blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Heritage"

David K. Kirby

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?

from "Countee Cullen's 'Heritage': A Black Waste Land." South Atlantic Bulletin 36.4 (1971)

Jean Wagner

There can hardly be any doubt, then, that Cullen's pagan Africa must be viewed as the projection of half of himself--but no more than half, for just as the two parts of "Heritage" contrast the profane and the sacred and within each part depict the rational constituents of the Western World as locked in combat with the emotional forces of racial atavism, similarly the mystique of race and of its cradle in Africa is but the first stage in the poet's inner striving to effect a reconciliation between irreconcilables and so to attain the unity he longed for.

After emerging victorious from this first stage, he can speak of the pointlessness of "any nebulous atavistic yearnings toward an African inheritance." For by then he had discovered that Africa was only a pretext for escape, an opportunity offered the individual to flee from the relevant reality around him into a cloudland of dream and illusion. When all was said and done, it was an invitation to flee from oneself. And so the dream of Africa becomes, in a way, transformed into the antithesis of any authentic inner life, for the individual is dispensed thereby from the struggle to transcend self, lulled to sleep on the path leading to spiritual values, and provided with an instantaneous gratification of the urges of a tormented psyche. Like jazz, Africa is both opiate and intoxicating whirl, not balm that heals once and for all, since nothing is gained beyond a provisional, illusive, emotional equilibrium.

from Black Poets of the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Houston Baker, Jr.

The vivid descriptions of its fierce flowers and pagan impulses show that Africa is much more than bedtime reading for the narrator. Moreover, when he states that he is trying to move beyond the call of heathen deities, the text leaps forth in refutation. Some critics have faulted Cullen for "Heritage," stating that he makes topographical mistakes and perpetuates the idea of the black man as a "noble savage." Such responses can carry one only so far, however, with a poem as thoroughly ironical as "Heritage." While it is true that there is an undue enthusiasm recurrent in the passages on Africa, it is also true that Cullen was interested in a blatant contrast between the benign and unsmiling deities of the new land and the thoroughly initiated gods of the old. The entire poem is placed in a confessional framework as the narrator tries to define his relationship to some white, ontological being and finds that a black impulse ceaselessly draws him back.

From Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Gerald Early

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.

From My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Ronald E. Sheasby

Many critics have pointed out that Countee Cullen's poetry was written largely in traditional English forms, such as the sonnet, and was heavily influenced by the romantic poets, most of all John Keats. However, no one has yet suggested that Cullen's "Heritage," his best and most famous work, may owe a debt to William Blake's "The Tiger." This paper will.

That a black American of the twentieth century should adopt a style popular among white Englishmen of the previous one offends some people and fills others with pride and pleasure. Those who like it see a black man expressing racial and nonracial themes in traditional and beautiful ways; those who do not like it see a slavish imitation which weakens the antiracist poetry and dilutes the rest.

Gerald Early is one of the latter, calling Cullen's use of traditional forms "quaint and old fashioned." Cullen uses the clause "so I lie" so often in "Heritage" that Early thinks he may be also lying when he says that Africa is important to him (59-60). Early is not certain, but Darwin T. Turner is: he calls Cullen a liar who fakes an African heritage, though being neither particularly black nor militant; his conventional poetic devices mask his pretense. Harvey Curtis Webster agrees, and Blyden Jackson adds the condemnation that Countee was black but had a white outlook.

In Silence to the Drums, Margaret Perry sees Cullen's romantic heritage as a mixed blessing, both inspiring and hampering him, elsewhere comparing him favorably to John Keats. Houston A. Baker, Jr., is also ambivalent: Countee has to use traditional forms to please the white audience and African themes to satisfy the black one; it is perhaps because of this that he is simply "a minor poet" who never achieves the "Vision Splendid."

