Study Guide

Incident

By Countee Cullen

Incident Introduction

Racism. It was a huge problem in the 1920s when Countee Cullen wrote the poem "Incident," and, let's face it: it's a huge problem today. "Incident"tackles the issue head-on, and there's no question that it takes an important stand against racial prejudice. Even though the poem was written almost 100 years ago, it still manages to ring true today. This probably means two things:

  1. "Incident" is a darn good poem.
  2. America still has a long way to go when it comes to racial equality.

"Incident" is a short poem that packs a huge punch. Its speaker is an African-American man who looks back on a pivotal moment of his life in which he encounters racism. And it's not a subtle kind of racism. The incident of "Incident" is overt, personal, and in-your-face. It sticks with the speaker for a long time. (And we bet it will stick with you for a pretty long time too).

Now for a little bit about the dude who wrote this powerful poem: Countee Cullen (1903-1942) was a poet, playwright, activist, and educator who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the African-American arts and cultural movement that spanned the 1920s. Cullen is most famous for his poetry, and poems like "Incident," (published in 1925 in the book Color), "Heritage," and "Yet Do I Marvel" helped define what it meant to be black in America in the years after the first World War. Cullen was deeply involved in African-American culture and politics, and he was pals with the leading black intellectuals of the age. For a time, he was even married to Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP and author of The Souls of Black Folk.

Despite all of his associations with the black community, Cullen always insisted that he didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a black poet speaking to black audiences. He wanted to be considered a poet, first and foremost. He wanted to speak to all Americans, not just to the ones who looked like him.

Based on what he wrote, then, we think that "Incident" is a total victory for Cullen. How 'bout you?

What is Incident About and Why Should I Care?

Did you come to "Incident" expecting some vampire action? Maybe hoping for a link between Countee Cullen and Edward Cullen? We hate to disappoint you Twilight fans, but, as far as Shmoop can tell, there's no relation between Countee and Edward.

But wait, don't give up on "Incident" just cause of its lack of vampire fangs. This poem's got actual, human, real-life fangs. It tells the story of a young boy who gets (metaphorically) slapped in the face with painful, raw, racism. Whether you're black or white, young or old, male or female, chances are that this poem will hit you where it hurts. You don't need to have been the victim of racism to empathize with the boy in the poem.

And that's actually the cool thing about it. For a moment, "Incident" transports you into the mind and body of a young boy who has to come to terms with the truth of racism real fast. It's impossible not to feel what he feels, and it brings the sometimes vague or abstract notions of discrimination and prejudice close to home. You can't turn away from "Incident" unmoved.

Check out the poem and let us know what you think. Forget Edward Cullen; Countee's our favorite Cullen now.

Incident Resources

Websites

The Poetry Foundation on Cullen
Check out everything you ever wanted to know about Countee but were afraid to ask.

Modern American Poetry on Cullen
This is a great resource on his poetry from the good folks at the University of Illinois.

Black Baltimore in Transition
This website looks at the history of African Americans in Baltimore leading up to the time of our poem: 1870-1920.

Video

A Lecture on the Harlem Renaissance
This is by smarty-pants Yale professor Jonathon Holloway

Time for a Slide Show!
This video presents film, stills, and art associated with both the Harlem Renaissance and Countee Cullen.

Free Speech?
This is a home-made vid, but we think it asks some powerful questions about where we draw the line between free speech and hate speech, especially on college campuses.

Audio

Juxta
Okay, so it's no Jay-Z, but this hip-hop(ish) take relates "Incident" to a racially-charged, modern-day incident: the Trayvon Martin shooting.

"Incident," Live
Check out this live interpretation by M. Ayodele Heath.

Images

Young Countee
Looking good, Cullen!

Older Countee
Looking distinguished, Mr. Cullen.

Color
Check out this first edition of the book where "Incident" first appeared. Ain't it snazzy?

Articles & Interviews

Cullen's Obit in The New York Times
Read it and weep—literally.

NY Writers Hall of Fame
Our dude Countee gets inducted.

Books

Countee Cullen: Collected Poems
Read 'em all!

Caroling Dusk
Check out Cullen's must-read anthology of black poets in the '20s.

Jean Toomer's Cane
Like "Incident"? If so, we highly recommend the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer.

Movies & TV

The Harlem Renaissance
Here's a documentary that gives some background to the time and place of Cullen's work.