Countee Cullen published this poem in his first collection, Color, in 1925. In the three short stanzas, the poet reflects on a memorable and disturbing incident from his youth. The poem deals with themes of growing up and racism.
Additionally, this poem is dedicated to Eric Walrond, a friend of Countee Cullen’s and a fellow writer. He is best known for his book, Tropic Death.
Incident Countee CullenOnce 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.
‘Incident’ by Countee Cullen is a memorable poem that describes a cruel incident from the poet’s youth.
This poem begins with the speaker describing how he was eight years old and riding around Baltimore. He was thrilled to be there and felt glee at everything he saw. He noticed someone in the city, a Baltimorean, staring at him. He notes that this other child, looking at him intently, was not much older or bigger.
He remembers smiling at the Baltimorean, and then, rather than reciprocating his kindness, the other child stuck out his tongue at the speaker and used a racial slur. Throughout the rest of the year, the young speaker saw all of Baltimore, but, despite many other more pleasant experiences, this one “incident” is the only thing that stuck with him.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of essential themes like:
- Racism: is the most important theme at work within the short poem. Interestingly, until the other child uses a racial slur, the speaker’s race does not come into play. The gleeful, youthful speaker is taking pleasure in seeing Baltimore for the first time, and rather than exchanging smiles with a child his age, he is met with a perspective-changing racial slur. The poet’s use of juxtaposition at this moment allows readers to interpret the way that this single act of racism and hatred changed the speaker’s understanding of the world.
- Growing Up/Loss of Innocence: while the speaker does not explicitly say that this incident critically changed him as he was growing up, readers can infer that this cruel encounter with another child helped to solidify his understanding of racism within his contemporary society. The speaker (likely the poet), at eight years old, tried to express kindness to someone his own age and was greeted with hatred and racism. This likely changed his expectations of what he might encounter on an everyday basis.
This poem recalls a cruel incident from the poet’s childhood. As a young boy of only eight years old, he was addressed with a racial slur by another child while happily exploring a new city. The poem suggests that casual racism, such as that demonstrated by the child who was not “a whit” bigger than the speaker, is common. The poem implies that the speaker was changed by this incident in a fundamental way and that he likely came to expect this kind of treatment from people around him.
The incident also serves as an allegory representing the broader experiences of Black Americans and other marginalized communities.
Structure and Form
‘Incident’ by Countee Cullen is a ballad that is divided into three four-line stanzas, known as quatrains. The even-numbered lines rhyme, and the odd-numbered lines do not rhyme in each stanza. This creates a rhyme scheme of ABCB (the traditional pattern used in ballads).
The poem is also written in ballad or hymn meter. This means that the lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The odd-numbered lines contain four iambs (or sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed), and the even-numbered lines contain three iambs.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Juxtaposition: can be seen through the poet’s use of intentionally contrasting images. For example, the Baltimorean’s cruel address to the young speaker and the speaker’s previous description of himself as filled with glee.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the second stanza.
- Assonance: the use of repetitive, matching vowel sounds. For example, the “e” sound in “Baltimorean” and “me” in stanza one and the “I” sound in “riding” and “I” in the same stanza.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Heart-filled, head-filled.”
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker provides readers with small details about the setting. The stanza is only four lines long, but readers can easily imagine someone, later described as an eight-year-old boy, riding in a car in Baltimore. His heart and head are both filled with “glee.”
Here, the poet beings the poem with a light-hearted and joyful tone. At first, readers expect to be exposed to a happy narrative of a child seeing a new city for the first time. But, there is a compelling turn within the second stanza that changes the purpose of this short ballad.
He’s exploring the city and seeing a great deal that’s new to him. While traveling the streets, he “saw a Baltimorean” who was looking at him.
Again, at first, this doesn’t seem like a particularly important encounter. Nor do the lines suggest that there is any reason that this other person, who is later also described as a child, would feel anything other than kindness and curiosity towards someone their own age.
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.”
The speaker, commonly interpreted as the poet himself, was only eight years old and “very small.” These details help readers imagine an innocent and youthful boy who, by no stretch of the imagination, poses a threat. The child he saw staring at him, the Baltimorean, was “no whit bigger.” This should, again, unite the two boys. They are both in the same city, around the same age, and about the same size.
But, when the speaker smiles at this other child, he “poked out / His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.” The use of the slur in this poem is a powerful use of juxtaposition. Up until this point, the poem was progressing smoothly and peacefully. But, the other child, conditioned into racism by those around him, refuses to return the speaker’s kind smile.
This “incident” is allegorical in nature. It represents the broader experiences of Black men, women, and children within the United States (both before, during, and after Countee Cullen’s lifetime).
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
The final lines are deeply sad and present a very different image of the speaker from that which readers were introduced to. At first, he was filled with glee in both his head and heart, to visit the city of Baltimore. But, at the end of his trip, when looking back on all the things that happened there from May to December, this one incident is “all that I remember.”
This suggests that racist attitudes and policies are not just economically and socially impactful but have a wide-ranging impact on the day-to-day experiences of marginalized community members of all ages. Although the speaker was only a child, this “incident” ruined his concept of Baltimore and likely influenced his expectations when meeting new people in new places for the rest of his life.
This poem describes the effect one encounter with a cruel, racist slur-using child had on a youthful, Black speaker during his visit to Baltimore. The incident serves as an allegory demonstrating the everyday racism that Black Americans experience.
‘The Incident’ is a ballad. It is separated into four quatrains, or four-line stanzas, and uses the rhyme scheme of ABCB. The poem also uses a ballad meter. That is, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
Cullen’s poems often touched on themes of Black experience and culture, racism, struggles in contemporary life, family, love, and more.
This poem was written sometime in the 1920s. It was published in Cullen’s first collection, Color, released in 1925.
Countee Cullen died in 1946 at the age of forty-two. He passed away from uremia poisoning and complications from high blood pressure. Today, he is remembered as one of the most important figures in the Harlem Renaissance, alongside authors like Langston Hughes.
Readers who enjoy this poem should also consider exploring some other Countee Cullen poetry. For example:
- ‘From the Dark Tower’ – is a thoughtful poem about the Black experience. It suggests that there is a brighter future on the horizon.
- ‘Hey, Black Child’ – is a moving and memorable poem that is directed to and dedicated to all the black children who have been taught by the world that their lives can’t amount to anything.
- ‘Any Human to Another’ – describes how essential human interaction is. He also reveals how one person suffering affects everyone.