How do I analyze the ideas and images in Countée Cullen's 1927 poem, "Heritage"?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Countée Cullen's poem, "Heritage" is one of the important texts of a movement known as the "Harlem Renaissance", a term describing a group of African-American writers who lived and worked in New York City (in an area of northern Manhattan known as Harlem) in the 1920s. Cullen's work combines the desire for an aesthetics of "Negritude", the reclaiming of African heritage, with a profound knowledge of English poetic technique, including the influence of the Romantic movement, and the lapidary technical perfection of Houseman. 

The meter of the poem is catalectic trochaic tetrameter, a meter rarely used for entire poems, albeit found in Oberon's dialogue with Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, some of Housman's Shropshire Lad, and most importantly in the important "Stabat mater", a medieval description of the suffering of the Virgin Mary that has become a staple of liturgical music:

Stabat mater dolorosa

iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,

dum pendebat Filius.

The suffering of the narrator in the poem is thus set up in relationship to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross and Mary by Cullen, who was adopted and raised by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The Africa of the poem is portrayed as prelapsarian, or Edenic, filled with stunningly beautiful wildlife and people living happily in a state of nature, contrasted with the unhappy world of the urban United States. The speaker's (racial) exile from Africa, like a fall from the Garden of Eden, is associated with loss of innocence and strained faith in the midst of suffering. In traditional Christian theology, the reconciliation of God and man after the fall is effected by the birth of Jesus, the perfect sacrificial lamb atoning for the (original) sins of the whole world. For Cullen, the healing from the separation from Africa within his Christian faith should also be found in Christ's sacrifice, but Cullen struggles to accept that a Christ portrayed as white can offer the emotional solace from this second expulsion from an African Eden, especially as it was not caused by Africans' own sins, but by white slavers. Instead, to be fully redeemed from this double fall, Cullen must imagine Christ as himself black. The theology here is quite sophisticated, with the author struggling to balance human emotional needs against his understanding that his need to adapt God to his own human limitations is a form of idolatry.

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