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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Heritage” opens in the interrogative, posing a question about the significance of the African continent to Cullen, offering hypothetical answers that have their basis in myths and stereotypes. For the young African American poet, is Africa a blend of colors, including copper, scarlet, bronze, and black? Is Africa a jungle or an Eden? Does Africa have special stars, paths, and scents? Is Africa the poet’s royal birthplace? The speculation returns the poet to his original question, now repeated in italics for emphasis: “What is Africa to me?

In the second stanza, the poet admits that he would prefer not to hear “wild barbaric birds” and “massive jungle herds,” that he would prefer not to envision “tall defiant grass” and “young forest lovers”; however, even as he stops his ears with his thumbs, “drums throbbing” fill his mind. The predicament of the African American poet is that “pride,” “distress,” and “joy” combine in his consideration of African ancestry.

The third stanza reveals weariness with the responsibility to know ancestry. A book on African culture induces sleep, not interest, and the details of bats, predatory cats, shiny snakes, and dangerous flowers seem remote and without significance. Like a tree that in previous seasons blossomed, bore fruit, and was a home for wildlife, the African American poet “must forget” the past and work with what the present offers in a new season.

Despite the claim that African heritage is remote and uninteresting, the question of heritage haunts the poet. If the poet seeks rest, he can “find no peace” because within himself he feels the pounding of feet on a jungle path. At night an extraordinary rain implores him to be naked and “dance the Lover’s Dance!”

The struggle with ancestry reaches a peak with the question of religion. On one hand, the poet considers...

(The entire section is 466 words.)