Probably the most underrated African American poet of his time, Countee Cullen is a very rebellious protester themed writer who is all about securing the rights and dignity of black people and uses that very passion to fuel his poetry. In the poem “Incident”, Cullen uses a mixture of rhetorical devices which he incorporates into his ironic rhythmic syntax to help emphasize to readers the effect of racism had on children living in the early -mid 1900’s, a big time of racism. Written in 1925, Cullen used this poem as a way for him to vent his feelings and frustration and inform the ignorant all at the same time. The poem talks about a young African American boy who is excited that he is visiting Baltimore and while there he comes across another young boy that is his same age and size but he is white and then the young boy is surprised by a powerful and crude racial slur. The poem is not as head as Cullen makes it seems, it is actually an ironic poem. The first hint of irony is found early in the poem “Now I eight and very small/And he was no whit bigger” (5-6). A reader would think that the racist bullying would come from someone bigger than the kid in the poem when in all actuality it was from someone his own size, and that’s exactly what Cullen is trying to show, that racism came from all ages and happened between all spectrums of ages, a teen and an adult, an adult and a child, anyone. The Spencer 2
irony does not stop there, you see another glance of it in the last stanza, “And he was no whit bigger”(6). In the poem wit is spelled W.H.I.T but, the correct spelling of wit is W.I.T and this is no spelling error, this is actually a small pun Cullen uses to help emphasize his racial theme. It’s as if Cullen takes the “E” off of white and if it’s put back it’s “No white-bigger”. Cullen used this play on words to show the mental deception that was used by white people used to make themselves seem intellectually superior. Not only is the content of this poem unique, but so is the structure. In the first stanza the syllables of each line alternate 8 and 6, then for the rest of the poem alternates 8 and 7. This unique syllable structure gives the poem a rhythmic under tone of joy, which in turn when it mixed with the content and theme of racism brings out more of the poem’s irony which is one of the main style focuses of this poem.
Cullen’s inspirations of his life and passions are definitely evident in this poem. First off the location of the poem was set in Baltimore, MD and although much of Cullen’s early biographical information is shady and unclear, Baltimore has said to be one of Cullen’s possible birth places which is hinted in the poem, “Once riding in old Baltimore”(1). Another key connection is that Cullen lived in a time period where racism and segregation was a very popular idea so an incident such as the one in the poem occurring to Cullen is a very strong possibility.
Cullen’s unique writing stlye and complex syntax that is shown in his poem Incident is what made him one of the best writers of his time, and although the topic of the poem is still a touchy subject for most Incident is a poem that has been and will be a poem worth reading for centuries.
Cullen, Countee. Magill’s Survey of American Literature: Pasadena: Salem Press, 2007, print, V.2