Alan R. Shucard is unequivocal in his praise: Countee Cullen is an "absolute master of conventional structures and language." Writing with a true lyric gift, Cullen produces pretty poems such as "Heritage." Ronald Primeau sees the Keatsian influence as positive: the imagery and theme of "Heritage" shows traces of the Englishman. Gary Smith adds that Cullen chooses sonnets because those forms lend themselves rather well to syllogistic reasoning, an approach that is used in the racial poems, and Richard Lederer agrees (219-23). And, finally, Baker quotes James Weldon Johnson:

Cullen is a fine and sensitive lyric poet, belonging to the classical line. . . . All of his work is laid within the lines of the long- approved English patterns, and by that very gauge a measure of his gifts and powers as a poet may be taken. The old forms come from his hands filled with a fresh beauty. A high test for a poet.

And so, whether or not Countee "sold out" or heightened his themes by the use of traditional romantic forms, all agree that he did, indeed, use those forms. Let us turn to the poem itself. "Heritage" first appeared in the 1 March 1925 Survey. Since the poem was published well before Cullen's Harvard matriculation (where, incidentally, his studies led him to produce "the first rime royal in America," according to Robert Hillyer), we must turn to his NYU days for a time of composition and possible influences. Apart from school magazines, there is no record of a published poem by Countee Cullen before NYU.

Cullen did not study at NYU under a Blake scholar but he did take most of his courses from a traditionalist--a Keats specialist and a collector of ballads named Hyder Rollins—including a course entitled English Poetry of the Nineteenth Century. Tuttleleton says that Rollins had written books on both Keats and ballads, and adds that "there is no doubt that for Hyder Rollins the English tradition from the Middle Ages onward was the right foundation for a poet." It would not take much of an imagination to picture that somewhere in the above-mentioned two-semester poetry survey course was an analysis of William Blake's "The Tiger." Young Countee's mind must have been like a sponge, incorporating everything he studied—and if he did study Blake's poem, it would not be too much of a surprise to find it reappearing, considerably altered, to be sure, but reappearing nonetheless, in the body of Cullen's poetry! Let us look at both poems in question.

William Blake's "The Tiger" is written in either iambic tetrameter truncated or trochaic tetrameter catalectic. The last stanza exactly repeats the first:

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The second couplet is characterized by a half rhyme-eye and symmetry, and ends with a question; indeed, every stanza in the poem ends with a question which either announces or repeats the theme: "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" The capitalized "Lamb" evokes "the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world," Jesus Christ. According to Robert Hillyer, this poem was a companion piece for "The Lamb," which overtly Christianizes lambs: "He is called by thy name / For he calls himself a lamb." "The Tiger" asks if the creator who made Jesus also made the big cat, suggesting a pagan, non-Christian and lower-case god similar to those described in William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," a god who made the tiger while another lamb-like Christian God made the Iamb and the Lamb. How could one deity make both? Imagery of fire dominates the poem until almost the end. The tiger's eyes are "burning bright," with references to their fire: "What the hand dare seize the fire?" is asked, then "In what furnace was thy brain?" Soon, however, the imagery shifts to water. Stars throw "Down their spears," then water "Heaven with their tears." Having briefly digressed from fire to water, Blake returns to his furnace: "Tiger, tiger, burning bright. . . ." Blake's imagery thus comes full circle, from fire to water and back to fire.

Countee Cullen's "Heritage" is written in either iambic tetrameter truncated or trochaic tetrameter catalectic. He repeats his thematic question "What is Africa to me?" several times, word for word and in variations such as "What's your nakedness to me?" or "What is last year's snow to me?" And he twice repeats an italicized chorus that echoes Blake's opening and closing stanza syllable for syllable, beat for beat:

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

And just as Blake half rhymes "eye" and "symmetry," Cullen half rhymes "removed" and "loved."

The echoes extend far beyond meter and rhyme. As Blake's theme is announced by answering "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" Cullen answers "What is Africa to me?"

Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God
although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part. . . .
Wishing He I serve were black. . . . (Italics mine)

The black narrator trying to relate to a white god is a contradiction at least as striking as a God (or gods) who makes tigers and lambs (or Lambs). The poet is Christian but black; Africa calls to him with the burning eyes of a tiger hidden in the deep, lush, green jungle. There is no release

From the unremittent beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body's street.
Up and down they go, and back,
Treading out a jungle track.

