David K. Kirby: On "Heritage"

An ethnic work by its very nature will appeal first to a minority of readers; if it is successful not only in its appeal to ethnic interests but also in its ability to attract a wider readership as well, then it has transcended its ostensibly narrow focus and it becomes a work of art in the universal sense. This is the case with Cullen’s poem "Heritage," which I have called a black Waste Land because it deals with the same basic dilemma as the Eliot poem—that of the modern individual, aware of his rich heritage yet stranded in a sterile, conformist culture—and because it shares with that poem some similar imagery.

"Heritage" consists of seven stanzas, and I believe that it can be understood best if one considers each of these as a distinctive unit and also as a part of the whole; with this in mind, I have presumed to assign to each stanza a title, much as Eliot entitled each section of his poem.

Stanza I (quoted below in its entirety) I have called "The Question" because it poses the recurring question of the poem:

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? One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me?

Thus Cullen begins with a question concerning the nature of an abstract and rather remote Africa. He then lists some concrete images which serve as specific foci for his speculations: sun and sea, sky and earth, man and woman. The fact that the next few lines are italicized indicates a shift of viewpoint as the persona turns inward and makes an attempt to place himself subjectively in relation to his heritage. However, having considered all the ramifications—external and internal, public and private, tangible and intangible—he still has no answer to his question, and so he poses it once more in the last line. The rest of the poem represents his attempt at an answer.

Stanza II I call "The Flood" after its controlling image. It begins:

So I lie, who all day long Want no sound except the song 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.

In the section of The Waste Land entitled "The Fire Sermon," the romance of bygone days as represented by the affair of Elizabeth and Leicester is depicted as far superior to the loveless fornication of the modern couple, the "young man carbuncular" and his blasé lady friend. The lines above deal with an analogous situation; here the healthy and life-creating sex of the persona’s ancestors (cf. a similar image in the first stanza) becomes for him merely an autoerotic fantasy.

It is of significance that the persona spends his days recumbent, dreaming of the sights and sounds of his native country. He is in effect paralyzed: caught between two cultures, he is as impotent as Eliot’s Fisher King (these lines also recall another image of ineffectual man, that of the "patient etherized upon a table" which begins "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"). His African heritage preoccupies him; yet, because he must conform to the dictates of a predominantly white culture that is not concerned with his ethnic origins, he is forced to deny the primitive rhythms that pulse through his body:

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.

The stanza ends with an image of the conflict between his "fount of pride," his consciousness of his heritage, and the social strictures which are imposed upon him:

With the dark blood damned within Like great pulsing tides of wine That, I fear, must burst the fine channels of the chafing net Where they surge and foam and fret.

A hasty reader might consider this image of a net which contains a flood an unsuccessful one. Of course a net cannot contain a flood, but that is precisely the point: that sooner or later, his pride will be manifest in a heady, intoxicating rush against which the strictures of a repressive society are of no avail.

In a temporal sense, these lines point in both directions. In the first place, they point to the past, in that the net recalls the method of entrapment used against the original slaves. In addition, the image is prophetic as well insofar as it foreshadows the reawakening of black pride that took place in this country in the 1960’s.

The third stanza may be entitled "The Net," since it deals with the persona’s attempts to adhere to the conformist practices of his society, to control his pride by denying it. He reduces his native land, which is boundless in his imagination, to an insignificant artifact of the white culture:

Africa? A book one thumbs Listlessly, till slumber comes.

He pretends to disavow the natural images that preoccupied him in the previous stanza, but the detail with which he describes them gives the lie to his avowed unconcern:

Unremembered are her bats Circling through the night, her cats Crouching in the river reeds, Stalking gentle flesh that feeds By the river brink; no more Does the bugle-throated roar Cry that monarch claws have leapt From the scabbards where they slept.

He addresses himself to the snakes, traditional symbols of power, and explains that he has not interest in them:

Silver snakes that once a year Doff the lovely coats you wear, Seek no covert in your fear Lest a mortal eye should see; What’s your nakedness to me?

By implication, he is also uninterested in what the snakes stand for. He pretends to be unconcerned with the power that his heritage can bestow upon him, power that would certainly pose a threat to his adopted society.

Again the image of primitive love occurs:

Here no bodies sleek and wet, Dripping mingled rain and sweat, Tread the savage measures of Jungle boys and girls in love.

The last lines of this stanza are particularly concerned with time; in an apparent reference to Villon’s well-known refrain, he asks:

What is last year’s snow to me, Last year’s anything? . . .

The reason for his apparent lack of concern is made clear in the image of the budding tree which follows:

. . . The tree Budding yearly must forget How its past arose or set.

The implication is that society, for its own safety, must insist that the majority of its members function in regular, cyclical patterns. The persona realized that, if he is to do this, he had better disengage himself form the contemplations of his origins. He must have no past, only a present; the more closely he resembles a tree—a mindless organism which functions according to a predictable pattern—the better. Here Cullen turns a natural image against the persona in order to indicate the full desperation of his plight.

The fourth stanza may be entitled "The Rain":

So I lie, who never quite Safely sleep from rain at night— I can never rest at all When the rain begins to fall; Like a soul gone mad with pain I must match its weird refrain.

