#64: “Incident” (Countee Cullen)

“Incident” by Countee Cullen (1903-1946) is, as I mentioned in class earlier this week, a “kick in the teeth.” If you demand energy from poetry, this poem generates tremendous energy from a single word. “Nigger” is the most lethal insult in America. Though our society is awash in the word, often in humorous or ironic contexts, it has never been OK to use it as it’s used in this poem. The little boy who uses the “N-word” is not joking. He’s not even being paternalistic in some bizarre sense where he can later claim “that’s just the word we used back then.” He sees a peer, a mirror image of himself in everything but color. And he very deliberately and pointedly uses the word to show that, as segregated society goes, he is the speaker’s superior.

(By the way, I’ll use the word “speaker” to stand for the “I” of any given poem. It’s preferable to “author” because the speaker might not always be the author. We don’t know that this ever happened to Countee Cullen, the human being; we know that he chose to create a dramatic poem where it happens to the “I” of the poem.)

So why is this great poetry and not just another autobiographical “incident”? The quality, for me, comes out of the balance between great rage and hurt in terms of content and great control and coolness in terms of form. A kid’s view of the world is shot through the heart by something he can’t ignore and can’t forget. Yet the poem presents this terrible incident in perfectly calm and controlled lines of traditional formal verse. The contrast couldn’t be greater: the poet has transformed rage into art.

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26 responses to “#64: “Incident” (Countee Cullen)

  1. The poem “Incident”, I feel is filled with emotion of a young eight year olds first one on one experience of racial inequality, that too in Baltimore where he was looking forward to going. This poem reflects what he was going through and addresses how “white” kids his age thought as well at such a young age. This poem is a poem because it is filled with emotion, his emotion, which was so strong it could be explained by such few words. The simplicity of using limericks just adds to it by keeping it straight to the point and understandable. I love how he ended the poem, “Of all the things that happened there That’s all that I remember.” I felt like the end was very strong because it re-emphasizes how he felt in Baltimore.

    • Those that are old enough have been influenced by the good and bad things that exist in the history of racism. What we believe has a lot to do with our influences from parenting and the ideological outlook on our very own particular experiences. One down side is that African Americans have endured 465 years of slavery, not to mention cruelty and mistreatment. So some African Americans are bitter because of our history and our present standing in society. It has only built a stronger nation because we are all different in some way or another even if we are of the same race. What the boy experienced in the poem “Incident” had a lifelong bad taste for injustice and persecution. However he handled the cruelty afterward could only explain his genuineness and forgiveness for trespassers. I can only imagine looking back and remembering an instance that had no explanation, and no value toward goodness. From an African American’s point of view, you can only wonder how could such a feeling arouse in two boys. You would think that the speaker of the poem would be expecting a smile back after he had offered generosity because generally most people acknowledge appropriately with a hospitable smile but it was a kick in the rear instead. He experienced reality early on in life that would only explain his own pains in the future and his parent’s sufferings. If Countee Cullen actually experienced this incident, he would have never seen the barriers of injustice broken through the civil rights movement. But through his writing, he was able to reach all levels of audience. Whether you’re black, white, racists, agreeing or disagreeing with the term “nigger”, diversity allows us to know that things are seen from a variety of angles. The word was used to assert seniority and there was no beating around the bush in determining if there was to be a friendship between the speaker and the other boy.

      Those that are old enough have been influenced by the good and bad things that exist in the history of racism. What we believe has a lot to do with our influences from parenting and the ideological outlook on our very own particular experiences. One down side is that African Americans have endured 465 years of slavery, not to mention cruelty and mistreatment. So some African Americans are bitter because of our history and our present standing in society. It has only built a stronger nation because we are all different in some way or another even if we are of the same race. What the boy experienced in the poem “Incident” had a lifelong bad taste for injustice and persecution. However he handled the cruelty afterward could only explain his genuineness and forgiveness for trespassers. I can only imagine looking back and remembering an instance that had no explanation, and no value toward goodness. From an African American’s point of view, you can only wonder how could such a feeling arouse in two boys. You would think that the speaker of the poem would be expecting a smile back after he had offered generosity because generally most people acknowledge appropriately with a hospitable smile but it was a kick in the rear instead. He experienced reality early on in life that would only explain his own pains in the future and his parent’s sufferings. If Countee Cullen actually experienced this incident, he would have never seen the barriers of injustice broken through the civil rights movement. But through his writing, he was able to reach all levels of audience. Whether you’re black, white, racists, agreeing or disagreeing with the term “nigger”, diversity allows us to know that things are seen from a variety of angles. The word was used to assert seniority and there was no beating around the bush in determining if there was to be a friendship between the speaker and the other boy.
      justin_crowder24@yahoo.com
      spontaneous12
      1

