Heritage

       by 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,
     Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
     What is Africa to me?

     So I lie, who find no peace
     Night or day, no slight release
     From the unremittent 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 fax,
     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.