"Incident" by Countee CullenWhat is the author trying to tell us in the poem "Incident," by Cullen?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Countee Cullen [Countee Porter] was a rival of Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance period.  His poetry was particularly popular during the 1920s and 1930s.

Adopted by the Cullen family as a young boy, Countee was especially close to his adopted father, who was a minister at a church in Harlem. An award winning poet, Cullen earned a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Paris.  Later, he married the daughter of the famous African-American activist W.E. B. DuBois. 

Cullen's reputation was as a classical poet whose writing sometimes resembled Keats.  His writing career peaked early in his life.  Eventually, he became a teacher of French and English in a junior high school in Harlem.  Cullen died at the age of forty –two.

The poem “Incident” is based on an actual experience.  It is a reflection of prejudice and racial slurs. Narrated in first person, the poet recalls a searing event when he was eight years old that never left his mind.

The poem has a set rhyme scheme of ABCB.  It is written in three quatrains.  When read aloud because of the variance of one line of tetrameter and trimester lines, the poem has a sing song effect.  This rhythm is indicative of a childhood poem. The spell is broken in the second stanza. 

1st Stanza

The boy describes riding on a bus in Baltimore with excitement in his heart and joy in his spirit about the trip.  During the ride, the narrator sits near a “Baltimorean” boy, who is looking right at him.

2nd Stanza

The narrator was eight years old and only a little boy.  The Baltimore boy was the same size as the narrator:

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger…

The narrator who sees no difference between them tries to be friendly by smiling at the other boy who is white. To the narrator’s surprise, the Baltimore boy sticks out his tongue at him and calls him a “Nigger.”

3rd Stanza

The narrator toured all of Baltimore presumably for several months.  He saw many things.   However, the only event that he really remembers is the boy sticking out his tongue at him and calling him “N….” The title of the poem emphasizes the importance of this to the boy.  It has become an “Incident.”  From the episode, the narrator experiences prejudice and bigotry.

This may have been the first time the boy felt racism.  The narrator bridged the gap from naivety to prejudice with only one word and an ugly face.

mizzwillie eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem "Incident" by Countee Cullen is a powerful indictment of the effects of racism.  The boy is only eight years old, but it is the only thing he remembers of all the time and sights in Baltimore. The poem speaks to anyone with a child because children are hurt by so many things which cannot be prevented, and this poem shows how cruelty can be life-changing.  Countee Cullen takes a seemingly "small" incident where a happy, gleeful boy can be shocked into feeling the soul-searing effects of racism, and makes the adult readers of his poem feel the same shocking results as the child feels. As an adult looking back on his experience, Cullen makes the reader look back and feel the incident and its effects with him. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a lot of reactions to this poem, I am sure.  It makes me sad, of course.  For me, it is the contrast between the sweet sing-song quality of the poem and its subject.  

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

It's almost shocking how it describes a small child's innocent and gleeful first look at a big city, and then springs the racism on you.

To me, it's a lovely poem because it reminds you of the reality of racism for a young child.  Every child has to face an incident like this at some point, in realizing the cruelty of the world for the first time.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For me, this poem is trying to tell us two things.

First, it is trying to show us how early racism can start if it is allowed to do so.  The narrator and his white counterpart are only 8 years old, but yet the little white boy already knows to use a racial epithet against the black boy.

Second, he is trying to show us how important racism is in the lives of its victims.  He tells us that he stayed in Baltimore for months, but the only thing he remembers about that time is this racist incident.

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