Gerald Early: On "Heritage"

Some readers have criticized "Heritage" for not offering more realistic images of Africa, decrying Cullen’s ignorance but that is one of the levels on which the poem, the narrator is lying. These images of Africa are lies; certainly Cullen knew that. But is the poem also lying when it suggests that Africa means nothing to the narrator? Or is the poem lying when it suggests that Africa means anything to the narrator? Or is this very interiorized speech-act, speech-event poem nothing more than the system of lies that the impotent black intellectual uses to heal his own sickness of alienation and despair? The poem deals with the black narrator's own trinity: body ("the dark blood dammed within" and the word "dammed" of course is a pun), mind ("Africa? A book one thumbs / listlessly, till slumber comes"), and heart/spirit ("Lord, forgive me if my need / Sometimes shapes a human creed"), which has been thoroughly "civilized" or acculturated, trapped in language and reflection, a room of nothing but sound. But that whole business might be lies as well. The poem does not solve anything as the speaker can neither experience true conversion--the only act that can save him--nor deny it.


Title Gerald Early: On "Heritage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Gerald Early Criticism Target Countee Cullen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 11 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen
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