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Interpretation of Poem “Incident”- Countee Cullen

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The poem Incident, by Countee Cullen, is one that could be described as a piece of Lyric Poetry. This is because it is a short poem that focuses in on the emotion of the poem, not the speaker or the event as much. Cullen shows how the happy feelings at the beginning of the poem change drastically to the hateful feelings at the end of the poem.

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The character in this poem begins his trip to Baltimore full of joy and excitement. He sees a boy from Baltimore about his age staring at him. Thinking he could possibly make a friend he smiled, but was totally unprepared for the boy's reaction. Instead of a friendly gesture in return the boy stuck out his tongue and called him a "nigger." As you could imagine the boy's feelings were hurt. Out of all the things he experienced during his seven month stay in Baltimore that dreadful incident was the most memorable for him. After reading that poem I felt sympathy for the young boy and mad at the "Baltimorean" for being so cruel. This poem appealed to my emotions and moved me. It was a shame that someone at his tender age of eight had to encounter such discrimination

The boy's innocence and naive ness is what makes readers feel sorry for him. I think that is why Cullen chose to make the character in his poem so young. If the boy had been a grown man instead I don't think his readers would have had the same reaction because in that time period that incident was nothing out of the ordinary. It was common to hear of a black man experiencing that kind of discrimination and things far worse like lynching.

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At this point in the poem, it can be noted that a Black individual with a “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” is an ironic statement since Baltimore, Maryland has a history of Black slavery (Phillips 18)

Hence, a Black individual roaming the locality of Baltimore with a cheerful countenance appears to strike the attention of those who have lived there and those who have an understanding of the historical context of the society. Hence, it is no surprise that the Baltimorean kept “looking straight” at the speaker. In the context of Saussure, the concept of “old Baltimore” may suggest the presumption that it may not necessarily be the case that the area of “Baltimore” is not to be taken strictly in the sense of being “old” in terms of age.As a child of eight years, the psychological effects of the experience of being called a “Nigger” is emotionally or psychologically devastating which is the idea being presented in the last stanza (Piaget 81).

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Obviously, the act of trying to force an ideal of spirituality into a societal mold doesn’t seem to work and only seems to result in a lack of understanding on the part of the society. Such is the example in Countee Cullen’s poem. His ability to sing may have come from God but it didn’t fit what his community was used to and so resulted in persecution

Inevitably society cannot replace spirituality without losing a portion of it’s soul and resulting in men that are devoid of life.

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Cullen, Countee. “Incident.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties. New York, N.Y.: Citadel, 1993. 187.

Phillips, Christopher. “Slavery and the Growth of Baltimore.” Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Blacks in the New World). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Piaget, Jean. “Memory and the Structure of Imge-Memories.” The Psychology of the Child. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2000. 81.

Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men” The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Eds. John Bryan, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 249- 253.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

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