Analyzing Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” Structuralist frameworks of Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure

The poem “Incident” (1925) is one Countee Cullen’s famous literary works which essentially narrates the experience of the speaker in Baltimore at a young age. Although Cullen is considered as Black, he did not want other people to refer to him as a Black poet but simply a poet for he believes that poetry is without race.

In Countee Cullen’s poem, the speaker narrates the treatment the speaker received from a Baltimorean of almost the same age which reflects the idea that during those times discrimination based on color is evident. Being called a “Nigger” in the poem, the speaker attempts to emphasize the idea that the social atmosphere in Baltimore during those days was not conducive to Blacks.

In analyzing the poem, I intend to use the structuralist frameworks of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. Although both are huge thinkers under the umbrella of semiology, there are apparent distinctions between the approaches taken by both philosophers. Moreover, these distinctions will help us look deeper into the poem from seemingly distinct point of views, thereby allowing the reader to acknowledge the fact that, under the helm of structuralism, there are structural relationships between concepts and that these relationships differ among various cultures or languages. Consequently, the theory asserts that these relationships can be explored and substantially exposed with an underlying purpose.

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Ferdinand de Saussure: signifier and signified

Ferdinand de Saussure is the proponent of the dualistic notion of signs where he proposed the idea of signifier and signified. In essence, a signifier is the phrase uttered or the form of the word expressed while on the other hand a signified is a mental concept. Saussure further proposed that the signifier can be related to the signified or that there is a relationship between the two concepts.

Distancing himself from the Platonic doctrine of the relationship between the signifier and the object it signifies, Saussure rather contended that there is no apparent or necessary connection between the sign and its presumed meaning. His contention rests on his presumption that the sign by nature is entirely arbitrary which corresponds to the idea that one can come up with a sign for a certain object yet there is no necessary or fixed connection between the signifier and its meaning for the reason that the sign is arbitrarily created.

Perhaps Ferdinand de Saussure is also known for his claim that no word is inherently meaningful primarily because a word serves only as a signifier or as the representation of an object. Further, the signifier should be corroborated with the signified or the thing itself within the brain so as to create a meaning-imbued ‘sign’.

Roland Barthes: bourgeois interrogations

Roland Barthes can be credited for the claim that semiology is of substantial help in interrogating fragments of cultural material in order to reveal how the bourgeois society used these fragments of cultural material in order to assert the values of the bourgeois society upon other individuals. He explained that the ‘myths’ created by the bourgeois society are mere significations or second-order signs such as the case where the portrayal of wine as a lively and healthy habit in the societies in France is an ideal perception of these bourgeois societies which, on the other hand, are contradicted by several realities such as the reality that wine can also be inebriating as well as unhealthy.

Critical literary analysis

In the first two lines of the poem, it can be noted that the speaker was traveling or, more precisely, “riding in old Baltimore” who appears to be happy that day. While riding, the speaker saw a Baltimorean kept on “looking straight” at the speaker. These first two lines give us the idea that there is a differing attitude of local Baltimoreans during those days towards Black people.

At this point in the poem, it can be noted that a Black individual with a “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” is an ironic statement since Baltimore, Maryland has a history of Black slavery (Phillips 18). Hence, a Black individual roaming the locality of Baltimore with a cheerful countenance appears to strike the attention of those who have lived there and those who have an understanding of the historical context of the society. Hence, it is no surprise that the Baltimorean kept “looking straight” at the speaker.

In the context of Saussure, the concept of “old Baltimore” may suggest the presumption that it may not necessarily be the case that the area of “Baltimore” is not to be taken strictly in the sense of being “old” in terms of age.

Rather, there may still be other ‘meanings’ which can be attached to it such as the concept of being ‘weak’, ‘physically impaired’, or ‘handicapped’ in many different ways such as handicapped in terms of being able to provide the protection for its citizens or individuals who are situated in Baltimore. These are just a few of the possible meanings which can be attached to the concept of ‘old Baltimore’. Saussure opens several other possibilities other than what Cullen explicitly states in his poem. In essence, these first two lines indicate that the whole poem is open to several interpretations.

The contention of structuralists can be juxtaposed with the reality during the time when the poem was written. Being a state that held slaves of which it was made legal prior to 1850 and where Blacks had a significant presence in the locality, the history of Baltimore and the larger state of Maryland encapsulates a significant degree of importance on the social roles and identity of blacks during those times. In the poem, the speaker highlights the fact that, although Blacks took an important role in the development of Baltimore historically speaking, treatment towards them from local people was still tainted with a discriminatory nature.

