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Incident -- Countee Cullen

(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.
-- Countee Cullen

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.



26 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Martin DeMello said...

What argument, what eloquence can avail against the power of that one word
"niggers?" The man of the world annihilates the whole combined force of all
the anti-slavery societies of the world by pronouncing it.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Journal [March 1845]

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