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On "Incident"

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

The poem is a three-quatrain ballad about the trauma of racial naming for a child. The title word means event, but an event contingent upon or related to another, one small or minor occurrence which implicates or precipitates a public crisis. The word is used precisely to link personal and political meaning; the personal meaning is the blanking out, or blocking out, from memory of any other thing that happened one summer in Baltimore, once the decisive rupture of happiness has occurred by the ferocity of the white gaze. The political trauma is blanking or blocking because of blacking. Because it means "something contingent upon or related to something else," the title also links the subjects of the enounced (two boys) and the narrated incident inside the poem with the subjectivity of enunciation, creating only a "minor" poem.

The poem presents the blow of social learning of one’s place in a racial/racist order, a moment discussed in many autobiographical and fictional materials -- by Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson – as a turning point for black children. This moment is usually unmarked in white writing. Cullen’s central quatrain proposes the equality of the children in size, demeanor, and in age, indeed, in every way but one. The stanza, as is well known, contains a notable insult, as it moves from smile, to rude tongue gesture layering "poke" as thrust and "poke" as a blow struck, finally to a name calling that interpellates both children into the racial system of the U.S., to the despair of the one and the satisfaction of the other. When the word "nigger" is spoken, it is carefully quoted from the white child; it is not in free indirect discourse. Cullen has engineered a pause before the decisive word, to call our attention to its being spoken (it is capitalized), to freeze-frame it. This moment of racialization is a sociopolitical equivalent of oedipalization for it creates two unequal racial castes from polyvalent children, as oedipalization creates two gender castes. The space issues of the central quatrain further represent this social inequality: each child owns one of the first two lines, but in the second two lines of the quatrain, the black child then only possesses a hemistich, while the white child takes up a line and a half. This stanza emphasizes the narrated event (the enounced), and the other subjectivity of the enounced ("I") has been fixed by the derogatory word of the white child (Easthope 1983, 42). But the poem, as an enunciation (speech event created by Cullen), struggles against this derogatory term, by offering a different speaking subject, one in retrospective control of the narrated event. Cullen does so by proposing in the texture of the poem as enunciation, a suggestive confrontation of the overt, low word "nigger" and the more muted, elegant one, "whit."

The word "whit" examined by a social philology is the point at which cross both lateral metonymic associations and a vertical semantic coring to make a sedimented argument against the subjectivity ascribed to the African-American child. The word means a particle or iota: one child is not a whit bigger than the other — they are equals in size. The word is a variant of "wight," which means a person or human creature. Hence the buried narrative or crypt narrative that etymology offers in whit/wight is the affirmation of the full personhood and equality of both children denied by the incident. Additionally, "wight" means "valor" or bravery, a meaning that evokes the ethical evaluations of courage/cowardice at play here, especially insofar as valor for the black child might involve (unspoken, unnarrated) repression of the urge to fight or answer back, leading perhaps to an anger or pain so intense as to create a trauma of memory. Hence this incident is all that the speaker remembers of this sojourn.

Horizontally, "whit" also irresistibly suggests both "white" and "wit." Though the white child is no whit bigger (and no bigger in "wit" -- another connotive slide), his social power gives him a bigger impact. To describe white as socially bigger than its obnoxious rhyme word, although no whit/wit personally or morally larger is indeed a compressed political allegory tamped into the word choice, the rhyme choice, and the finality of the quatrains. The negative word, offering a subject place for African-Americans, was, incidentally, common enough in white writing in this period, including in works by Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson, Mina Loy, Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and many others; its dangerous impact on African-Americans is registered in a poem countering the epithet with brave black heroes -- Frank Horne’s "Nigger: A Chant for Children." In this reading of Cullen’s "whit," I hunted shadow words "behind" the statement, coring down into etymologies, pursuing metonymic associations, sound shifts, and denotive auras, reading visual suggestions, and identifying the narratives and metaphors buried in the texture of a work that allowed for a simple, belittled subjectivity of the enounced and a fierce, proud, judgmental subjectivity of the enunciation. These readings of the signifier (by association, etymology, syntax, connotation, denotation, segmental position) in relation to the discursive and political field is some of what I mean by social philology. It is allegorically appropriate that my poetics of the detail has been exemplified by a word—"whit"--that means particle or iota, and has involved allusion to a very derogatory word -- indicating that words and their "social evaluations" are no small matter.

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Copyright © 2001 Cambridge University Press.

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