It’s fitting that last week I talked about Eliot and Pound, and this week I get to talk about Countee Cullen, because Cullen’s poem Heritage actually reminds me of The Waste Land and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Hear me out here, before you just click away.
Like both Eliot and Pound, Cullen was interested in writing poetry of a more traditional sort. Unlike Cullen’s fellow Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, who wrote poetry that was more concise and accessible, Cullen’s poem falls more along the lines of “high” art. There’s something that seems quite classic about Heritage. It has a long-form style that reminds me of The Waste Land. It is also concerned with questions of the past, and how it relates to Cullen in his present. More specifically, he questions what his African heritage, his distant ancestral past, means to him as an African-American man in the 1920’s. Like Eliot drawing on images of ancient Greece, Cullen evokes an image of the Africa of the past. However, unlike Eliot, Cullen does not write of Africa as a place of particular inspiration for himself. Throughout the poem, he frequently asks what Africa is to him.
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?
His mention of Eden evokes a sense of ancient history, an Africa of long ago, where Cullen’s heritage lies. But it is so far removed from him. Centuries had gone by since then, and Cullen himself had been born in America. He was far more in touch with and affected by the side of him that was American, versus the African. This poem sets Cullen apart significantly from other writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance, who advocated for an embracing of Africans styles in their works. Countee Cullen was unique among his contemporaries. Not as embracing of the historical past as poets like Eliot and Pound; not as embracing of Africa and his heritage there as his fellow Harlem Renaissance writers. Cullen was completely and utterly his own writer.