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, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
–“Incident” by Countee Cullen
In “Incident,” Cullen immerses the reader in the experience of racism through the eyes of a young boy. By learning about hatred and trauma through the eyes of children, the reader witnesses a dual loss of innocence. As children begin acting out and experiencing the discrimination they are taught, the duplicity of this loss becomes an unfortunate rite of passage that leads to the propagation of stereotypes, discrimination, and inequality in our society.
Cullen frames the incident between two children. Children are often characterized as innocent in that they do not share the same disillusionment with the world that adults hold. With this innocence comes impressionability. Children do not understand the anger and hatred of the world naturally. No one is born with words such as “nigger” or “cunt” in their vocabulary. These preconceived notions, these hateful words, are taught. The replication of hatred and prejudice within our society is born out of the impressionability of children, and as children enter society they become tainted as they carry out the prejudice passed down to them.
This impressionability is characterized in the exchange between these two young boys. For the speaker, this first experience of hatred taints his entire memory of his time in Baltimore, and his characterization of the people of that city. As the tone of the poem quickly shifts from lighthearted to full of sadness, the narrator’s happy and idealistic point of view fades as he loses his innocence. Beyond the experience of racism for the victim, the boy who carries out this act of hatred, who is “no whit bigger” than the narrator, also loses his innocence. This boy spews his hatred in using the word, “nigger,” almost naturally and without a second thought in reacting to seeing the black boy. The significance of a child carrying out an act of hate onto another child is the dual loss of childhood. The hostility of this encounter dually changes the nature of their innocence. This passing of discrimination between generations through impressionable children exemplifies the difficulty of breaking societal norms.
This propagation of hatred between the white boy and black boy parallels the struggle women often face in their oppression by men. There are natural gendered hierarchies that exist in society that hinder women from achieving equality in American society. These hierarchies, like racist tendencies, are taught through the generations and passed down when children take a rite of passage into adulthood in acting out stereotypes that are deemed normative by society. The lessons we learn from society and our experiences as children with gender assignment and constructs promotes the oppression of women.
From a young age I was taught by my mother that I should like dolls, cross my legs, and speak softly to be more feminine. These principles were reinforced as I went through the college selection process. My parents feared that going to a public university could harm my prospects of meeting a wealthy man who could support me. I was told that overt sexuality in a women was slutty, and acting this way meant that I deserved sexual violence. At my dinner table I often heard rape jokes that a victim of sexual assault must have “raped him” in order to have the man want to sleep with a “loose woman.” Simultaneously, my brother was encouraged to like action figures, be outspoken, date lots of women and strive towards success. When he began having sexual encounters, my parents cheered him on in his “conquests,” whilst my father often called me a slut. My brother was told he could be anything and do anything, while I was only given limitations.
My value as a woman was shaped in the image of seeking male reinforcement.
What happened in my family is not different from the lessons taught to boys and girls in many families and in society as a whole. In all my actions, I was faced with some sort of double standard based on gender or sexuality. I especially began to notice the different value added to my body and my appearance in validating myself as a young woman. As I entered my early adolescence, I did not understand the implications of this division between boys and girls. I only understood that a division existed because I was told it existed, and felt as though I had to uphold a construct that was taught to me before I understood its significance.
I will never forget the way boys spoke about me and other girls when I was in middle school. Andrea Dworkin, a well-known feminist author, connects female objectification with male validation: “Beauty is rewarded and lack of beauty is punished… and women do not understand the lengths to which men go to protect themselves and their society from contamination by ugly women who do not induce a lustful desire to punish, violate, or destroy, though men manage to punish, violate, or destroy these women anyway.” Like the incident described by Cullen, of my time in middle school, my clearest memories are of a few instances where double standards of gender and notions of femininity were pushed onto me. For instance, the boys would say the breasts of an overweight girl in my grade were “flubber nuggets.” This taunt, and other cruel characterizations of the female body by our male peers, drove us girls to develop eating disorders and a sense of worthlessness without male validation. The boys commenced a pattern of objectifying the female body and validating their masculinity with the verbal abuse of women. As women, we began to understand the control men have over us in punishing the female form.
My value as a women was shaped in the image of seeking male reinforcement. This developed with looks as the driver of this validation, pushing me to develop an eating disorder that I struggled with for seven years, and still fight against every day. As I came to see to the division and inequality between the genders I found it hard to unlearn what had been forced upon me. Unconsciously, I would seek male approval in verbal validation and sexual gratification. This need for approval only worsened the conditions of my preconceived notions of who society wanted me to be in the eyes of men as well as women. Even as I escaped my eating disorder, I fell deeper into despair as I experienced sexual violence and came face to face with the realities of female inequality. This inequality crept into my life naturally as rite of passage into my womanhood that I did not invite nor want, but larger forces drove towards me.
My perception of myself and boys was shaped by notions developed before I understood myself or social dynamics. I still carry these insecurities and a sense of worthlessness. As I interact with children now, I see them forming ideas about themselves and society in terms of race and gender based on the dynamics they witness around them. “Incident” addresses this issue by portraying children committing acts of hatred upon each other. Like the tone of the poem, children’s understanding of social dynamics is lighthearted and sweet, until they begin carrying out and experiencing taught racial/gender norms. When this occurs, children participate in a cycle in which together they lose their acceptance of everyone in the world, and begin becoming adults shaped by the often cynical attitudes of society. Formative experiences shape discriminatory idealisms that children do not understand. The pervasive usage of such idealisms causes children to lose their innocence, tainting hope of a more tolerant, progressive future.
by Juliana Emmanuelli
Jules is a laid back creative writer with a knack for prose. She began writing after becoming obsessed with the lyricism of NAS, Biggie, and Neil Young. She’s always a fan and supporter of experimental feminist writing, and has a deep love of literature that pushes boundaries.