BHM2021 Black Poets: Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
(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.