  2. Although we don’t actually know if the events actually happened (to him) at all or the way he wrote it this is a great, plain, direct poem. When you first start to read it you automatically think this is a nice start and this could only get better especially coming from an 8-year old. But it is amazing how in “one” second “one” word can change your view on someone/something. And the author proved that in his poem with so few words. This poem tells the truth of then and sadly today of racism and how one moment overtakes and over powers a part of your life. Its very ironic that this is called “Incident” for an incident is a (minor event) and obviously this wasn’t minor if it affected him to the point that’s all he remembers about that time period.

  3. I believe most people enjoy a poem that they can relate to. I take much comfort in reading a poem that describes a similar situation that I’ve gone through or that expresses the same feelings I have felt before. “Incident” by Countee Cullen is a poem that I really enjoyed because I have had a resembling experience. While visiting a friend in Alabama I was treated disrespecfully because of my ethnicity. I was born and raised in Texas and had never experienced such harsh discrimination before. To this day, when I think of my trip to Alabama, my first thought is of this awful feeling of racism. I feel a sense of empathy when I read “Of all the things that happened there, That’s all that I remember.” This also, relates to the other poem we read in class. The poem by A. E. Housman explains that sad poetry can have positive affects, whether it be by counseling another in the same situation or by preparing them for more unhappy experiences in the future.

  4. The poem “Incident” is great because it recalls of an event–a long-lasting event that an eight year old went through. However, as mentioned above, the tone of the poem does not reflect the rage that the speaker should feel, rather it reflects one of control and calmness. I feel like this is so because the speaker has let go of the event; he has probably forgiven the other kid who did this to him. Also probably because he wants to pass on a message to readers that rage isn’t the way to react or handle such situations. The poem is really effective because it gives readers a reaction of sadness and pity–for the speaker; it is also effective because it is identifiable– some readers could identify with this “incident”. Also, to answer the question asked in class about why a poet or a musician or basically an artist reflects sad events in some of their works, I feel like they do it in order to raise an awareness that these events did impact their lived and such events still exist in the world. I get the sense that it was also a purpose for the writing of the “Incident”– to make us readers aware of the fact that racism was and still is very much alive.

  5. Looking at the word “incident” we know is an event that happened; an incident that caused a young eight year old child to view the world different especially Baltimore. As I listened to the poem being read and then reading it to myself I realized it had a negative effect on this child’s life. Of all the things that may have occurred to him in Baltimore this stood out the most. In the beginning he started out with joy of visiting a new town and to experience something new. Not to experience something new from someone his age that will allow his stay in Baltimore to be an unpleasant experience that may or may not affect him for the rest of his life. From May to December is a lot of time to see and enjoy Baltimore, but no matter how much fun a child can have one bad experience can ruin the whole trip. Poetry is one way of expressing your emotions, thoughts, and dreams and that is what I feel Countee Cullen was doing with expressing an experience that may have caused a negative or positive view on life.

  6. This poem represents not only the discrimination at the time but also the passing of this discrimination down to another generation. It foreshadows the continuation of discrimination on into the time of the oncoming Civil War. Although it is not certain whether Countee Cullen really experienced this event for himself, it can be inferred that there were, in fact, incidents such as these that had taken place within the time that Cullen himself would have been 8-years-old.