Now the tiger, or at least a near relative, is stalking through Cullen’s poem and body!

Some tiger-like animals appear elsewhere in this poem: cats crouch

. . . 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.

The "monarch claws" suggest lions rather than tigers, but they are both predatory cats—and described as making circles "through the night," not unlike Blake's tiger, eyes aflame "in the forests of the night."

And Blake's "forests of the night" are composed of trees like this:

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

or these:

Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

Water imagery dominates "Heritage," until almost the very end, when it shifts to fire, somewhat the opposite of "The Tiger," which goes from fire to water and back to fire.

So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
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.

The links with Christianity once established ("fount" and "wine"), he continues with water:

So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night—
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, "Strip!
Come and dance the Lover's Dance!"
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.

The poet says that he must "Quench my pride and cool my blood, / Lest I perish in the flood." He then switches images, just as does Blake, and continues:

Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest flax,

and five lines later, concludes his poem.

The narrator's dilemma is that he is neither Iamb nor tiger, pagan nor Christian, native African nor inheritor and modifier of the romantic tradition—and it is in this very dichotomy that "Heritage" most resembles "The Tiger." What sort of world is it, both poets ask, that has meek lambs and barbaric tigers, the Christian God and pagan gods, poets who write out of the romantic tradition but whose ancestors come from darkest Africa? It is the same question which Countee Cullen asks in "Yet Do I Marvel": What sort of God would "make a poet black and bid him sing"? Caucasian William Blake had no such concern—but still in all, he saw the world divided into two parts, and so did Countee Cullen.

There are other differences, as well. Blake's work is much shorter, only twenty-four lines, asking fourteen questions. "Heritage" asks six questions and takes 129 lines to do it. However, Cullen deliberately modeled "The Ballad of the Brown Girl" after an old English source that was either ten or fifteen lines long, depending on the source book. Cullen's ballad is very nearly exactly as much longer than its model as "Heritage" is longer than "The Tiger"!

Cullen's poem, despite its structural similarities to Blake's, flows more rhythmically, pulsing in a manner more evocative of jungle drums, somewhat reminiscent of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." A reader of "The Tiger" sees feline eyes glowing in the dark; a reader of "Heritage" hears "Great drums throbbing through the air."

And finally, Blake writes of a tiger, Cullen about a man. However, that highlights the difference between plagiarism and the sort of modeling (or at least unconscious influence) that I am suggesting. Cullen took bits and pieces—meter, rhyme scheme, symbolism, theme—from Blake and echoed them in his own poem, about his own experiences, in ultimately his own way.

So there are identical meters and rhyme schemes, the repetition of thematically significant questions in both poems. There is a similar dichotomy in both, the Lamb of God versus paganism, and the appearance of predatory felines, as well as the trees of the jungle—and water turning into fire, which turns into water. And, of course, there are all those critics agreeing that Countee Cullen was heavily influenced by traditional English sources.

Are such echoes deliberate, as Cullen's work with ballads was? I do not know—nor do I think anybody does, at least until further evidence appears. They are at the very least unconscious, and it may be that some overt modeling took place, as well. Did he model "Heritage" after "The Tiger"? Perhaps. Was Cullen's poem influenced by Blake's? It seems likely. Did Cullen even read "The Tiger?" Almost certainly, but I can not prove it.

Geniuses such as Countee Cullen are readers before they are poets or novelists—and after they start writing, they continue to read. Almost all writers read voraciously, and many, if not all, write in occasional imitation of those writers they most admire. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes unconscious. It is not important whether or not they occasionally mirror their sources (Need I mention more than Shakespeare?) as it is how well they execute their designs, how well the finished product flows organically. Poetry is meant to be enjoyed, with or without a knowledge of the influences that might have helped shape it. And "Heritage" is a poem that people have enjoyed reading for over two thirds of the twentieth century! It seems petty to criticize its creator for using language more germane to the nineteenth.

from "Dual Reality: Echoes of Blake's Tiger in Cullen's Heritage." College Language Association Journal 39.2 (Dec. 1995).

