Countée Cullen Questions and Answers
by Countée Porter

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What is the theme of Countee Cullen's poem "Incident"?

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Countee Cullen was one of a group of African American writers who became known as part of an early-twentieth-century intellectual and artistic movement called the Harlem Renaissance. This was an era of profound significance in African American culture, and Cullen was an important literary figure in this movement, which stressed race consciousness, black values, and black achievement.

The theme of Cullen's disturbing poem "Incident" is the effect of racism on youthful innocence. Cullen writes of himself as an eight-year-old boy in Baltimore riding along with his head and heart filled with glee. In other words, he's innocently happy as most young boys of that age would be. When he sees another boy that is "no whit bigger," so presumably of about the same age, he greets the stranger with a smile. However, the other boy sticks out his tongue and uses a racial expletive. The experience must have shattered Cullen, who says that between May and December of that year, he can remember nothing but that incident. As the result of the hatred and racial intolerance of a stranger, which he no doubt picked up from the adults around him, a young boy's joyous mood is irreparably broken.

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The theme of this powerful poem is racism, and the impact that it has. This is shown through the childhood memory the speaker has of being eight and cycling through Baltimore. Even though he was there from May until December, the only thing he remembers is the one incident that he describes in this poem. One day, when he was riding, "heart-filled, head-filled with glee," he met another boy who said just one word to him, but this incident obviously managed to destroy his happy mood and scar him forever:

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, 'Nigger.'

Note how this action is simple: it involves just one word and an accompanying action. However, it is clear from the way that this is the only memory the speaker has of those long months, that this incident was actually much more than just an "incident": it powerfully affected him and made him aware of the brutal reality of racism and the power that it can have over its victims. 

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