    It is hard to know whether the “white” boy had known that his words and actions would have such a huge effect on the speaker but at such a young age it is safe to assume that it was simply how he was raised. As wrong as that is, I think that the speaker had also been raised to let other people’s words affect him too severely. Of all the events which occurred in over 6 months, the one point that the speaker remembers is of a naive child speaking down to him and making an obscene gesture. This act of racism goes both ways; the “white” boy was taught to treat the black boy as less than himself and has accepted this twisted view of society, rather than challenging it, while the black boy has to learn to rise above the situation, forget the prejudice, and live his life seeing the better side of things.

  7. “Incident” is a timeless poem. It reminds us all of the issue of racism, and that the idea of racial inequality is instilled in not only adults, but, sadly, in children as well. Although the poem was written many years ago, the issue presented in the poem is unfortunately still very relevant even in today’s world. When I read the poem, I picture a young boy riding his bicycle down the streets of Baltimore, having the time of his life, and without a care in the world; the way every young boy should be. All of that is brought to an abrupt halt when another young boy calls him “Nigger.” The incident affected the speaker so greatly that it alone is the only thing that he can recall about his trip to Baltimore, as all of the experiences he may have had there, as joyous as they may have been, were erased from his mind.

  8. firewaterboi321

    Did the incident with the “Baltimorean” calling the speaker “nigger” actually occur in real life? Is this more of a kind of sociological perspective regarding a childhood incident? Does he, the speaker, make a comment on the status quo of that time? My experience so far in life has me to believe that art is about self-expression. This particular bit of art conveys to me a sense of evolved regret. It appears that Countee Cullen is commenting on his perception of what one child’s comment was to him. Whether this child was white or black (we never really know that for sure from the lines of the poem), it brings me to wonder if this was an actual physical event, or more of a representation of Cullen’s ideals regarding race and subjugation. The great thing about this poem (and poetry in general) is that it goes from the abstract to the here and now and back again. This, to me, seems an example of that kind of dual-perspective tinged with the wisdom of later years of life. His anger is obvious in his words, yet he’s not making a profound statement or accusation. He’s simply acknowledging that the only thing he remembered from what would have been a golden, lovely childhood moment was the ugliness of the reality he had to live in at that age.

  9. The thing that strikes me most about this poem is that although it is very simple in terms of the way it is written, the writer does an excellant job of getting readers to FEEL the poem. Reading “The Incident” made me feel that I was a part of the poem. I could feel the emotions that the young child was feeling as he sat in front of his mysterious nemesis. I can imagine him focusing on the lips of the young man as the word “Nigger” came out and feel the surprise and pain that followed. This obviously was a life altering event that stuck with him for some time.

    • Being that I am black, or African American, this poem and the word Nigger has a lot of significance in my life and on my perspective of life. This “Incident” occurred at a time when racism was widespread and among the most ignorant of our human species. Now it still exist but not as blatent. Also, ignorance is no longer an excuse. The word no longer bothers me as much as it did 10-20 yrs ago. I am 46yrs old and have lived through a lot of racially biased situations. I am above being belittled by words and I am too intelligent to let someone know when they bother me by what they say. I have a lot of friends of many races so a poem of this nature does nothing but show me how far the US has come since those days seeing that we now have a “African American” President. That in itself says volumes towards the lack of racism in America.

  10. The poem “Incident” is a great poem because it provokes such strong emotion. I believe that is what a great poem is supposed to do. It should be able to make you feel a certain way whether you can relate specifically to the words or not. Some may not be able to relate to the situation the speaker illustrates for us in that context, but they may be able to in a different way. I think most of us have been in a situation where we may feel inferior to whomever we are speaking with because of the words that person chooses to use. The situation in the poem cannot be written off as just another autobiographical incident because the way it is written makes it so much more than that. The calmness of the speaker throughout the poem does not make the situation seem any less severe.
    The calmness of the speaker was steady throughout the entire poem. Starting off reading the poem I thought it would be one that would put me in a good mood just from reading the line, “heart-filled, head-filled with glee.” Because of that calmness the speaker uses I was surprised to come across the one word that can provoke so much anger. Regardless of that word, the speaker remains calm all the way to the last line. After reading the poem I was hurt that an eight year old boy would encounter such an incident, and even thought the tone of the poem was so calm, it did not take away from the emotion of the situation, and that is what makes “Incident” a great poem.

