#Onthebookshelf Countee Cullen, The Incident/Yasmin Jaunbocus, My Incident

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. 

Countee Cullen
Studying English Literature, I read a range of poetry, novels and prose to do with absolutely everything and sometimes it’s hard to remember why I loved the subject so much I chose to study it to a higher level.  With deadlines looming, an awful cold and having to read some pretty tedious stuff that you’re told are classics make it especially hard to remember- however, this week, as part of American Literature, we are looking at the Harlem Renaissance and this poem by Countee Cullen really struck a chord with me.
It’s a different time and a different place to the incident in Baltimore Cullen speaks of but it’s interesting how little themes of life change, which is simultaneously comforting and depressing.
The poem, in essence, details the exact moment Cullen realises he is black and therefore different, other and alien.  Though most importantly he realises that all he is is undesirable.   This poem was written in 1923. That’s over 75 years ago, yet I remember the exact moment when I realised not only that I wasn’t white, but that there was such thing as black, white, brown or anything else.  Before that moment, I was the same as everyone else, oblivious and innocent and happy. before that moment, the weight of knowing that I was different failed to permeate every aspect of my life and the burden of my “history” had not yet been placed upon my shoulders.
Since that moment, I recall a conversation with my father when I was still very young – under ten- where he told me “Yasmin, remember you might be clever, beautiful, talented, but before all that, you’re black so you have to be the best you can to be on par with them” – them of course being white people.  At the time, this to me felt stupid, ridiculous- surely it wouldn’t be this bad but as I grew up I found this to be true.
I’m not suggesting that every white person is racist and sees the difference of skin colour before everything else, but I am saying there is a moment where I realised I was not white and therefore different because i white person of my age felt he had to rather cruelly point this out and this has affected many aspects of my life.  I am more careful, more wary and perhaps judgmental myself but mostly I am waiting for another moment someone else points out I am different. 
Since that moment, since  my incident, there is certainly a hyperawarenes to what I am, who I am and what it means.  
I once got accused of thinking every white person was racist- I think from the moment I realised I wasn’t white, there is a lot of truth in that accusation.
Though like I said, it’s both comforting and depressing that people from different times, places and ages feel this too. I can’t be so different to everyone else that way.

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