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 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.
From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922) edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.
Countee Cullen was born Countee LeRoy Porter on May 30, 1903, likely in Louisville, Kentucky. He attended De Witt Clinton High School in New York City and began writing poetry at the age of fourteen. When he was fifteen, he was unofficially adopted by F. A. Cullen, the minister of a Methodist church in Harlem.
Cullen entered New York University after high school. Around the same time, his poems were published in The Crisis, under the leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois, and Opportunity, a magazine of the National Urban League. He was soon after published in Harper’s, the Century Magazine, and Poetry. He won several awards for his poem, “Ballad of the Brown Girl,” and graduated from New York University in 1925. That same year, he published his first volume of verse, Color (Harper & Bros., 1925), and was admitted to Harvard University, where he completed an MA in English.
Cullen went on to publish several more poetry collections, including On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (Harper & Bros., 1947), The Black Christ and Other Poems (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1929), and Copper Sun (Harper & Bros., 1927). An imaginative lyric poet, he wrote in the tradition of Keats and Shelley and was resistant to the new poetic techniques of the Modernists; his work demonstrates the range of subjects and aesthetic interests that poets of the Harlem Renaissance addressed.
The poet Major Jackson writes, “Cullen was celebrated as the golden exemplar of a campaign by black political and cultural leaders who sought to engineer a new image of black people in America. Yet he was also targeted as an aesthete, and his expressed desire to be read as ‘a poet and not a Negro poet’ was increasingly condemned as representative of black aristocratic self-hatred, and worse, a veiled longing ‘to be white.'”
Cullen taught in New York City public schools for twelve years beginning in 1934. He died on January 9, 1946.