Michael L. Lomax

White reviews of Color included one uniform and rather predictable response, They all stated that Cullen's real importance was not merely as a black poet writing of his people's experiences but as a poet expressing the universal human experience. "But though one may recognize that certain of Mr. Cullen's verses owe their being to the fact that he shares the tragedy of his people," wrote Babette Deutsch in The Nation, "it must be owned that the real virtue of his work lies in his personal response to an experience which, however conditioned by his race, is not so much racial as profoundly human. The color of his mind is more important than the color of his skin."

Ironically, though, it was this specifically racial element in his work which most forcefully appealed to black reviewers. "His race and its sufferings," wrote Walter White, "give him depth and an understanding of pain and sorrow." White's emphasis was echoed in other black reviews which praised Cullen as the first real spokesman for sensitive and educated blacks who daily suffered through the pressures and hardships of the American racial experience, "The poems which arise out of the consciousness of being a 'Negro in a day like this' in America." wrote Jessie Fauset in The Crisis, ". . . are not only the most beautifully done but they are by far the most significant in the book . . . . Here I am convinced is Mr. Cullen's forte; he has the feelings and the gift to express colored-ness in a world of whiteness. I hope he will not be deflected from continuing to do that of which he has made such a brave, and beautiful beginning." Certainly the "colored-ness" which Jessie Fauset praised as an essential feature of Cullen's first volume was a quality which she sensed rather than a sentiment which she found expressed in clear and forthright statements. There were too many non-racial poems for that; and too many poems in which, as she herself pointed out, "the adjectives 'black' or 'brown' or 'ebony' are deliberately introduced to show that the type which the author had in mind was not white." At least in part, though, this inclusion of non-racial and peripherally black poems did suggest Cullen's own particular brand of "colored-ness." For within the context of Color as a whole, they implied the tentativeness of Cullen's assertions of a strong sense of his own black identity. These poems, appearing along side verse dealing with specifically racial themes, point to the Du Boisean "double-consciousness" as the central contradiction in Cullen's appraisal of his own racial identity. Neither black not white, Cullen saw himself somewhere in between, an undefined individual consciousness for whom "colored" became as good a label as any. Thus, the volume as a whole and several poems in particular are haunted by the unresolved conflict in Cullen's perception of himself as simultaneously a black man and a culturally assimilated though, admittedly, socially ostracized Westerner. This central tension became the source of dramatic conflict in Cullen's and Color's best known poem, "Heritage." In it, Cullen confronted the contradictions within his own identity and, though finally incapable of resolving them, he articulated his emotional and intellectual struggle with honesty and a rarely-achieved eloquence.

The opening lines of "Heritage" introduce Cullen's conflict in terms of tensions between past and present, Africa and America:

[. . . .]

Africa was a frequent symbol in New Negro poetry for a pristine black identity which had not been confused by the values, "progress" and materialism of Western society. Ironically, this pastoral image bore little actual relation to contemporary colonial Africa or even to America three centuries before, but was instead the product of a long tradition of popular literary stereotypes. Cullen's Africa, peopled with wild animals and "young forest lovers ... / Plighting troth beneath the sky," was just another literary conception--part Edgar Rice Burroughs, part courtly romance. Yet, in spite of Cullen's historical naiveté, the essential personal problem still emerges, the conflict between a conscious and intellectualized Western self and a self which intuitively senses a bond with a lost past as well as elements of a degraded present. . . .

Still, at least the conclusion of "Heritage" suggests that Cullen was not quite ready to accept a totally Western identity:

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.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.

. . . . Color is the product of personal struggle in an atmosphere which reinforced all that was racially distinctive. Sophisticated whites were Negrophiles who wanted to see blacks as essentially different from their own boringly Western selves. Cullen, in spite of strong misgivings, was willing to do as many other New Negroes did, and thus he bowed to white desires. So, much of his later writing became a retraction of the position taken during the twenties. But whatever Cullen did and said later, Color remains an impressive and landmark volume, one which quickly established its author as the New Negro poet par excellence.

