A single moment can sometimes define a person’s life. In Countee Cullen’s Incident, this was exactly the case. Cullen recalls a trip to Baltimore he took when he was younger and how ecstatic he was to partake in an exciting and new adventure. While riding around the town, he saw a local boy about his age gazing at him. For most kids, this would be a delightful encounter; a chance to make a new friend who probably had grand stories to share about his beloved city. Cullen innocently smiled at the boy only to hear a horrific epithet in return. His trip was far from over, but the damage was already done. With the utterance of a single word, Cullen’s entire trip was defined, and a memory to last a lifetime was super glued to his mind. As surprising as it may seem, such behavior was chiefly unordinary in the 1920’s when Incident was published.
Cullen uses several devices as well as heavy diction to convey the magnitude of the situation to the reader. Slight alliteration is seen as Cullen describes himself as “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” in anticipation of exploring old Baltimore (line 2). Imagery is also wielded in Cullen’s depiction of himself and the other boy, using age as well as size to aid in visualizing the situation. This is followed up with a pummeling of irony as intense hostility from a child is witnessed despite the fact that many people view children as innocent and impervious to racism. From here, Cullen forces the reader to empathize with him and anyone else who has felt the painful lash of discriminatory words. In doing so, Incident demonstrates just how powerful a weapon language can be, and how sometimes words can speak just as loud as actions.
Literary critics are also very attuned to just how much Cullen’s poem says about race. Although still young when the piece was published, it is evident that “The poetry of Countee Cullen is keenly aware of race” (Explanation). Some critics even go as far as to say that Cullen was “tortured” by the color of his skin and the ancestry of his heritage. Having lived a life in which he was abandoned by his mother and adopted by a reverend when he was older, Cullen’s childhood holds several gaps such as social skills and how to deal with criticism that are clearly addressed in Incident. Nonetheless, it is evident that a “deep impression” was made on Cullen in an event that can be considered “his initiation into racist America” which, unfortunately, everyone must experience at one time or another (Smith 218; Explanation).
“Explanation of: ‘Incident’ by John Fuller and Countee Cullen and Fleur Adcock.” LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2000. LitFinder. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.
Smith, Robert. “The Poetry of Countee Cullen.” Phylon 11.3 (1950): 216-21. JSTOR. Web. 31 July 2011.