Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cullen’s poem reflects ideas about the relationship of the superego’s learned behavior and the desires of the subconscious mind that were being considered by many American intellectuals in the 1920’s as they became familiar with the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and his colleagues. “Heritage” also reflects the identity crisis peculiar to black Americans that W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), diagnosed as a kind of “double consciousness” caused by a racist society’s refusal to accept African Americans as citizens and social equals.

In “Heritage” the poet specifically engages the question of how a person’s self-esteem is affected by ethnicity and the desire to be proud of one’s ancestry. This was a particularly troublesome issue for black Americans. Standard reference authorities such as the 1910 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica contended that, unlike Europeans, Africa’s peoples were childlike primitives inhabiting “a continent practically without a history.” Such stereotypical images were further propagated by novels, films, and travel articles. The popular National Geographic Magazine in particular, with reports of “expeditions” led by luminaries such as former President Theodore Roosevelt, highlighted the primitive and exotic aspects of the continent. Even among African Americans, the militant Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)—launched by the...

(The entire section is 571 words.)