Peter Powers: On "Heritage"
This bifurcation between public responsibility and private desire is evident throughout "Heritage," a poem that is, of course, about the problematic status of Africa in Cullen's imagination and in the Harlem Renaissance in general, and about the sense of split between a pagan self and a Christian or civilized self. Without denying these readings, I wish to point out that this poem is also clearly about the conflicted desire of the poet's own body, particularly a desire directed toward the male body. The narrator of the poem lies, apparently in bed and alone, meditating on the nature of his own body. In this body he feels "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" (106). The beat alluded to in the first line is a figure for bodily desire in the poem, though Cullen separates this from the body itself and figures his desire as something walking on him cruelly, as if dominating and beating down his body in some all but unbearable manner. A similar linking of anguish and desire occupies the next lines, as the body is no longer simply trod upon by desire but writhes in response:
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. (106)
The evident anguish here replicates that caused by the cruel padded feet of the earlier line. However, here the poet's body responds by twisting, squirming, and writhing, movements easily seen as sexual passion, but a sexual passion identified with entrapment. Rather than imagining sexual ecstasy as a form of self-fulfillment, the narrator feels himself a baited worm, a body trapped by desires beyond his ability to control, desires in fact that are imperious and demanding, calling for the narrator to "strip" and to "dance," verbs used in the imperative voice. Desire calls the poet to reveal himself fully and to cease lying; that is, to get up and act on his sexual desires but also to give up his duplicitous, double life, and reveal himself for who he is as a desiring being.
The linking of erotic desire and enslavement is not an unusual combination in the romantic literary tradition. In the context of Cullen's growing awareness of himself as a public figure embodying the hopes and longings of other people, the bifurcation takes on particular resonances. The poem is dedicated to Harold Jackman, Cullen's male lover of longest standing. Given that, it is intriguing that the opening segments of the poem evoke images of sexuality that are clearly heterosexual and/or reproductive in character. The "Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women from whose loins I sprang" and the "Jungle boys and girls in love" are fairly commonplace images of Africa for the time. However, these , strong images of heterosexual racial pride are associated with an Africa toward which the narrator has an ambivalent attitude, an identification he can only make through a cerebral engagement with books. More important is the drumbeat within his own blood, the desires that would call him to "strip" and cast aside his bookish images of Africa in favor of the dance. For Cullen, of course, such book learning was one of the most important .sources of his public authority. Moreover, the clothes he is called upon to leave behind symbolize the public face of respectability, the outward symbol of a civilized, educated, and clearly heterosexual Christian gentleman who, writhing on his bed at night, has desires for something which a civilized, educated, and clearly heterosexual Christian gentleman ought not to desire. Thus the dream, or desire, is always deferred. As a black gay man expected to perform in a number of publicly prescribed ways, the narrator here feels the necessity of keeping his desiring black body safely in the closet—or, in Cullen's case, safely encased within his ill-fitting suits and Phi Beta Kappa Key—unstripped, unrevealed, and writhing on his bed of lies.
That Cullen concludes the poem with an imagined prayer to Christ partially replicates this more general effort to protect the body. But at the end of "Heritage," Cullen is attempting desperately to reconcile his reasonable desire for safety with his longing to express his erotic desire for black men, and attempting to reconcile all of this with a desire to assert a black masculinity that will be taken to be fully manly even if it happens to be gay. Thus an angry and erotically compelling black Christ is a "dark god" that Cullcn "fashions" so that he can have a black male with whom he can identify. This Christ has "Dark despairing features" that are "Crowned with dark rebellious hair," figures that suggest sexual vitality as well as Cullen's resentment at perpetually deferred sexual self-revelation. Nevertheless, even after fashioning such a Christ, Cullen withdraws from what he takes as an impetuous act of creation, begging forgiveness of the Lord because his "need" or desire "Sometimes shapes a human creed." Thus, in the poem's conclusion, the narrator follows not the imperative to "strip," as called for by his hot desire, but the imperative of self-renunciation: "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." Whereas his days and nights at the beginning and in middle of the poem have been wracked by desire and the imperative to act, even by the imperative to shape a black god who could fill his "need," the poem concludes with an assertion of the need for self-protection.
The rejection of the Black Christ is peculiar on any number of scales. While much has been made of the embrace of a white Jesus throughout much of African American Christianity at the time, Cullen's longing that "he I served were black" is hardly novel to Cullen or to the Black Theology movement of the 1960s. Among the educated and middle-class ministerial circles in which Cullen moved, assertions of a Black Christ were relatively common (Douglas 9-34). Such images also had broad popular appeal in Harlem. In direct appeals to the masses, Garveyites incorporated the notion of a Black Christ, a Black God, and a Black Madonna into their quasi-religious ritualism, and the Cullen household had been known to take the Garveyites seriously. Thus, proclaiming a Black Christ was not a radical notion, though the depiction of a highly eroticized Black Christ was. However mildly heterodox the notion of a Black Christ might have been, what is truly unique and potentially disturbing to middle-class Afro-Christians or white readers is the depiction of an eroticized Christ whom the male narrator finds attractive. When the narrator wishes for a Black Christ so that his heart would not lack "Precedence of pain to guide it," the pain to be recalled within the poem itself is primarily that of the illicit and "unChristian" sexual desire that pierces his body like a hook. Indeed, the narrator reinscribes the problematic public-private split that is complicating Cullen's erotic desires when he wants the Black Christ to be able to feel his pain, "Let who would or might deride it" (107). The narrator longs for an acceptably public male object of desire, one who would release him from the pain of public censure, dismissing those who would deride him. One thinks here of the snickering nubile girls that Lewis evokes in his description of Cullen's social position in the Renaissance (76). In the predominantly Christian environs of Harlem, what could be more publicly acceptable than Christ himself? The problem, then, is not simply the blackness of Christ, but a black Christ who can experience the pain of desire. While the former was well within the realm of acceptable speculative possibility, the latter could have been scandalous to the predominantly heterosexual Harlemites as well as the proper white folks to whom Cullen's verses appealed, supportive readers who may have indulged the sexual failings of one of their leading lights but could hardly have accepted having those sexual failings baptized in the image of Christ.
So it is not surprising that at the end of "Heritage" the narrator chooses survival. If his heart and head—his private longings, thoughts, and desires—have not yet realized they are civilized, he at least must guard against the destructive flood their publicity might entail. He seeks to cool his blood, an image of the death of his desire that avoids the social death that his stripping might occasion. Indeed, perhaps it is not accidental that in the collection Color, Cullen chose to follow "Heritage" with "For a Poet," wherein he imagines his dreams wrapped in a silken cloth and buried in a coffin-like box, a form of psychic death that purchases a form of public freedom.
"Heritage" is often taken to be Cullen's best poem. In many ways it foreshadows the obsessions that mark Cullen's poetry throughout the rest of his career, particularly an obsession with the need to sacrifice individual desire for some greater good, often but not exclusively associated with Christianity.
|Title||Peter Powers: On "Heritage"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Peter Powers||Criticism Target||Countee Cullen|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||11 Jul 2021|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||'The Singing Man Who Must be Reckoned With': Private Desire and Public Responsibility in the Poetry of Countee Cullen|
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