From "Countee Cullen: A Key to the Puzzle." In Harlem Renaissance Re-examined: A Revised and Expanded Edition. Ed. Victor A. Kramer and Robert A. Russ. Copyright © 1997 by The Whitston Publishing Company.

James Kelley

Locke's antipathy toward decadence and his preference for primitivism are evident in his editing of another hybrid creation: Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage," which appeared in Cullen's first book of poetry, Color, and which Locke republished in a revised form in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, which was devoted to the Harlem Renaissance, and in the anthology The New Negro that grew out of this issue, Locke had praised Color for its culling and mixing of variant strains, including nineteenth-century poetic forms and the "fruit of the Negro inheritance and experience" ("Color—A Review" 14-15). But the version of "Heritage" he included in Survey Graphic and The New Negro differs substantially from the one in Color. Along with the perhaps too revealing dedication to the handsome Harold Jackman, twenty- six of the poem's 128 lines—approximately one-fifth of the total—are missing from the Survey Graphic and New Negro version, and in three places large blocks of text have been rearranged.

It seems probable that Locke rather than Cullen was responsible for these changes. In the posthumously published On These I Stand, a collection of Cullen's poems "selected by himself," "Heritage" appears almost exactly as it had in Color, the only difference is that the space between the last two stanzas has been eliminated, The poem also appears this way in James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (221-25). The form the poem takes in these two publications, both of which followed the special issue of Survey Graphic and The New Negro, suggest that Cullen did not approve of the changes made to his poem; indeed, he may not even have know about them beforehand, As Arnold Rampersad points out, "Locke's editing practice and his craftiness infuriated some of his contributors," and at least one author, Claude McKay, was "incensed . . . when Locke timidly, and without permission, changed the title of his poem ‘The White House’ to ‘White Houses’ in order to avoid possible repercussions" (xxi-xxii).

The strongest indication of Locke's involvement in editing "Heritage" is the nature of the changes themselves, which eliminate the poem's most obviously decadent elements and highlight its primitivism. Cullen's debt to his European literary predecessors, particularly Keats, has long been recognized by scholars of his work. Few scholars, however, have noted the decadent strain running through "Heritage." Even Bergman only hints at this link when he writes that "One can hear some of Prufrock and perhaps a bit of 'Sunday Morning' in the celebratory dance, but most of all Cullen has 'caught the tread of dancing feet,' that Oscar Wilde hears in 'The Harlot's House"' (181).

The sections of "Heritage" excised before publication under Locke's editorial guidance reveal an even more substantial decadent strain. The longest of three sections present in Color but absent from both Survey Graphic and The New Negro begins with the lines "Here no leprous flowers rear / Fierce corollas in the air" (Color 37). These flowers, like the "strange" and "sick flowers" of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Ave Atque Vale"—"Sweet-smelling, pale with poison, sanguine-hearted" (57)—reek of the fin-de-siecle decadence that both Locke and Du Bois identified as the bane of the African American artist. In addition, this section contains clear echoes of the "Ballade des Dames du Temps Perdu" by Francois Villon, whose poetic skill and criminal tendencies had earned him a place of honor among many aesthetes and decadents of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Other, smaller elements of the poem also reveal Cullen's debt to the European decadents, and it appears that Locke altered many of these as well. For example, "Quick and hot" is replaced with "Faint and slow" in the following passage, reducing its emotional charge:

Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes (Color 40)

Such changes suggest that Locke pruned the poem to eliminate its decadent elements and make it conform more fully to his own disciplined and classical aesthetic.

Even more significant, however, were the changes made in the poem's final stanzas, which highlight its primitivism. What had been the last stanza in Color was moved in Survey Graphic and The New Negro to a position much earlier in the poem, and what then became the last two stanzas were altered as well. The penultimate stanza underwent an internal reversal of the first and second quatrains so that it begins with the speaker's conversion and repudiation of the "Heathen gods" and ends with a sympathetic description of those gods. In Color, the stanza reads:

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.

