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Comparing The Loss Of Innocence In Cullen's Incident And Naylor’s Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean?

1192 words - 5 pages

Loss of Innocence in Cullen's Incident and Naylor’s Mommy, What Does "Nigger" Mean?

 
Unfortunately, a question that many African Americans have to ask in childhood is "Mommy, what does nigger mean?," and the answer to this question depicts the racism that still thrives in America (345). Both Gloria Naylor’s "'Mommy, What Does "Nigger" Mean?'" and Countee Cullen's "Incident" demonstrate how a word like "nigger" destroys a child’s innocence and initiates the child into a world of racism.  Though the situations provoking the racial slur differ, the word "nigger" has the same effect on the young Naylor and the child in Cullen’s poem. A racist society devours the white children’s innocence, and, consequently, the white children embody the concept of racism as they consume the innocence of the black children by stereotyping them as "niggers."

 The word "nigger" causes the young Naylor and the child in Cullen's poem to begin viewing the world in terms of “black and white”, and the racial epithet establishes an invisible barrier between the black and the white worlds. Neither child ever indicates the color of the people he/she speaks of. Naylor gives her most in-depth physical description of the child that calls her "nigger" when she recalls that she handed the papers to a little boy in back of me" (344). Naylor’s vague description gives the appearance that the young Naylor sees no important distinctions between the boy and herself. However, the fact that the “little boy” calls her “nigger” proves not only that the boy sees a major distinction between himself and Naylor, but also that the boy is white (344).

 The child in Countee Cullen’s poem gives a similarly “color”-less description of the “Baltimorean” boy as he/she says, RI saw a Baltimorean / Keep looking straight at me. / Now I was eight and very small, / And he was no whit bigger" (3-6). Unlike Naylor, Cullen never identifies the sex of the black child in his poem. Perhaps Cullen renders the child in his poem genderless to give the child a more universal standing; perhaps he leaves the child genderless in order to focus on the more important fact that the child, whether male or female, sees no difference between him- or herself and the other boy until the “Baltimorean" boy calls him/her "nigger" (3).

Both Cullen and Naylor add "color" to the description of the children with this single racial epithet. The white children’s use of the word "nigger" establishes a distinction between them and the black children in Naylor and Cullen’s works which embodies the essence of racism. This distinction forces the young Naylor and the child in Cullen’s poem to see beyond their innocence and to see themselves and their world in new colors: black and white. Both Naylor and Cullen touch on an important issue by noting that the first incident of racism for the black children, occurring when the white children call them "nigger," takes place between two children. The fact that the white boys call...

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