These lines are significant in several ways. (Of course they are at least superficially appropriate in that much of Africa is subject to the torrential rainfalls that are peculiar to the tropics.) In the first place, there is the implication that the persona is closely allied with natural forces, as some of the images previously discussed have indicated. Too, this alliance is one that dates back to the very beginnings of his race, as he vaguely senses: "In an old remembered way / Rain works on me night and day."

However, the image of the rain does more than merely reinforce certain ideas that have already been introduced. A parallel may be drawn between this stanza and that section of The Waste Land which is entitled "What the Thunder Said," for just as the Thunder speaks to the Fisher King in Sanscrit, the mother of all Western tongues, so the rain speaks to the persona of "Heritage" in a primal language that he understands. It is also in this stanza that another similarity in imagery between the two poems becomes apparent, for both poems deal with the impending flood (alluded to in the second stanza of "Heritage" as well), the waters that will wash away the old, the dry, and the sterile and prepare the world for fertility and growth.

The brief fight stanza I shall call "The Gods"; it deals first with the pagan deities of Africa:

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods Black men fashion out of rods, Clay, and brittle bits of stone, In a likeness like their own.

The lines that follow deal with the God of the white culture and the sacrifice that the persona has made in accepting Him over the black gods of Africa:

My conversion came high priced; I belong to Jesus Christ, Preacher of humility; Heathen gods are naught to me.

Note, in the final line of this stanza, the familiar yet (by now) somewhat hollow disclaimer by the persona of his heritage. As we shall see in the next stanza, the persona, like his forebears, does indeed fashion a deity in a likeness that is similar to his own.

In the sixth stanza, which I have called "The Black Christ," the personal addresses the son of God directly:

Ever at thy glowing altar Must my head grow sick and falter, Wishing he I served were black, Thinking then it would not lack Precedent of pain to guide it, Let who would or might deride it; Surely then this flesh would know Yours had borne a kindred woe.

The persona’s point is well taken. The Biblical Christ is referred to as a "man of sorrows," and certainly the black, by nature of his status in a white culture, is a man of sorrows in a secular sense. If blackness and suffering are so closely related in the persona’s mind, then his Christ perforce must be a black one. In the lines that follow, the persona again makes clear the relation between himself and his past as he emulates the iconographic activity of his ancestors:

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

Thus, unable to practice the lost religion of his forefathers and equally unable to worship the white man’s Christ, the persona has taken the significant features of the two public modes of worship and has made from them a private variety. His black Christ is a personal synthesis of the heathen god and the Christian one. It should be noted, however, that the persona’s deity can afford him only temporary consolation and that the basic problem—the conflict of the two cultures in his mind—is still unresolved.

The last stanza I have called "Fire and Water."

All day long and all night through One thing only must I do: Quench my pride and cool my blood, Lest I perish in the flood.

The central image of the flood, mentioned in the second and fourth stanzas, is mentioned again, as are the fears of the persona that the flood of pride will burst forth and overwhelm him, washing away the props of whatever stability he may have acquired. He recognizes, however, that there is danger from another quarter as well:

Lest a hidden ember set Timber that I though was wet Burning like the driest flax. . . .

The persona is thus trapped between the waters of pride and the fires of frustration; again, the ideas of impotence and paralysis are reinforced. Further, there is in these lines an ominous suggestion that the forces of pride and frustration (which are antithetical, as the images of fire and water suggest) may cancel each other out and destroy the persona, who is caught in the middle.

The final lines of this stanza serve as a commentary upon the entire poem:

Nor yet has my heart or head In the least way realized They and I are civilized.

Here again the similarity between "Heritage" and The Waste Land is apparent. Both poems deal with the gap that exists between contemporary man, who is sensitive to his cultural heritage, and the society which seems dry and sterile in comparison. The word "civilized" is used ironically here, for surely the persona—and the reader as well, by this point—realizes that the word in this context has rather uncharacteristically negative connotations, at least as far as the persona’s own "heart" and "head" are concerned.

"Heritage" was collected in Cullen’s first book of poems, entitled Color. Beneath the last lines of the poem there is a drawing of a powerful black figure with his hands clasped tightly over his ears. He is sitting in a jungle glade which has a dreamlike or visionary quality about it; a light rain is falling. Like the Fisher King in Eliot’s poem, the persona is last seen sitting and waiting for the rain which will wash away the sterile culture and make possible a new fertility. I have mentioned earlier that "Heritage" was a prophetic poem; it would seem that its prophecy is being fulfilled today in that so many blacks have cast off the skin lighteners and hair straighteners that an essentially alien culture has forced upon them and have taken up the colorful garb of their native land, the "natural" hairdo, and the study of such language as Swahili. It is as though the black American has discovered his roots in another culture because he has none in this one. One wonders; if the white man were similarly disadvantaged, would he pine with equal intensity for the lost heritage of which Eliot writes?

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Title David K. Kirby: On "Heritage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David K. Kirby Criticism Target Countee Cullen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 11 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Countee Cullen's 'Heritage': A Black Waste Land
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