Racist Societies and Kids Behavior
To what extent do racist societies affect the way children act? This question is raised by Coutee Cullen in his poem “Incident”. Cullen claims that kids are influenced by the way society treats them. He also explains that a simple “incident” of racism can have a big impact in their lives. Kids learn so much about people around them and they act like others around them do. They are raised in many environments and therefore think in different ways about what is right and what is wrong. The meaning that a single word can have in their minds can have a huge impact on the rest of their lives. Racism has always been a controversy among different societies, the most affected by it are children and their behavior, because it is their knowledge and the way they perceived the world that decides the future of the next generations.
Cullen’s poem is not just about a kid who was riding in Baltimore, it is about a kid whose emotions of joy were frustrated by a simple “incident” of racism. In the first stanza the speaker sounds happy and excited to be in Baltimore when he says, “Heard-filled, head-fill with glee”,he was obviously glad to be in a new place and he wanted to make friends. The speaker saw a kid staring at him “I saw a Baltimorean/ keep looking straight at me” (236). The speaker was wondering about the other kid, he didn’t have any reason to stare at him in such manner. He thought that the “Baltimorean”(236) wanted to be his friend. We can imply by the way he uses the word “Baltimorean” that he is remembering that experience with anger and hostility. We can perceive the pain of the speaker while he is recalling this memory. At this point in the poem it is noticeable that something bad is going to happen. He uses the word “Baltimorean” as if he was referring to an unknown person or even strange specie with no feelings. He is in some way generalizing about the people of Baltimore, just like the kid did to him.
In the second stanza the speaker introduces the other kid or “Baltimorean”. He says that both of them were about the same age “Now I was eight and very small/ he was no whit bigger than me”(236). The speaker is also trying to makes us see that he was very little to understand the real world. At the same time he realizes that they were so different, because although they were the same age, they lived in different societies with different believes. The speaker doesn’t say if the kid was a white kid directly but he uses the word “whit” suggesting it, because it has a similar spelling and sound.
Cullen was about eight years old and such an innocent kid but the “incident” he went through made him understand the real world in a really cruel way. He says “And so I smiled, but he poked out/ His tongue and called me ‘Nigger'”(236). We can tell the innocence of the speaker when he says “And so I smiled” He had no idea why the other kid was looking at him. He wanted to be friends with the kid but his illusions were killed by the act of the “Baltimorean”. The speaker wasn’t expecting this from the kid. The fact that the kid “poked out his tongue” wasn’t as impacting as the word “nigger”. He used this word to show his rejection and his hate against black people. In this stanza we can see the hateful feelings and the racism of the white kid or “Baltimorean”. Obviously, this kid lived in a society where racism was a major feeling. Apparently the speaker lived in a place where people were not treated differently, or at least people surrounding him. The speaker didn’t experience anything like that before, it makes me feel that this act was just the first one in a series of acts he would have to endure as an adult because of the color of his skin.
Colleen’s use of poetic techniques allows the reader to feel the way the speaker does. He uses words that mean two different things such as “whit”. “Whit” means small, but Cullen has a purpose for the use of this word. He wanted to use a connotation suggesting us that the Baltimorean kid is white. He also, use strong words such as “Nigger”, the purpose of this word is to chock the reader and to transmit the pain and anger of the speaker.
The speaker was very young and he already faced the consequences of being an African American in the 1920s. This incident changed his life forever even as an adult. He was eight and he was full of joy and happiness. His innocence was corrupted by the hateful act of another kid who was as innocent as him; he was just trying to imitate the way adults behaved in his society. The “Baltimorean” was an ignorant child because he did not realize the consequences of his act against the speaker. The kid was raised with other values and it wasn’t his intention to cause such a big trauma to the speaker, he was just imitating what he sees.
In the final stanza the speaker as an adult is looking back to his trip to Baltimore. He shows his resentment and his pain. When he says “I saw the whole of Baltimore/ From may until December: / Of all the things that happened there/ that’s all I remember”(236). The meaning of these last words is so powerful because even though he spent seven months in Baltimore, that “incident” is the only thing he remembers from the city. It made such a big impact on the child that even as an adult he can express his innocence and disappointment at the first act of hate he had to endure in his life. The speaker recalls this “incident” as it just had happened, from all his experiences in Baltimore. It is obvious that racism affected the way he lived his life, he is letting everything out in this poem.
The Poem “Incident” By Countee Cullen, portrays how racist societies influence the way children act. In this poem the speaker succeed in making the reader feel the way he felt at the moment of the incident. He makes us see that the power of a single word can change the life of an innocent kid. The speaker learned at that very moment of the incident that the world is full of cruelties and unfairness. Society plays a big role in the lives of kids. They have different values and therefore different ways to look at people from different ethnic groups. The speaker faced his first racist incident and he was just eight years old. He was very little, but he understood why that white kid called him “nigger”. The speaker was rejected by the other kid, who was negatively influenced by his own group. Racism affected the life of the speaker and it is incredible how a such a small incident marked the rest of his life even as an adult. Furthermore, we have to be aware that our values can always affect the way we think and act, this white kid was not aware of how awful his actions marked the life of the black kid, and this is because he was taught to not respect black people. Our children are the future of the world, what we teach them will surely have an effect in their lives in the future, let us stop these hateful “incidents” once and for all.
Francis C Madi