What is the speaker in Countée Cullen's poem, "Heritage," trying to define?
In Countée Cullen's "Heritage," the speaker is trying to define his place in the world. Africa is at times simply a place that he has read about, but at other times it seems to be so much more.
The poem begins with, "What is Africa to me…" He describes it with beautiful images:
Copper sun or scarlet sea…
...Strong bronzed men, or regal back
Women from whose loins I sprang…
The speaker acknowledges that his ancestors were from Africa, but he ends the stanza with the same question: "What is Africa to me?"
The phrase "So I lie" is used repeatedly, stressing the amount of time that the speaker spends trying to comprehend what Africa is to him now. He may be descended from Africans, but to what end? He lies wanting only to hear the sounds of the jungles and plains: the "barbaric birds," the "massive jungle herds..." He imagines young lovers pledging their devotion. However, there is also a contradiction, as though the sounds he hears haunt him—he tries to block them out.
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 reader "sees" a picture painted of a man pulled in several directions: belonging to a Africa and pulling away from it. He speaks of pride, distress and joy in "somber flesh and skin."
Establishing some distance from this "emotional" subject, the speaker describes Africa like a book one reads to put himself to sleep:
Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
He lists details in that book that might be forgotten: the bats, the "cats," and snakes that shed their skin. The book does not capture the essence of the place, the fragrance of flowers, rain, or "spicy grove, cinnamon tree…" And yet again, he asks, "What is Africa to me?"
The image of a haunting comes again: he describes the rain and what it does to him…"Like a soul gone mad with pain / I must match its weird refrain" (or melody). It calls him to strip off the essence of who he is—separated from his "heritage"—to put on "This new exuberance. / Come and dance the Lover's Dance!" He notes that "in an old remembered way," as if he has the memories of his forefathers—though he has never walked upon that land—the rain makes him think of Africa, and it calls to him.
In a transition, the speaker makes reference now to the gods of Africa, and then notes that he is a follower of Jesus Christ; he seems to feel some guilt over a "conversion" that has taken him from the "heathen gods" of his ancestors. He alludes to Christ—the man and his teachings—"Preacher of humility…", "Jesus of the twice-turned cheek…" And although he says he speaks the words of faith, part of him struggles that he must believe in a white god—in his heart he wants Jesus to be someone he can feel he has something in common with:
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it...
In this way, he thinks that maybe Jesus would understand the speaker's life better: "surely then this flesh would know / Yours had borne a kindred woe." The man saying these words believes enough, however, that he asks the Lord to forgive him if his humanity affects his perceptions of Christ. His need to know himself and where he fits into the world, is something he works daily to repress—afraid it might overcome him:
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...