  11. The poem “incident” is describing a young boy who experienced racism, anger, and hurt. Even though this still happens today in some places, I believe this poem took place a while back because he was called, “nigger”. I feel this incident was traumatic to the boy and is a time in his life that he will never forget. I believe he wrote this poem when he got older, for other people to feel and imagine the pain that he felt. The poem starts out with, “Heart-filled, head filled with glee”. This makes me believe in the beginning of the poem the boy was feeling happy and toward the end of the poem he felt down. I felt anger when I came across the word “nigger”. The poem made me feel the pain that he went through at the time. I can imagine the word rolling off the man’s tongue and the expression on the young boy’s face. I can imagine this poem taking place on a city bus or on a train. I think this is a great poem because it uses strong words and makes you feel and imagine the pain and emotions the young boy went through.

  12. When I read the poem ‘‘Incident’’ it really touched my heart. Whether or not if this incident truly happened in the author’s life but the word “Nigger” used is really harsh. As I am reading this poem, it looks like the boy is not from Baltimore. He was there for a short visit and in that very little time he had such a negative experience that it was impossible for him to forget it. When anyone is that young he/she remembers either the exciting memories or bereaved moments. Unfortunately for this boy the memory of Baltimore is tinged with racism at an age when he did not even know why people judge each other based on the color of one’s skin. The poem illustrates how words can have the power to hurt someone and why they should not be misused.

  13. The poem “Incident” is a short poem that is filled with different emotions. It is a poem that shows what many children went through at the time. Children are very sensible to their surroundings, and even a simple word or situation can impact their life. In the poem, a young African American boy is looking forward to a great time in Baltimore, and what he finds is a not very friendly kid with a sense of superiority that makes a racial remark. In my opinion this incident was very significant in the speaker’s life because this marked a new phase in his life, which is one were you start to be aware of the negative things in the world. Before he went to Baltimore he did not feel different at all and when the “Baltimorean” made a racial comment, not only did he make the speaker feel different and less, but he also took away his innocence. This poem seem like it was written after the speaker experienced this and he is just looking back at the incident. The poem in my opinion is short, but carries a lot of power because it is letting the people that probably have never experienced this know what a simple word can do. The poem could also be directed to those who have used racial comments just like the “Baltimorean” did, and it almost seems like the speaker is saying, look how a simple comment can affect someone’s life. The purpose of the poem could be that no matter how insignificant we think a comment or word is, it could carry a lot of weight and could end up marking someone’s life.

  14. I can personally relate to this poem and the incident, and it is very emotional to have to go through such a negative experience. This poem is a great example of how we as adults tend to remember more of the bad experiences that happened during our childhood years and life in general compared to the good ones. The speaker spent a long time in Baltimore and of all the things he experienced during his stay there, this is the only thing he remembers. Although it is a shorter poem, it has a lot of emotion. It makes you wish there was more to read, I think that makes it a great poem. That one word brought down the speaker so much that it was the only thing he could remember, as if he could not get it out of his mind the whole time he was there. As a kid you never expect to experience something this harsh and if it actually happened in Cullen’s lifetime, I’m sure it was a very emotional and traumatic experience. It angers me to think that a child at such a young age can have so much hate toward another kid simply because of his skin color, and it continues to be a problem today.

  15. From Anthony Scott:

    The poem “Incident”, is one that is identifiable with many people and brings about

    strong emotions, and by doing so it makes the popular “Tim Morris top 64 countdown”.

