Countée Cullen's "Incident"
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Incident"
The little drama created in Cullen's "Incident" offers the possibility of a teaching moment. It demonstrates how one hateful word can erase months of possibly good, harmonious memories.
Cullen's poem, "Incident," consists of three quatrains, each with the rime scheme, ABCB. An adult man is looking back at an "incident" that occurred when he was a mere child, eight years old.
While many people find it difficult to recall much of what happened to them at such an early age, and the same can be said of this speaker as he indicates in the poem, the gravity of this occurrence has remained with him and blighted his remembrance of his visit to a major American city.
(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
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.'
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
Reading of Cullen's "Incident"
First Quatrain: "Once riding in old Baltimore"
The opening stanza dramatizes the positive excitement the young child felt. However, at this point the speaker has not revealed that he was just a child of eight years.
The speaker describes his visit to Baltimore, where he is riding on some public transportation perhaps a city bus. His heart and head are both "filled with glee."
The speaker reports that while in this joyful frame of mind, he noticed that a Baltimore resident, or at least, he assumes that the "Baltimorean" was a resident, "Ke[pt] looking straight at me." He likely began to wonder why this person was staring at him with noticeable interest.
Second Quatrain: "Now I was eight and very small"
The speaker then describes the person, who was staring at him, as a kid about his own size and age: "Now I was eight and very small, / And he was no whit bigger."
The speaker, no doubt, then thought the kid might become his friend, since he had kept looking at the speaker with interest. So the speaker "smiled" at the kid.
But then the "incident" occurred: "[the Baltimore kid] poked out / His tongue, and called me, 'Nigger.'" The poor visiting child's hopes of a friendship were dashed with this horrid reaction from this ignorant Baltimorean.
Third Quatrain: "I saw the whole of Baltimore"
Finally, the speaker says that he passed eight months in the city of Baltimore, from May to December, and that he had many new experiences while visiting that city, no doubt many of them enjoyable, for he claims to have journeyed all over the entire city.
But now when the speaker looks back on that visit to the city of Baltimore, all he can recall is that he was called a horrible name. That deplorable epithet causes his memory to see only the face of an ugly little bigot poking out his tongue and hurling that despised word at him.
Final Comment: A Teaching Moment
This poem offers a valuable glimpse at a very brief experience in the life of a human being at the beginning of his life, the beginning of his consciousness as a human being.
Poems are not usually celebrated for teaching lessons, but if one wanted to teach a lesson, this poem offers a useful one: the power of hateful words can blot out the good.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes