Michael L. Lomax: On "Heritage"

White reviews of Color included one uniform and rather predictable response, They all stated that Cullen's real importance was not merely as a black poet writing of his people's experiences but as a poet expressing the universal human experience. "But though one may recognize that certain of Mr. Cullen's verses owe their being to the fact that he shares the tragedy of his people," wrote Babette Deutsch in The Nation, "it must be owned that the real virtue of his work lies in his personal response to an experience which, however conditioned by his race, is not so much racial as profoundly human. The color of his mind is more important than the color of his skin."

Ironically, though, it was this specifically racial element in his work which most forcefully appealed to black reviewers. "His race and its sufferings," wrote Walter White, "give him depth and an understanding of pain and sorrow." White's emphasis was echoed in other black reviews which praised Cullen as the first real spokesman for sensitive and educated blacks who daily suffered through the pressures and hardships of the American racial experience, "The poems which arise out of the consciousness of being a 'Negro in a day like this' in America." wrote Jessie Fauset in The Crisis, ". . . are not only the most beautifully done but they are by far the most significant in the book . . . . Here I am convinced is Mr. Cullen's forte; he has the feelings and the gift to express colored-ness in a world of whiteness. I hope he will not be deflected from continuing to do that of which he has made such a brave, and beautiful beginning." Certainly the "colored-ness" which Jessie Fauset praised as an essential feature of Cullen's first volume was a quality which she sensed rather than a sentiment which she found expressed in clear and forthright statements. There were too many non-racial poems for that; and too many poems in which, as she herself pointed out, "the adjectives 'black' or 'brown' or 'ebony' are deliberately introduced to show that the type which the author had in mind was not white." At least in part, though, this inclusion of non-racial and peripherally black poems did suggest Cullen's own particular brand of "colored-ness." For within the context of Color as a whole, they implied the tentativeness of Cullen's assertions of a strong sense of his own black identity. These poems, appearing along side verse dealing with specifically racial themes, point to the Du Boisean "double-consciousness" as the central contradiction in Cullen's appraisal of his own racial identity. Neither black not white, Cullen saw himself somewhere in between, an undefined individual consciousness for whom "colored" became as good a label as any. Thus, the volume as a whole and several poems in particular are haunted by the unresolved conflict in Cullen's perception of himself as simultaneously a black man and a culturally assimilated though, admittedly, socially ostracized Westerner. This central tension became the source of dramatic conflict in Cullen's and Color's best known poem, "Heritage." In it, Cullen confronted the contradictions within his own identity and, though finally incapable of resolving them, he articulated his emotional and intellectual struggle with honesty and a rarely-achieved eloquence.

The opening lines of "Heritage" introduce Cullen's conflict in terms of tensions between past and present, Africa and America:

[. . . .]

Africa was a frequent symbol in New Negro poetry for a pristine black identity which had not been confused by the values, "progress" and materialism of Western society. Ironically, this pastoral image bore little actual relation to contemporary colonial Africa or even to America three centuries before, but was instead the product of a long tradition of popular literary stereotypes. Cullen's Africa, peopled with wild animals and "young forest lovers ... / Plighting troth beneath the sky," was just another literary conception--part Edgar Rice Burroughs, part courtly romance. Yet, in spite of Cullen's historical naiveté, the essential personal problem still emerges, the conflict between a conscious and intellectualized Western self and a self which intuitively senses a bond with a lost past as well as elements of a degraded present. . . .

Still, at least the conclusion of "Heritage" suggests that Cullen was not quite ready to accept a totally Western identity:

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.

. . . . Color is the product of personal struggle in an atmosphere which reinforced all that was racially distinctive. Sophisticated whites were Negrophiles who wanted to see blacks as essentially different from their own boringly Western selves. Cullen, in spite of strong misgivings, was willing to do as many other New Negroes did, and thus he bowed to white desires. So, much of his later writing became a retraction of the position taken during the twenties. But whatever Cullen did and said later, Color remains an impressive and landmark volume, one which quickly established its author as the New Negro poet par excellence.

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Title Michael L. Lomax: On "Heritage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael L. Lomax Criticism Target Countee Cullen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 11 Jul 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Harlem Renaissance Re-examined: A Revised and Expanded Edition
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