18 pages 36 minutes read

Countee Cullen


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1925

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Summary and Study Guide


Countee Cullen published “Incident” in his 1925 poetry collection Color. Cullen relies on a traditional English form—the ballad—to tell the then-contemporary story of Black Americans confronting racism as a powerful force in American society. The collection as a whole made Cullen’s reputation as one of the exemplary Black writers of the 1920s.

Cullen is associated with the early Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of Black American political, creative, and economic activity during the 1920s. Intellectual and political leaders exhorted Black writers and artists to use their work to change racist attitudes toward Black people, a necessary first step in gaining true freedom. “Incident” rises to this task by detailing a Black child’s awakening to the ugliness of racism. Alongside the poems “Heritage” and “Yet Do I Marvel,” “Incident” is among the most anthologized and influential of Cullen’s poems.

Poet Biography

Countee Leroy Porter was born in 1903 in or near Louisville, Kentucky. After the death of his guardians, Porter moved to Harlem and took his new guardian’s last name, Cullen (“Countee Cullen.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2023). The precocious Cullen published poetry while a student at DeWitt Clinton High School. During his college years at New York University, Cullen won national student awards for his work.

Cullen published Color, his first poetry collection, in 1925, a watershed year during which the Harlem Renaissance coalesced. Cullen’s work in Color shows the formal influence of English forms like the sonnet (a genre of poetry with highly structured rhyme and meter). The influence of English Romanticism—the 18th-century literary movement in which heightened emotional states, communion with nature, and the marvel of human creativity became central to literary culture in England—is readily apparent in poems such as “To John Keats, Poet. At Spring Time (For Carl Van Vechten) (Spring, 1924),” a poem addressed to one of the most famous Romantic poets. “Heritage,” another poem from the collection, dramatizes the struggle of the Black poet to carve out a place in the Western literary tradition.

Cullen continued his formal education by enrolling in Harvard University’s master’s program in English. During the late 1920s, he completed his degree and married Nina Yolande Du Bois, a teacher and daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, another architect of the Harlem Renaissance. The wedding was the social event of the year, so when it quickly ended amid rumors of Cullen’s sexual interest in men, Cullen’s reputation diminished, likely due to anti-gay bias (see Schwarz, Christa A. B. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2003). These years were creatively productive ones, however. Cullen won a Guggenheim Fellowship that he used to study in France. He published Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929).

Cullen used his clout to edit and publish Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties in 1927, an anthology that included works by younger Black poets who exemplified Cullen’s belief that there was poetry by Black poets but not necessarily a clearly defined Black school of poetry unified by themes or style. Cullen also did a stint as the literary editor for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a journal published by Black civic organization the National Urban League. The position gave Cullen a bigger platform. He used his influence to advance the thesis that Black poets could shape the conversation around Black identity and racism by showing their mastery of traditional literary forms and interpreting Black experience through traditional Anglo American forms. Art, he believed, transcended race.

DuBois and other influence-makers endorsed the idea that Black poets working in traditional forms could and should serve the political aims of Black America. Younger Black poets such as Langston Hughes took Cullen to task for what they saw as an inherently craven position that failed to acknowledge the autonomy of the artist and the richness of Black popular and oral culture. Cullen’s preference for the older English poets over the more experimental work of the 1920s also put him out of step with the broader literary culture of the times.

Cullen’s pace of publication dwindled. He struggled financially and took a teaching position in New York City public schools during the 1930s. He published the novel One Way to Heaven (1932), The Medea and Some Poems (1935). He also published The Lost Zoo (A Rhyme for the Young, But Not Too Young) (1940) with Christopher Cat and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942), works aimed at younger readers. He married again in the early 1940s. Before his death, he worked on songs that eventually became a part of the musical St. Louis Woman, which came to the stage only after his death in 1946. He was 42 years old (“Countee Cullen.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2023).

Poem Text

Content Warning: This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word.

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, “N*****.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore

   From May until December:

Of all the things that happened there

   That’s all that I remember.

Cullen, Countee. “Incident.” 1925. Poetry Foundation.


In the first stanza, the speaker describes a childhood memory of riding through the streets of segregated Baltimore, Maryland. The speaker felt a sense of exhilaration with each new thing they saw. One noteworthy moment was when a little boy kept staring at the speaker. The speaker didn’t know what to make of the staring but took it in a friendly way.

In the second stanza, the speaker notes that they and the little boy were close in age and almost exactly the same size. The speaker assumed that they had something in common as a result. The speaker smiled at the boy as a gesture of friendliness. The boy didn’t smile back. He was a white child who instead stuck out his tongue in disgust and called the speaker a racial slur.

In the final stanza, the speaker uses vague language to describe the seven months they subsequently spent in Baltimore. They saw every part of the city in great detail. Many things must have happened during those months. Despite how deeply they came to know Baltimore, the speaker only remembers what the white boy said and did. This brief encounter left a mark that the speaker is still striving to understand.