Incident Background

Incident Background

Like the equally famous “And Yet I Marvel” the poem “Incident” was published in the first collection of verse by noted member of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen. The volume titled Color was published in 1925 when Cullen was a mere 22 year old struggling writer. Color is appropriately titled due to the overarching theme of the volume being that of the Black Experience in White America. Perhaps no other single poem in the collection hits the emotionally charged high mark of “Incident.”

In fact, the emotional wallop that comes from reading “Incident” has only increased over the century which has lapsed between the narrative and today. The poem is the recollection of an adult speaker of the time he was eight years old and visited the big city of Baltimore for the first time. All the excitement of anticipation and all the other good memories of the actual visit have successful been crushed by a young black boy's loss of innocence resulting from his meeting with evil. That particular strain of evil has proven itself evil by virtue of being passed down to those alive more than 100 years later. It an infestation of evil which still penetrates into American society every single day.

Quite literally everything changes for the young boy when a white kid from Baltimore no older than the speaker himself makes a face at the little visitor and “called me, 'Nigger.'”

Keep in mind when reading this poem that that word was routinely used in everyday discourse among a much broader spectrum of white society that one might imagine back then. Today, of course, it is forbidden—rightfully so—in polite society. Which only serves to make the moment the word appears all the more powerful. Which is, no doubt, one of the reasons that “Incident” is often regarded as one of the single most important poems to emerge not just from the Harlem Renaissance, from the world of African-American poets.

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