Sunday, October 13, 2013

ModPo 2013 #33 Let Us Apply Some Whitening Lotion: On Cullen's "The Incident"

Image from Jhenny's blog, seller of whitening lotion.

(For Eric Walrond)

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, “Incident” from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Copyrights held by the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, administered by Thompson and Thompson, Brooklyn, NY.

Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)

This was very powerful. I disagree with some thoughts expressed in the video discussion that the word "nigger" was diminished by being part of a rhyme (bigger), that the power of the poem was reduced because of the sing-song nursery rhyme form. 

The nursery rhyme form calls attention to the innocence (and perhaps the start of the end of that innocence) of the speaker at the time of the incident. The form is a statement in itself. It is a statement about childhood, about the playfulness and fun that children ought to be afforded in any society. And there is that discordant word right in the middle which the child-speaker even rhymes, not yet judging, perhaps, that it is discordant. 

That single word is so disturbing that even a nursery rhyme in which it is nested cannot dull its impact. It has forever separated the speaker-child from the universal "children" and has identified him with an ugly name. 

You know what this reminds me of? This reminds me of little brown brother, a term of paternalistic racism applied to Filipinos. I don't know what's worse: to be given an outright derogatory and hate-inspired label like "nigger" or to be called "little brown brother" by a patronizing colonizer. Either way, they are politicized terms meant to show who is in the margins (and who is in power). 

And you know what is even sadder? Filipinos have adopted this inherited racism from the colonizer, privileging those who are fair (white) over those who are dark. Even today you will hear the term "negra/ negro" or "nognog" as insults referring to skin color (no matter how veiled in humor). Sales for whitening soaps and lotions in the Philippines alone will attest to this phenomenon. Imagine whole generations trying to rub and soap away the color of their skins. 

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