Heritage

By Countee Cullen 1903–1946 Countee Cullen

(For Harold Jackman)

What is Africa to me:   
Copper sun or scarlet sea,   
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black   
Women from whose loins I sprang   
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,   
What is Africa to me?

So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song   
Sung by wild barbaric birds   
Goading massive jungle herds,   
Juggernauts of flesh that pass   
Trampling tall defiant grass   
Where young forest lovers lie,   
Plighting troth beneath the sky.   
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.   
So I lie, whose fount of pride,   
Dear distress, and joy allied,   
Is my somber flesh and skin,   
With the dark blood dammed within   
Like great pulsing tides of wine   
That, I fear, must burst the fine   
Channels of the chafing net   
Where they surge and foam and fret.

Africa? A book one thumbs   
Listlessly, till slumber comes.   
Unremembered are her bats   
Circling through the night, her cats   
Crouching in the river reeds,   
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds   
By the river brink; no more   
Does the bugle-throated roar   
Cry that monarch claws have leapt   
From the scabbards where they slept.   
Silver snakes that once a year   
Doff the lovely coats you wear,   
Seek no covert in your fear   
Lest a mortal eye should see;   
What’s your nakedness to me?   
Here no leprous flowers rear   
Fierce corollas in the air;   
Here no bodies sleek and wet,   
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,   
Tread the savage measures of   
Jungle boys and girls in love.   
What is last year’s snow to me,
Last year's anything? The tree   
Budding yearly must forget   
How its past arose or set—
Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,   
Even what shy bird with mute   
Wonder at her travail there,   
Meekly labored in its hair.   
One three centuries removed   
From the scenes his fathers loved,   
Spice grove, cinnamon tree,   
What is Africa to me?

So I lie, who find no peace   
Night or day, no slight release   
From the unremittant beat   
Made by cruel padded feet   
Walking through my body’s street.   
Up and down they go, and back,   
Treading out a jungle track.   
So I lie, who never quite   
Safely sleep from rain at night—
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;   
Like a soul gone mad with pain   
I must match its weird refrain;   
Ever must I twist and squirm,   
Writhing like a baited worm,   
While its primal measures drip   
Through my body, crying, “Strip!   
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!”
In an old remembered way   
Rain works on me night and day.

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods   
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,   
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;   
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,   
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,   
Lamb of God, although I speak   
With my mouth thus, in my heart   
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,   
Wishing He I served were black,   
Thinking then it would not lack   
Precedent of pain to guide it,   
Let who would or might deride it;   
Surely then this flesh would know   
Yours had borne a kindred woe.   
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,   
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,   
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,   
Patience wavers just so much as   
Mortal grief compels, while touches   
Quick and hot, of anger, rise   
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.   
Lord, forgive me if my need   
Sometimes shapes a human creed.

All day long and all night through,   
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,   
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,   
Lest the grave restore its dead.   
Not yet has my heart or head   
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.

Countee Cullen, “Heritage” from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Copyrights held by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, administered by Thompson and Thompson, Brooklyn, NY.

Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)

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Poet Countee Cullen 1903–1946

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Social Commentaries

Holidays Kwanzaa

Poetic Terms Couplet

 Countee  Cullen

Biography

Countee Cullen was perhaps the most representative voice of the Harlem Renaissance. His life story is essentially a tale of youthful exuberance and talent of a star that flashed across the Afro-American firmament and then sank toward the horizon. When his paternal grandmother and guardian died in 1918, the fifteen-year-old Countee LeRoy Porter was taken into the home of the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the pastor of Salem . . .

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SUBJECT Social Commentaries

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Couplet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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