(Poem #1304) Incident
Once 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.
(1925) I have often referred to poems that, despite their age, show no signs of being dated. Cullen's "Incident" is one of the very few I've seen that have only gained in effectiveness with the passing years. The extreme severity with which the word 'nigger' is viewed makes the epithet far more shocking today than it would have been in 1925, and the poem's conclusion utterly - indeed, almost heartbreakingly - believable. Ironically, while Cullen strongly insisted that he be viewed as a "poet", rather than a "Black poet", today's poem is by far his best known (and, IMO, his most memorable). I am highly ambivalent about the term "Black poet" - while, on the one hand, it does recall absurdities like "lady novelist", on the other it is undeniable that Cullen's race would have had a strong influence on the treatment society afforded him, and, thus, an influence on the way his life, experiences, and ultimately work were shaped. While his poetic merits were indeed independent of the colour of his skin, the association of bodies of literature with the social groups that produced them is neither new nor, I feel, entirely wrong. Cullen was a great poet, yes, but he also contributed to that canon that captured the experience of being a black American, and I am unconvinced that that is irrelevant. On the gripping hand, the term does focus on what is merely one aspect of his life and work (a problem that postcolonial writers are facing even today) - even if Black poetry *is* a genre, it is not a genre on the same axis that defines, say, humorous poetry - and yet, it is frequently treated as such. On balance, I tend to agree with Cullen - he was, first and foremost, a poet, and it is a pity that history has not remembered him primarily as such. martin Biography: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ccullen.htm