But in Survey Graphic and The New Negro, it reads:

My conversion came
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility:
Heathen gods are naught to me--

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own.
        (Survey Graphic 675; The New Negro 252)

The Survey Graphic and New Negro version then ends with the eighth of the nine sections in Color, with the last rhyming couplet set apart for emphasis: "Lord, forgive me if my need / Sometimes shapes a human creed."

These revisions effect a subtle shift of emphasis in the poem. In its original form, "Heritage" dramatizes the agony of being torn between a Christian present and a renounced pagan past. But in Survey Graphic and The New Negro it conveys a sense of reconciliation in the recovery of an African artistic legacy.

A comparison of the illustrations accompanying the different versions of Cullen's poem reveals the same conflict of influences and literary sources, the same tension between the primitive and the decadent. Color is illustrated with drawings that are almost certainly the work of Charles Cullen, a white male artist who is credited with similar designs in Countee Cullen's two subsequent volumes of poetry, which appeared in 1927. The shared surname is accidental but implicitly transgressive in its suggestion of kinship and relations between men across racial boundaries, and the drawings in Color present nude men, white as well as black, sometimes muscled but more often androgynous, alongside burning candles and dripping lilies that seem to draw their inspiration from art nouveau, if not more directly from the late nineteenth-century decadent works of Aubrey Beardsley (see Figures 1 and 2 for examples). In Survey Graphic, on the other hand, "Heritage" is illustrated by photographs of two African statutes (one of which can be seen in Figure 3) and two African masks, which reappeared in The New Negro as illustrations to Locke's essay "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts." These images clearly reflect Locke's African classicism, and their flat, self-contained, and highly conventionalized features contrast starkly with the sensuous curves and implicitly erotic imagery in Charles Cullen's drawings, which Countee Cullen himself had chosen to accompany his work.

Bergman notes correctly that "’Heritage’ introduces Locke’s essay on ‘The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts’ in the anthology The New Negro and forms—since Locke was the editor of the anthology—a gloss on Locke’s position" (180). But the poem can be read this way only because it was altered in ways that eliminated its decadent elements and reinforced its primitivism. Yet it is Cullen’s hybrid version—bereft of its illustrations but nonetheless exhibiting its mixture of paganism and Christianity, primitivism and decadence—which persists, ripe with potential, in subsequent anthologies and discussions of the poem.

Ripe with utopian potential, one is tempted to add. The earliest OED listings pair the term hybrid with adjectives such as monstrous and grotesque, a connection that may originate in the hybrid's violation of the Levitical codes against mixing. Further OED entries show that the word hybrid was scarcely in use until the nineteenth century, a period that witnessed the emergence of categorizations and classifications on an unprecedented scale, particularly in descriptions of plant and animal species, human races and cultures, and sexual orientations (523). In its transgression of such boundaries—whether national, racial, or sexual—the hybrid promises to resist, challenge, and undo these categories. Cullen's poetry engages in such acts of undoing even as it constructs a hybridized and eroticized artistic lineage that permits the poet to voice forbidden desires in original and experimental ways. The changes that Locke appears to have made in the Survey Graphic and The New Negro, black-on-white illustrations that accompanied the poem in Color, have no doubt perpetuated a distorted view of Cullen's work, but they cannot completely erase its racially as well as sexually transgressive power.

See Cullen, Countee. Color. New York: Harper, 1925; Cullen, Countee. "Heritage." Survey Graphic 53.11 (March 1, 1925): 674-75; and Locke, Alain. "Color -- A Review." Opportunity 4 (January 1926): 14-15.

