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Countee Cullen’s “Incident,” is primarily about a young person’s experience while visiting Baltimore and the racism he/she encounters. After growing up, he recalls this event and is sharing his experience with us, the readers (assuming the poem is autobiographical in nature). The first two lines reveal a young boy riding in Baltimore with happiness not only in mind, but in heart as well, “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” (). The image that I got was a young boy enjoying his childhood with not a care in the world. The tone of the poem changes entirely when he mentions that a stranger “keep looking straight at me” (4). The appearance changes where before a boy is smiling and having a good time and now all of a sudden there is some kind of tension awaiting him. Despite this, he continues to smile, but the stranger calls him “Nigger” with his “poked out” tongue (7). The poem concludes with the narrator seeing the “whole of Baltimore” () for more than half a year, but this incident is the only thing he remembers from his entire stay there. It took only that one event to leave an impression about Baltimore that was unforgettable.

The theme that Cullen conveyed to me was that racism is rampant even at the juvenile age of eight. Racism, a predisposition of hatred and prejudice, creates such an imprint on this boy that this was the lone event he can recall. The figurative language was very descriptive in that it not only made it easy to picture the poem but the title itself foreshadowed what may occur. After reading the title and the first two lines of the poem, I felt a sense of warmth from the boy’s glee, yet knew something was going to happen; the very nature of the word “incident” conjures a feeling that something unpleasant may be about to occur. Words and phrases such as “glee”, “straight at me”, and “no whit bigger” create visual cues that help us, the readers picture the scene that was taking place making the poem very real. Because of this, it is quite easy to imagine this taking place and actually occurring. In addition, the pattern of sound with the odd numbered lines containing eight syllables followed by the even numbered lines containing six syllables made the poem very consistent, rolling off of my tongue while I was reciting it. This helped to reel in my imagining of the scene making the poem more vivid. Furthermore, the poem implements a rhyme scheme where the second and fourth lines of every stanza rhyme. This reinforced my ability to picture the poem allowing me to feel the narrator; not only was I imagining that I was there, but to also gather the same feelings the narrator himself experienced.

Cullen’s “Incident” defines itself, and causes me as a reader to think not only about racism, but also how merely one occasion (or incident) brings us to make judgments about a race or a place. It is interesting that the traveling child himself labels the name-caller as “a Baltimorean” (). He assumes [the name-caller] is from Baltimore but perhaps he is not from there at all. While “Nigger” is obviously a horrific label, the mere fact that the narrator himself labels his name-caller “a Baltimorean” suggests something about Baltimore. Is it a coincidence that this took place in Baltimore, or is Cullen trying to convey something about it to his readers? The poem relates to the society and culture when Cullen lived, however, it is sad to say that things have not changed dramatically since that time. Although racism is not as pervasive as it once was, it is still ingrained in our society and quite easy to imagine this occurring even today.


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