    Cullen begins the poem with an upbeat and optimistic view, then finishes the poem with

    in a sad and almost depressing tone. This change in tone, to me, show’s the direct

    effect that the word “nigger” had on the speaker, or possibly even Cullen if you are on

    e who believe’s that this is an actual experience that Cullen had encountered. The

    thing’s you tell a child or say around a child can easily be taken in and influence

    their live’s, especially at eight years old, and that is exactly what seems to happen

    to the speaker in this poem. Also, at such a young age you identify to those you

    closely relate to, so it’s no suprise that the speaker is so effected when this other

    kid denies his friendly gesture and calls him a “nigger”. Cullen writes this as if the

    speaker is looking back and reflecting on this moment, also this poem is written with a

    very calm tone which, in my opinion, shows that the speaker has reflected on this

    “incident” and has learned to accept the racism around him. While he doesn’t write this

    poem with anger he evokes and brings about almost simpathy for the speaker who has

    endured and accepted the racism in his world. While Cullen doesn’t mention any other

    instances of racism in the speakers life, i get the impression that he has had

    experiences like this throughout his life. Thus why Cullen named the poem “incident”,

    because, in my opinion, this was just one incident in a life of dealing with racism and

    that is why it was written in such an accepting and understanding tone.

  16. The poem “Incident” in my opinion is all about the power of word. When the speaker uses the “N” word, he is expressing a lot of hatred. That word only appearing once in the poem, makes it so powerful because it is only said once. The speaker, or someone in that time period, had this happen to them and wanted to express their feelings about it. Having been an eight year old little boy and writing about this event so much later in life, the speaker carries a lot of sadness about this event. Maybe writing this poem helped the speaker to let go about what happened so long ago. Maybe the speaker didn’t and it just made him more angry after writing this. We will never know exactly what the speaker was intending, but we do know that he was hurt and wanted others to know about the event. Even though writing this poem doesn’t take the hurt away from the speaker, it may help him come to terms with it.

  17. Countee Cullen’s poem,” Incident,” is great poetry because of the symmetrical balance that is captured in the poem. Although the word nigger is like the poison venom of a snake bite, Countee Cullen made an inward decision not to allow the word to embitter him. He was briefly paralyzed by the bite, but he did not die. His soul did not become consumed with rage and anger. The beauty of the incident was revealed by his inward reaction to the encounter. He realized the word nigger hurt and bewildered him, yet he wrote the poem with the grace and serenity that comes from understanding that some things one cannot change. He seems to have come to the conclusion that no matter where one goes in this world he or she cannot isolate his or herself from hate and prejudice. Since he could not isolate himself from racism, he decided to insulate himself by not allowing the hurtful word nigger to fester and consume him. He created beauty from ashes in this poem. After all, nigger is only a word. It is no different than saying the word child. Cullen realized that in order for the word nigger to have power it must be charged with energy that comes from the human spirit. Countee Cullen heard and felt the negative energy of the word, but he disconnected it from the power source by not allowing it to penetrate his spirit. Therefore, he could describe the incident with control and calmness instead of rage and ranting. The great control and calmness in his poem comes from his spirit’s immunity to the venom. He heard, felt, and rejected the toxic energy that empowers the word nigger.

  18. I think on aspect of good poetry or any form of art for that matter is the ability to generate vivid mental images in your mind. As far as content goes, this poem isnt my favorite, but when i read it, it triggers off fireworks of images in my head. for some reason i can see the entire setting. the chipped paint on the side of the bus. (the exact mode of transportation isnt even mentioned!!) a brisk windy morning in Baltimore. steam rising up from the factories off in the distance (Baltimore is a very intustrial city ). and then the whole exchange between the two boys. i can see the expressions on there faces, i feel empathetic. its strainge i can almost see myself sitting on an adjacent seat. Good music also does this to me. I think its why i’m so obsessed with it. I think its interesting how a 12 line peice of text can generate such a vivid mental image, and do so without being very specific at all. Quality.

  19. The poem “Incident” took me by surprise when it transitioned from filling my heart with happy thoughts into thoughts that were filled with rage. I believe that the power of changing the readers’ mind and mood by using a single word shows the quality of the poem. It is hard to condense the content of the poem into the power of one word/the power of language, but the poem does just that. Simply because the poem has a very calm tone to it, doesn’t make it seem less serious. In contrast, the poem actually reveals a very serious “incident” to the reader. People might refer to something as being an incident when it is not really a big deal to them, however, this “incident” was so memorable to the speaker that out of all the time spend in Baltimore (about seven months) this was all that he remembered. What makes this a great poem is the power of language which always has a significant impact on any one individual and the great contrast the speaker uses to share his feelings with us.

