Study Guide

Incident Themes

  • Prejudice

    Watch out Jane Austen, you're not the only author 'round here who's interested in exploring prejudice. At its heart, Countee Cullen's short poem is a treatment of one of the most ubiquitous forms of prejudice: the racial kind. And it explores the problem of racism in an incredibly succinct way (remember, folks, this powerful poem has only 12 lines). Cullen's "Incident" meditates on how prejudice operates in America, how it affects our speaker's sense of self, and how it can ruin even the most gleeful of days in one single moment—or, as the case may be, in one single incident.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Do you think that "Incident" is making an overt political comment? Or is it more focused on the experience of one little boy? Why do you think so?
    2. Can a personal experience be political? How would our speaker answer that question? What parts of the poem give you your ideas?
    3. Does the poem place blame on the young Baltimorean? How can you tell? Can a boy so young be responsible for his prejudicial words? Why or why not? 
    4. Is the poem still an effective comment on racism today in the 21st century? How have times changed? How have they not changed?

    Chew on This

    Straight up: "Incident" is a condemnation of racist culture in America.

    Actually, it's more complex than that. "Incident" does not condemn the young Baltimorean. As a little boy, he couldn't possibly understand the power of the word "nigger."

  • Language and Communication

    One of the themes of "Incident" is the power of language. And no, we're not talking about the power of Hamlet, or the power of the Gettysburg address (though both are stuffed with super-powerful words). We're talking about the power of a single word. And as you know from reading the poem, that word is "nigger." It's a word with a long, complicated, and frankly terrifying history, and it's always been a form of hate speech. "Incident" dramatizes the power of this one short word as it tells the speaker's tale. There are few words in the English language with such a loaded history of pain, prejudice, hate, and enslavement. "Incident" amazingly captures all this history in just 12 short lines.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Do you think that the Baltimorean realizes the power of the word "nigger"? Does the poem give you any clues that he does or doesn't? What are they?
    2. Do you think that this is the first time that the speaker has encountered the word "nigger"? Why do you think so?
    3. Have times changed since Cullen first published the poem in 1925? Is the word "nigger" as powerfully offensive today as it was almost 100 years ago? Why do you think so? 
    4. Aside from the Baltimorean's comment, how does the speaker's word choice in the poem drive home the power of language? What words stand out to you and why?

    Chew on This

    Zip it. We should never use the word "nigger" in speech—it's too offensive even to refer to in the context of the poem.

    It's important to use the word "nigger" when discussing the poem; "Incident" is all about the power of the actual word. By discussing it openly, we're able to better appreciate its harmful power and so avoid it in future.

  • Coming of Age

    "Incident" isn't super-explicit about its coming of age theme, but it's there nonetheless. The incident that the poem describes is a moment of shock, but it's also a moment in which the speaker understands something new (and awful) about the world, and his place in it. It's a major bummer to think that this moment of coming of age comes about not because of an awesome achievement or a happy experience for the speaker (like winning a spelling bee or having his first kiss), but because of a disgusting moment of racial prejudice. Blech. But such was the reality for many African Americans in the beginning of the 20th century, and unfortunately, the reality for many racial minorities even still today.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How would you describe the relationship between the speaker as an adult, and the young version of him on the bus? What does the present day speaker know that his young self doesn't know? What parts of the poem give you your ideas?
    2. Has any good come out of the speaker's experience and recognition of racism in the world? What might that be? 
    3. If the speaker were older than eight at the time of the incident, might things have happened differently? How important is the speaker's young age in the poem? 
    4. For that matter, how important is the Baltimorean's age? Do you think the impact of this word would be harsher or softer if the person saying it were an adult, instead of the speaker's age?

    Chew on This

    As painful as it is, the speaker learns a valuable lesson in this poem. Namely: prejudice is real, and people can be just the worst.

    The speaker would have been much better off not knowing about jerkfaces like the Baltimorean until he became old enough to deal with the grim reality of racism.