The poem was published during the end of World War II, the same period when some of the European colonial empires ended.
The first five lines reveal that the speaker is inside a place filled with masks of varying colors. The markless (and dimple-free and wrinkle-free) faces stand for the speaker’s dead ancestors. The place is holy as suggested by the phrase “closed to any feminine laughter, to any mortal smile,” two images that belong to the material world. This idea is reinforced by the place’s “purity of the air” in line 6 and the “altar” in line 8.
The writer uses apostrophe, a figure of speech in which an imaginary person or an inanimate entity is addressed directly. The speaker addresses the masks in a prayer-like manner. He/she calls upon them to “fix their immobile eyes upon their children” so that “these children may cry at the rebirth of the world.”
To the Europeans, the Africans are “cotton heads,” “coffee men,” “oily men” and “men of death.” The way lines 18 and 19 are expressed by the speaker suggests lowliness (”They call us cotton heads, and coffee men, and oily men, They call us men of death”). But to the speaker, their identity is rooted on the elegance of their dance, the rhythm of their music and the richness of their land.
Now that they are free from colonial power – Africa is connected with Europe through the navel – they have to learn to be on their own again and to regain what they lost. Some of their old ways were replaced by modern technology. Some of their traditions are gone and were sacrificed in order to accommodate the colonizer’s culture. But they can make their culture stay by hanging on to the old ways left by their ancestors. They can do it especially that they recognize their significance and what they can give as a nation. According to the speaker, they are “the leaven that the white flour needs.”