  20. The choosing of the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen was a great choice to start the class off. When first reading it aloud to the class it was shocking to hear the word “nigger”. I don’t know what person it would not be shocking to. It doesn’t matter if your black, white, Asian, or Hispanic the word has a horrible connotation. I myself despise the word and always have. Hearing it today in pop culture whether it’s within a movie or within a song whether it has the “a” on the end of it or the dreaded “er”. It is all the same to me and should be to everyone else. My views are not shared by everyone but I believe there is no use for the word whatsoever within our language. Some will say it can be used in a way to show friendship or admiration between two people some feel it can mean a term of endearment. We all have the power to choose what comes out of our mouths, never in a million years would I call people close to me a term that symbolizes something horrible. Within the poem the young boy experiences racism from a child. A child is the picture people see when they think of innocence. It could be argued that innocence is lost today. We live in a cold and cruel world and by opening with this poem on the countdown it shows honesty whether it’s nice or not.

  21. I believe the distinct difference among good poems and great poems is the writers ability to make something that matters to them, matter to their readers. In the poem “incident,” the reader is drawn in by the at first glance playfulness of the story line which then takes a sudden dramatic and climatic shift from innocence of a child and a rhyming stanzas to a word that ends the second stanza in disbelief leaving the reader shocked and in some cases offended. However the poem still continues on as usual. Disregarding ones ethnicity, anyone who has ever dealt with an incident can identify with this poem because incidents always end as soon as they began and we as humans are forced to move on and continue living day to day. Perhaps this incident may still linger on Countee Cullen’s mind however, it does not reflect externally.

  22. This poem has a great example of a mood shift and I feel that is what gives the poem it’s “kick in the teeth” effect. As Mr. Morris stated with one word the whole light and happy attitude of the poem is turned into an experience which conjures feeling of disgust and very real pain. It’s also very short and simple; to the point. The speaker’s spirits go from being “full of glee”, gun hoe and ready to experience this new place and the new things Baltimore had to offer, dreadfully after the very quick and slicing action of the presumably “white” boy the speaker is left empty, void of any feelings; only to return with the burning memory of the occurrence. From merely reading the poem it is uncertain whether the poem was written to enlighten people or merely as an outlet for the author. The author merely recounts a story, no more than that. There isn’t raw emotion spilling from the lines. Through doing this i think he makes the poem more universal and not only applicable to black people. If ever anyone related to this “white” boy, within them strong feeling would also be evoked, and through keeping his cool he doesn’t lose “that person”, yet keeps them in oder that they may see what an action such as calling some one “nigger” does to a young boy.

  23. In this poem, the boy speaks of how he was traveling to Baltimore. But out of all the memmories he has, the only one that stands out is the racial slur made by a white peer. The effect that one word had on his memories is profound. The poem is great because it takes a calm structure and twists it drastically with one single word. This shows you the power of racism and its effects. Not only is the language powerful, but the mood changing ability it has on this poem is well felt. It also shows you the fragile state of a young boy and how he interprets things in his mind.

  24. To: dbl5311 I can relate to a lot of what you wrote even though I am only 24 years old and nearly half your age. I am an African American male too, and a witness of a new era in the image of Black presidency. We will see eventually if racism’s fire rekindles not only because of the positive impact that Barack Obama has on America, but the negative upsets that people try to dig up on him. It’s easier to point the finger than to dig up our own dirt. I see the next white person like I see myself though it’s hard to forget the unfortunate advantages that whites have had over us. I do see a greater light in that I wouldn’t want to be anything else but black though I felt differently one point and time in my life. There is volume for lack of racism, but quietly we are aware of the reality of life. Going back to what (jet) said in her blog, some things one cannot change. The hurt can’t break you though if you don’t allow it, you’ll only get stronger. We can’t hide that we are all different in ways that create conflict between races and against certain races. Segregation is still present but it’s not like we have chosen the direction of our lives and children’s lives. Society had influence, and people segregated themselves from us and segregated blacks from each other. Prison is a prime example.

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