Published 18 Jan 2017
The poem “Incident” (1925) is one Countee Cullen’s famous literary works which essentially narrates the experience of the speaker in Baltimore at a young age. Although Cullen is considered as Black, he did not want other people to refer to him as a Black poet but simply a poet for he believes that poetry is without race.
In Countee Cullen’s poem, the speaker narrates the treatment the speaker received from a Baltimorean of almost the same age which reflects the idea that during those times discrimination based on color is evident. Being called a “Nigger” in the poem, the speaker attempts to emphasize the idea that the social atmosphere in Baltimore during those days was not conducive to Blacks.
In the first two lines of the poem, it can be noted that the speaker was traveling or, more precisely, “riding in old Baltimore” who appears to be happy that day. While riding, the speaker saw a Baltimorean kept on “looking straight” at the speaker. These first two lines give us the idea that there is a differing attitude of local Baltimoreans during those days towards Black people. At this point in the poem, it can be noted that a Black inpidual with a “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” is an ironic statement since Baltimore, Maryland has a history of Black slavery (Phillips 18). Hence, a Black inpidual roaming the locality of Baltimore with a cheerful countenance appears to strike the attention of those who have lived there and those who have an understanding of the historical context of the society. Hence, it is no surprise that the Baltimorean kept “looking straight” at the speaker.
Being a state that held slaves of which it was made legal prior to 1850 and where Blacks had a significant presence in the locality, the history of Baltimore and the larger state of Maryland encapsulates a significant degree of importance on the social roles and identity of blacks during those times. In the poem, the speaker highlights the fact that, although Blacks took an important role in the development of Baltimore historically speaking, treatment towards them from local people was still tainted with a discriminatory nature.
In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker narrates his experience that time when he was “eight and very small”. Eventually, after noticing the Baltimorean who kept looking, the speaker “smiled” knowing that the Baltimorean “was no whit bigger”. The speaker, then, tried to highlight the idea that, while Blacks attempted to portray a cheerful countenance or at least a normal perception of their society that for once held their race as slaves, their society in return gave them a negative response. This is made evident in the last two lines in the second stanza of the poem where the Baltimorean “poked out his tongue” and called the speaker “Nigger” even though the speaker merely “smiled” at him.
The act of poking out the tongue is a gesture that is commonly taken to mean as an unkind gesture, one that depicts sarcasm, mockery, or an insult towards one’s being. Moreover, for a child, the act of poking out the tongue towards somebody of almost the same age or size is an act that shows hatred, disgust, or ideas similar to that. What is more striking is that the Baltimorean did not only make the gesture of poking out his tongue. He also called the speaker “Nigger” which, during those early days, translates into a form of mockery or insult. It highlights the idea that, by calling a person “Nigger”, that person is treated to be as someone who belongs to the lower levels of the larger society. And while Maryland is historically known to have made slavery legal back in the 1800s (Phillips 18), Black people would have been treated as lesser than being human beings.
In the poem where the speaker is called by the Baltimorean as “Nigger”, one can note the idea that there is social segregation or the idea that there is the separation or delineation of Blacks from the rest of those who lived in the area. By suggesting the idea of social segregation, the poem attempts emphasize the separate treatment for Blacks, delegating them under a lower status and social indifference. It gives us the sense that, while there are perceived demarcations in social hierarchy at least in the context of Baltimore, Maryland, there remains the larger truth that slavery poses a great deal of role in this demarcation.
As a child of eight years, the psychological effects of the experience of being called a “Nigger” is emotionally or psychologically devastating which is the idea being presented in the last stanza (Piaget 81). In the third and final stanza, the speaker narrates that he was able to see and experience “the whole of Baltimore from May until December.” For some reason, the speaker went on to stay in Baltimore for almost seven months, lingering with various people in the place and experiencing many other things as a child of eight years.
And during those seven months and “of all the things that happened there”, the speaker is only able to remember the day when he was given an indifferent treatment from the Baltimorean. This suggests the idea that the psychological impact of that experience lingered for all those months, and even perhaps until the speaker grew older. When an inpidual is still able to remember every detail of an event or experience that transpired long ago, it entails that the event or experience was unforgettable which was greatly absorbed into the memory of the person. It suggests the idea that being called a “Nigger” will not be forgotten.
In the larger context of the history of the bigger American society, the events that transpired in Baltimore during the heydays of slavery manifests the thought that slavery at large will never be forgotten. Not only was it a major turning point in the lives of the Black people. Far more importantly, it was their defining moment. It showed them how the world viewed them—as slaves, as less than human beings, as objects for the furtherance of the welfare of others. Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” (1925) shares us this appalling experience.
Generally, the poem implies the story of racism exemplified by the life of the young speaker and his eight-month long stay in Baltimore. The author responds to the more general view towards racism, or the treatment of the larger society towards Blacks, by emphasizing at the end of the poem the lasting impression of the racist attitude in the mind of the young boy. Moreover, the title of the poem, “Incident”, refers to the idea that the ‘incident’ experienced by the speaker in Baltimore is the main theme of the poem and the corresponding consequences it brought to the central character in the poem.
The very syntax of the poem—the simplicity of the few sentences of the poem—reflects or implies the assumption that the author aims at clearly yet effectively sending across the underlying message of the poem. Beyond the simple use of words and short sentences, the author is able to relate the implications of the statements in the poem. For example, the line “that’s all that I remember” clearly suggests the idea that the speaker in the poem cannot forget the specific “incident” apart from all the things that transpired while in Baltimore.
The rhyming words in the poem, although written in order to complete or express the message, do not contain any other significant value for, when taken altogether with their corresponding rhyming word, they do not concretely suggest any meaningful connection.
Lastly, the three stanzas that comprise the entirety of the poem can be analyzed in terms of their transition. It can be noted that the first stanza highlights the jovial tone of the speaker while the second stanza offers the transitory change in the tone towards the last stanza. While the second stanza serves as the turning point by narrating the ‘incident’ or the experience of the speaker, the last stanza draws attention to the alteration in the mood of the speaker exemplified by the idea that the ‘incident’ is all that the speaker is able to remember from the entirety of his experiences in Baltimore.
- Cullen, Countee. “Incident.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties. New York, N.Y.: Citadel, 1993. 187.
- Phillips, Christopher. “Slavery and the Growth of Baltimore.” Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Blacks in the New World). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 18.
- Piaget, Jean. “Memory and the Structure of Imge-Memories.” The Psychology of the Child. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2000. 81.