From "Blossoming in Strange New Forms: Male Homosexuality and the Harlem Renaissance." Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 80:4 (Winter 1997): 498-517

heritage.jpg (419967 bytes) 

Peter Powers

This bifurcation between public responsibility and private desire is evident throughout "Heritage," a poem that is, of course, about the problematic status of Africa in Cullen's imagination and in the Harlem Renaissance in general, and about the sense of split between a pagan self and a Christian or civilized self. Without denying these readings, I wish to point out that this poem is also clearly about the conflicted desire of the poet's own body, particularly a desire directed toward the male body. The narrator of the poem lies, apparently in bed and alone, meditating on the nature of his own body. In this body he feels "the unremittant beat / Made by cruel padded feet / Walking through my body's street. / Up and down they go, and back, / Treading out a jungle track" (106). The beat alluded to in the first line is a figure for bodily desire in the poem, though Cullen separates this from the body itself and figures his desire as something walking on him cruelly, as if dominating and beating down his body in some all but unbearable manner. A similar linking of anguish and desire occupies the next lines, as the body is no longer simply trod upon by desire but writhes in response:

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;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, "Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover's Dance!
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day. (106)

The evident anguish here replicates that caused by the cruel padded feet of the earlier line. However, here the poet's body responds by twisting, squirming, and writhing, movements easily seen as sexual passion, but a sexual passion identified with entrapment. Rather than imagining sexual ecstasy as a form of self-fulfillment, the narrator feels himself a baited worm, a body trapped by desires beyond his ability to control, desires in fact that are imperious and demanding, calling for the narrator to "strip" and to "dance," verbs used in the imperative voice. Desire calls the poet to reveal himself fully and to cease lying; that is, to get up and act on his sexual desires but also to give up his duplicitous, double life, and reveal himself for who he is as a desiring being.

The linking of erotic desire and enslavement is not an unusual combination in the romantic literary tradition. In the context of Cullen's growing awareness of himself as a public figure embodying the hopes and longings of other people, the bifurcation takes on particular resonances. The poem is dedicated to Harold Jackman, Cullen's male lover of longest standing. Given that, it is intriguing that the opening segments of the poem evoke images of sexuality that are clearly heterosexual and/or reproductive in character. The "Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women from whose loins I sprang" and the "Jungle boys and girls in love" are fairly commonplace images of Africa for the time. However, these , strong images of heterosexual racial pride are associated with an Africa toward which the narrator has an ambivalent attitude, an identification he can only make through a cerebral engagement with books. More important is the drumbeat within his own blood, the desires that would call him to "strip" and cast aside his bookish images of Africa in favor of the dance. For Cullen, of course, such book learning was one of the most important .sources of his public authority. Moreover, the clothes he is called upon to leave behind symbolize the public face of respectability, the outward symbol of a civilized, educated, and clearly heterosexual Christian gentleman who, writhing on his bed at night, has desires for something which a civilized, educated, and clearly heterosexual Christian gentleman ought not to desire. Thus the dream, or desire, is always deferred. As a black gay man expected to perform in a number of publicly prescribed ways, the narrator here feels the necessity of keeping his desiring black body safely in the closet—or, in Cullen's case, safely encased within his ill-fitting suits and Phi Beta Kappa Key—unstripped, unrevealed, and writhing on his bed of lies.

That Cullen concludes the poem with an imagined prayer to Christ partially replicates this more general effort to protect the body. But at the end of "Heritage," Cullen is attempting desperately to reconcile his reasonable desire for safety with his longing to express his erotic desire for black men, and attempting to reconcile all of this with a desire to assert a black masculinity that will be taken to be fully manly even if it happens to be gay. Thus an angry and erotically compelling black Christ is a "dark god" that Cullcn "fashions" so that he can have a black male with whom he can identify. This Christ has "Dark despairing features" that are "Crowned with dark rebellious hair," figures that suggest sexual vitality as well as Cullen's resentment at perpetually deferred sexual self-revelation. Nevertheless, even after fashioning such a Christ, Cullen withdraws from what he takes as an impetuous act of creation, begging forgiveness of the Lord because his "need" or desire "Sometimes shapes a human creed." Thus, in the poem's conclusion, the narrator follows not the imperative to "strip," as called for by his hot desire, but the imperative of self-renunciation: "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." Whereas his days and nights at the beginning and in middle of the poem have been wracked by desire and the imperative to act, even by the imperative to shape a black god who could fill his "need," the poem concludes with an assertion of the need for self-protection.

