How does Countee Cullen represent "double consciousness" in his poem titled "Heritage," and how do the questions related to religion complicate the sense of double-consciousness?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of “double consciousness” – the idea that African Americans often see themselves as they are seen by whites and often think of themselves in relation to white culture and standards – definitely seems apparent in Countee Cullen’s poem titled “Heritage.” Even the title itself is subtly relevant to this kind of split, since, as the poem shows, the speaker feels torn between at least two different kinds of heritage – the heritage of his African ancestry and original African civilization, and the heritage of his status as an American and a Christian.

Although the entire poem can be read as a reflection on this dilemma, several passages seem especially relevant to the theme. Thus, the first six lines of the poem seem simply to celebrate the various attractions of Africa, but then in line 7 the speaker suddenly defines himself as

One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved (7-8)

and then asks,

Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

What is Africa to me? (9-10)

Much of the rest of the poem then ponders this uncomfortable position – of being aware of one’s African heritage without being able truly to participate in it, both because of geographical and of psychological distance from it. The speaker thinks about Africa and wishes he could experience it in all its sensual beauty (11-18). Even though he tries not to think about Africa – perhaps because he considers such thoughts impractical, or perhaps because he realizes that too much of an interest in Africa might be frowned on (especially by whites) – he cannot cease such thinking (19-30). Later he asks,

Africa? A book one thumbs

Listlessly, till slumber comes.   (31-32)

His knowledge of Africa is mostly merely book-knowledge. Books themselves represent one of the ways in which white, western culture is preserved, taught, and transmitted. Even the books the speaker reads about Africa are probably written by whites and probably adopt a white, western perspective. Even the speaker’s efforts to learn about his heritage, in other words, are probably guided by people other than Africans themselves.  All the vivid details he thinks of when he contemplates Africa may simply be details derived from his reading, not from any real first-hand experience (33-44). Once more the speaker emphasizes both his literal and his figurative distance from Africa (45-59), and once more the speaker repeats the language already quoted at length above (60-63).

Nevertheless, the speaker contains to remain obsessed with thoughts of Africa (64-70), yet he finds no peace in those thoughts, which are both alluring and tormenting (71-84).  He is doubly dispossessed – not only from the land and its people but also from African gods. He is a Christian, and his Christianity distances him even further from Africa, not only emotionally and intellectually but also spiritually (85-92). When he thinks of himself, he can no longer think of himself as mainly an African; instead, he is an American Christian who also happens to be black. He can never forget either aspect of his complex (one might even say divided) identity (93-128).

Ironically, the Christian religion that should ideally give the speaker peace, comfort, and consolation only makes him feel all the more divided, all the more subject to "double consciousness.'


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