Incident Study Guide

“Incident” is one of the most famous poems from Countee Cullen’s first and most famous poetry collections: Color (1925). Cullen was a rather traditional poet. His main influence was the nineteenth-century English Romantic poet John Keats. He was also fond of the English classical scholar and poet A. E. Housman. Cullen was a traditionalist: he wrote almost all of his poetry in accepted forms like ballads and sonnets, using established meter and rhyme schemes. He was against the idea of a separate tradition of African American poetry. Instead, he wanted to succeed by writing poetry in the (almost exclusively white) mainstream of English and American poetry.

Despite seeing himself not as an African American poet but simply as a poet, writing about the same universal themes (love, death, beauty) as any other, many of Cullen's poems did directly address questions of race and racism. “Incident” is one of a number of poems dealing with such themes. The poem describes an eight-year-old child's first direct encounter with the reality of racism. Using deceptively simple language, it portrays the psychological toll of racism.