Countée Cullen’s “Heritage,” a long (128-line) and intensely introspective lyric poem, has been considered a classic since it first appeared in print. The poem can be read as a soliloquy or monologue of a studious but deeply troubled young person who is tormented by the effort to reconcile his inner desires and the decorous behavior expected of him. The first ten lines of the poem express the speaker’s profound feeling of alienation. He is of African ancestry but, as a descendant of people enslaved centuries ago in what is now the United States, he has no actual knowledge of Africa. Because his impressions of the continent and its cultures are limited to images derived from his reading and imagination, the first half of the poem (lines 1-63) constructs a vision of Africa through a series of beautiful, picturesque details: “wild barbaric birds,” feral lions and leopards stalking gentle antelopes, herds of elephants parading through the open savannah grasslands. African people are depicted in equally picturesque terms as savage but regal, beautiful and carefree, lovers unashamed of their nakedness. In choosing such images, Cullen deliberately draws upon the view of Africa that would be familiar to his readers since it was a view reflected in the popular press during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Against this vivid visual backdrop, the speaker imagines that he hears the drums of some unknown tribal ritual temptingly calling to him....
(The entire section is 427 words.)