The rejection of the Black Christ is peculiar on any number of scales. While much has been made of the embrace of a white Jesus throughout much of African American Christianity at the time, Cullen's longing that "he I served were black" is hardly novel to Cullen or to the Black Theology movement of the 1960s. Among the educated and middle-class ministerial circles in which Cullen moved, assertions of a Black Christ were relatively common (Douglas 9-34). Such images also had broad popular appeal in Harlem. In direct appeals to the masses, Garveyites incorporated the notion of a Black Christ, a Black God, and a Black Madonna into their quasi-religious ritualism, and the Cullen household had been known to take the Garveyites seriously. Thus, proclaiming a Black Christ was not a radical notion, though the depiction of a highly eroticized Black Christ was. However mildly heterodox the notion of a Black Christ might have been, what is truly unique and potentially disturbing to middle-class Afro-Christians or white readers is the depiction of an eroticized Christ whom the male narrator finds attractive. When the narrator wishes for a Black Christ so that his heart would not lack "Precedence of pain to guide it," the pain to be recalled within the poem itself is primarily that of the illicit and "unChristian" sexual desire that pierces his body like a hook. Indeed, the narrator reinscribes the problematic public-private split that is complicating Cullen's erotic desires when he wants the Black Christ to be able to feel his pain, "Let who would or might deride it" (107). The narrator longs for an acceptably public male object of desire, one who would release him from the pain of public censure, dismissing those who would deride him. One thinks here of the snickering nubile girls that Lewis evokes in his description of Cullen's social position in the Renaissance (76). In the predominantly Christian environs of Harlem, what could be more publicly acceptable than Christ himself? The problem, then, is not simply the blackness of Christ, but a black Christ who can experience the pain of desire. While the former was well within the realm of acceptable speculative possibility, the latter could have been scandalous to the predominantly heterosexual Harlemites as well as the proper white folks to whom Cullen's verses appealed, supportive readers who may have indulged the sexual failings of one of their leading lights but could hardly have accepted having those sexual failings baptized in the image of Christ.

So it is not surprising that at the end of "Heritage" the narrator chooses survival. If his heart and head—his private longings, thoughts, and desires—have not yet realized they are civilized, he at least must guard against the destructive flood their publicity might entail. He seeks to cool his blood, an image of the death of his desire that avoids the social death that his stripping might occasion. Indeed, perhaps it is not accidental that in the collection Color, Cullen chose to follow "Heritage" with "For a Poet," wherein he imagines his dreams wrapped in a silken cloth and buried in a coffin-like box, a form of psychic death that purchases a form of public freedom.

"Heritage" is often taken to be Cullen's best poem. In many ways it foreshadows the obsessions that mark Cullen's poetry throughout the rest of his career, particularly an obsession with the need to sacrifice individual desire for some greater good, often but not exclusively associated with Christianity.

from "'The Singing Man Who Must be Reckoned With': Private Desire and Public Responsibility in the Poetry of Countee Cullen." African American Review 34.4 (Winter 2000).

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Cullen’s poem offers a rich argument about the compelling contradictory emotions that the visionary fantasy of Africa sets off in him. He tries to resist these emotions, and the striking gods of polytheistic religion, in favor of Christianity. But with austere Marvellian resonance — in the urbane couplets of Marvell’s Horatian ode, the speaker claims to hear drums booming even when he stops his own ears against the tempting throbbing. He desires that his God be black, he feels an urgent dance rhythm, and, in the fierce last lines whose tri-syllable couplet rhyme is a measure of the control which the poem has elaborated, he admits such temptation from the drumming, that his head and heart have not "realized" that he is, and needs to remain, "civilized." Primitivist tropes within New Black modernity seem to be a way of showing such self-divisions. Yet Cullen also claims not to be interested in "nebulous atavistic yearnings toward an African inheritance" (1927, xi). One might venture that he does not want the Africa topos to be either controlled by or provoked by the expectations of others.

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.

Return to Countee Cullen