes center stage as Cullen aims to evoke the emotions and sensations tied to the narrator's contemplation of Africa.

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In lines 22-30, a series of metaphors unfold, such as the poignant comparison of the narrator's blood to wine, pulsing tides to veins, and the heart to a chaffing net. These metaphors artfully convey the struggles associated with the inability to alter one's black identity. The metaphorical use of wine and pulsing tides amplifies the emotional depth, providing readers with a glimpse into the internal conflicts faced by the narrator. Cullen's strategic use of organic imagery intensifies the reader's connection to the complex web of emotions surrounding the concept of heritage.

Visual Imagery

Visual imagery serves as a powerful tool in Cullen's arsenal, allowing readers to visually perceive the scenes and people of Africa as envisioned by the narrator. The poem opens with an unanswered question, creating a sense of anticipation. In lines 1-10, Cullen skillfully describes the African landscape through the narrator's eyes, referencing the "copper sun" and "scarlet sea," which alludes to the reflection of the sun on the water. The vivid portrayal of the people of Africa, including strong bronzed men and regal black women, provides readers with a visual tour of the continent. Particularly poignant is the reference to queens of Africa and the acknowledgment of the impact of the slave trade on subsequent generations, encapsulated in the phrase "one three centuries removed." Through visual imagery, Cullen effectively enables readers to connect with the narrator's experiences, creating a rich tapestry of cultural and historical significance.


In conclusion, "Heritage" functions as a literary key unlocking the inner thoughts and feelings of the narrator, who serves as a representative figure for the broader black community during the Harlem Renaissance. The poem's thematic exploration of African heritage is expressed with heightened intensity through Cullen's adept use of auditory, organic, and visual imagery. These literary devices play a crucial role in establishing a profound connection between the reader and the poem, enabling a nuanced understanding of the complex emotions associated with the concept of heritage. The relevance of Cullen's work extends beyond its historical context, resonating with contemporary societal issues. Despite the beauty of the country, "Heritage" serves as a poignant reminder of the persistent challenges that shroud the very essence of what the United States once stood for, drawing parallels between historical struggles and the complexities of the present day.

Updated: Dec 29, 2023
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An Exploration of African Heritage in Countee Cullen's "Heritage". (2016, May 15). Retrieved from

An Exploration of African Heritage in Countee Cullen's "Heritage" essay
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