In the poem "Heritage" by Countee Cullen, what do the lines in the first stanza mean?
"One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved
Spicy grove and banyan tree,
What is Africa to me?"
In the first stanza of this poem, Cullen is posing a personal question to himself and his readers. What is Africa to me? The rest of the poem attempts to answer that one guiding question. A major idea of the poem is contained in the title, "Heritage." As a descendant of former slaves who were brought to America from Africa, Cullen ponders what life would have been like in Africa. He is "three centuries removed" from when his ancestors lived in Africa free. Three hundred years later, he wonders what the "spicy grove" and "cinnamon tree" were like. He thinks about things his "fathers" loved about his homeland, but he can only imagine his ancestral heritage because of the distance between him and his ancestors' past. Time has caused the feelings and emotions he should feel toward Africa to subside, and Cullen is trying to regain that connection to the past.
He imagines the strength of his people, the different colors of their skin, and the women who gave birth to his ancestors. He even wonders if Africa is this "Eden" or just a jungle with wild birds and animals as he tries to determine where he fits in the lineage of his ancestors. This duality (Eden vs. jungle) is confusing to Cullen, for he is on a quest to define for himself what Africa is.
Because story telling is such an important part of the African tradition, Cullen's poem richly conveys his need to understand Africa through a narrative. He wants to know the "story" of his heritage, the beauty of his people, and the pride he should feel as a descendant of Africa. The poem is Cullen's attempt to write the story of his growth and maturity as a young African American who is desperately searching for the connections he should feel to his homeland. It is his ignorance of where he came from that causes Cullen to seek something he doesn't readily feel. He thinks there should be some sort of instinctual or primordial connection to Africa, and he is on a journey to find it.