Roland Barthes, for this matter, will contend that the concept of ‘old Baltimore’ may reveal the idea that Baltimore is equivalent to that of a bourgeois society who maintained slavery as a common practice in order to sustain the perception that it is ideal in the promotion of the welfare of the whole society.

In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker narrates his experience that time when he was “eight and very small”. Eventually, after noticing the Baltimorean who kept looking, the speaker “smiled” knowing that the Baltimorean “was no whit bigger”. The speaker, then, tried to highlight the idea that, while Blacks attempted to portray a cheerful countenance or at least a normal perception of their society that for once held their race as slaves, their society in return gave them a negative response. This is made evident in the last two lines in the second stanza of the poem where the Baltimorean “poked out his tongue” and called the speaker “Nigger” even though the speaker merely “smiled” at him.

The act of poking out the tongue is a gesture that is commonly taken to mean as an unkind gesture, one that depicts sarcasm, mockery, or an insult towards one’s being. Moreover, for a child, the act of poking out the tongue towards somebody of almost the same age or size is an act that shows hatred, disgust, or ideas similar to that. Apparently, this observation reinforces the contention of Roland Barthes that, indeed, there is an underlying bourgeois precept lingering in Baltimore during those times.

What is more striking is that the Baltimorean did not only make the gesture of poking out his tongue. He also called the speaker “Nigger” which, during those early days, translates into a form of mockery or insult. It highlights the idea that, by calling a person “Nigger”, that person is treated to be as someone who belongs to the lower levels of the larger society. And while Maryland is historically known to have made slavery legal back in the 1800s (Phillips 18), Black people would have been treated as lesser than being human beings.

In essence, Barthes’ contention of an underlying bourgeois precept in Baltimore during those days is easily seen in the poem. The system of slavery and the racial prejudice present the idea that these concepts are significations where, perhaps, the Baltimorean society altered the way in which the perceptions of races are viewed in order to favor the bias towards the white race and heighten the prejudice towards the Blacks.

In the poem where the speaker is called by the Baltimorean as “Nigger”, one can note the idea that there is social segregation or the idea that there is the separation or delineation of Blacks from the rest of those who lived in the area.

By suggesting the idea of social segregation, the poem attempts emphasize the separate treatment for Blacks, delegating them under a lower status and social indifference. It gives us the sense that, while there are perceived demarcations in social hierarchy at least in the context of Baltimore, Maryland, there remains the larger truth that slavery poses a great deal of role in this demarcation.

Roland Barthes might very well agree with these contentions for the reason that the social indifference towards the Blacks is a result of the significations brought about by the individuals who hold the financial foundations for the means of building or maintaining the society. As a child of eight years, the psychological effects of the experience of being called a “Nigger” is emotionally or psychologically devastating which is the idea being presented in the last stanza (Piaget 81).

In the third and final stanza, the speaker narrates that he was able to see and experience “the whole of Baltimore from May until December.” For some reason, the speaker went on to stay in Baltimore for almost seven months, lingering with various people in the place and experiencing many other things as a child of eight years. And during those seven months and “of all the things that happened there”, the speaker is only able to remember the day when he was given an indifferent treatment from the Baltimorean. Saussure may suggest the idea that the psychological impact of that experience which lingered for all those months, and even perhaps until the speaker grew older, is still open to further interpretation.

When an individual is still able to remember every detail of an event or experience that transpired long ago, it might entail that the event or experience was unforgettable which was greatly absorbed into the memory of the person. It suggests the idea that being called a “Nigger” will not be forgotten. On the other hand, it might also entail that event being signified is relatively flexible in terms of interpretation such that the event experienced by the narrator will apparently be forgotten. In essence, what Saussure might suggest is the presumption that these events, including all of the signifiers and signified concepts and the relationships that appear to be involved, have no fixed meanings. These things are subject to human interpretation as the meanings of these things are not in any way fixed.

Works Cited

Cullen, Countee. “Incident.”  Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties. New York, N.Y.: Citadel, 1993. 187.

Phillips, Christopher. “Slavery and the Growth of Baltimore.”  Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Blacks in the New World). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 18.

Piaget, Jean. “Memory and the Structure of Imge-Memories.”  The Psychology of the Child. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2000. 81.


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