The central theme of “Incident” is racism. Initially, the poem’s speaker is gleefully exploring the city of Baltimore. When another child sticks out his tongue and calls him a racial epithet or slur, it has an intensely destructive effect. Though he continues to spend several months in Baltimore, the only thing that remains in his memory from the experience is this harmful encounter.
The speaker and the other little boy use names in different ways. The speaker describes the other boy only as a “Baltimorean.” He does not specify his race or put him in a categorical box, but rather notices that they have many things in common. In contrast, the Baltimorean boy uses name-calling to categorize the speaker as “other.” This act of naming hurts the speaker and ruins his experience of Baltimore.
The use of the N-word in the United States is connected to a long history of slavery and racial subjugation. The poet Langston Hughes, another key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, had this to say about this word and its effect:
“Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.” (from The Big Sea, 1940)
Seeing versus looking
The speaker describes the moment where he “saw a Baltimorean.” For him, seeing means observing another person closely. The speaker notices that the other child is about his own age and size and is a local to Baltimore. In contrast, the other child is “looking straight” at the speaker, but does not truly see him. Instead, he reads the other child merely in terms of race and reduces him to a racial slur. The effect of this encounter is that the speaker “saw the whole of Baltimore” without being able to truly see it: all the details and observations are reduced to this single, harmful incident.
Change versus stasis
Another effect of this encounter with racism is that the speaker’s experiences are brought to a standstill. Initially, he observes Baltimore “heart-filled, head-filled with glee.” After being insulted, the entire city of Baltimore is reduced to this one moment. The change of the seasons “From May until December,” and all the phenomena it entails, are reduced to a single bad memory.
Incident Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Incident is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.