The people we surround ourselves with have an influence over our thoughts and our actions. They can build us up, tear us down, inspire or inhibit us. Sometimes, those we do not even know can say or do something that will have an impact on us for the rest of our lives, good or bad. One of the biggest groups of people that have been directly affected by the actions of others is the African American race. For centuries, they were in the hands of the white man, as slaves. Forced and brought over from their homelands of Africa, and were subjected to hard labor and physical and emotional abuse.
Even after slavery was abolished in the 1860’s, African Americans were still not seen as equals. They would have many years of persecution and segregation ahead of them. The types of treatment they received, vicious or subtle, were unfair as well as psychologically and physically damaging. It is true that once something is said, you cannot take it back. One word can stick with you for an entire lifetime. The poem “The Incident” by Countee Cullen demonstrates how one word has the power to affect someone greatly and can change the way they perceive the world by using the innocent narrative of a little black boy in a new town.
The feature film Men of Honor, based upon a true story, shows the trials and hardships of another African American trying to pursue his dream of becoming a Navy Master Diver using negativity from those who opposed him, because of his race, to push himself harder. The structured groups of the Navy, family, and race help to illustrate the way it was like to live and try to move up in the world as an African American. “Once riding in old Baltimore, heart-filled, head-filled with glee” (Cullen). The poem opens with the narrator, an eight year old boy, expressing his joy being in Baltimore, maybe for the first time.
Being in new places and experiencing new things brings a sense of elation and happiness that can radiate from your eyes and face, touching the hearts of others and brightening their day. This little boy seems to be truly happy to be where he was, as he was. He was filled with glee, happiness, in his heart and his mind. You can picture this little boy with a big smile on his face, with his eyes open wide, ready for new adventures. When he notices another little boy and smiles, he does not get that in return. “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’” (Cullen). The image of this little happy black boy is transformed to a little boy with a frown on his face with a heart and head no longer filled with happiness. The actions and words of one little boy, he does not even know, changed the whole experience he had in the town of Baltimore. It is possible he even had a difference perspective on life and interaction with people of a different color than he, for the rest of his life. I saw the whole of Baltimore from May to December; of all the things that happened there that’s all that I remember” (Cullen). While we do not know how long this one word and experience changed him, we do know it did last for at least eight months and possibly carried with him to the next place or places he visited. In Men of Honor, Carl Brashear is a passionate little boy that loved to swim and wanted to pursue a career in the Navy. The son of a hard working farmer, he learned great dedication and perseverance from his father.
His father wanted better things for his son and made Carl make a promise. “Make me a promise, don’t end up like me” (Men of Honor). Carl wanted to make his father proud and with that motivation, coupled with the opposition of others, he was enabled to push forward through all his endeavors to make it in the Navy. He was excited and happy to pursue his dreams and his future. However, instead of being an equal member of the force, he was a cook, with all the other black men on the ship. He did not let this get him down and he eventually made it on the deck as a stand-by rescue swimmer.
When attempting to gain entry into the diving academy, even with recommendations, it took two years and over one hundred letters from him to get in. He was constantly being brought down by the actions and words of others, trying to break his spirit and hoping that he would fail. Everything that Carl was dealt, was met with strength and determination that showed how much he wanted it and how he was not going to let anyone tell me he couldn’t. When asked why he wanted it so badly he responded with, “Because they said I couldn’t have it” (Men of Honor).
Countee Cullen really captures the impact felt by the little boy in his poem within the last stanza. “I saw the whole of Baltimore from May to December; of all the things that happened there that’s all that I remember” (Cullen). This little black boy was in Baltimore for 8 months and the only thing he can remember is another little boy around the same age, no different than himself other than skin color, calling him a “nigger” (Cullen). 8 months is a long time to be somewhere; many sights to see and people to meet.
To only remember that one moment, which probably lasted a few seconds, shows how detrimental negative words and actions can be. While some retaliate or introvert their negative memories and encounters, others use theirs as motivation to overcome. Carl Brashear is also called a “nigger” (Men of Honor) on many occasions as well as “cookie” (Men of Honor), a derogatory reference to blacks being hired as cooks only. Racism and segregation were heavily prevalent in the military. On July 26, 1948 President Harry S. Truman ends the segregation of the armed forces.
This Executive Order states, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin” (Truman). Even with this order in place, the armed forces were still not allowing the same opportunities to blacks that the white men got. Upon arriving to the diving school, and entering the barracks, another diving school student stated, “No disrespect to the President, but I don’t bunk with niggers” (Men of Honor).
Carl had a note on his bunk that said, “We’re gonna drown you nigger” (Men of Honor). The entire time he spent at the school was anything but easy. However, instead of letting everyone else get him down he answered back with determination and the willingness to be the best, to succeed, regardless of who said he could not do it. We cannot help how others treat us, but we can help how we treat and towards others. Words are very powerful and build us up or tear us down. It is whether we allow them to keep us down or use them to fuel our fire towards greatness.
As a child, you may not understand why people treat others as they do, but hopefully you can get past that and use it as a learning tool to help yourself and others you meet in the future. “The Incident” allows us to appreciate the fact that singling out individuals by skin color, with no knowledge of them as a person, is wrong and hurtful. The use of the segregation of race in a well-known institution and group as the Navy illustrates what it meant to fight for what you want and believe in as a black man in the 1960’s.
Having a strong family background to help keep you grounded in the face of adversity is also important. We will always encounter those who oppose us and having that kind of foundation helps get you through it. Whether you are called names or being constantly told that you do not belong or cannot do it, determination, strength and perseverance can help you get through any trial or tribulation others put in your way. Men of Honor is an inspirational story regardless of skin color that anyone could apply to their own lives when faced with opposition.
Cullen, Countee. “The Incident. ” The Hudson Book of Poetry: 150 Poems worth Reading. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 101. Print. Men of Honor. Dir. George Tillman, Jr. Perf. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro. 20th Century Fox Film Corp. , 2000. DVD. “Truman Library: Desegregation of the Armed Forces Online Research File. ” Truman Library: Desegregation of the Armed Forces Online Research File. N. p. , n. d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://www. trumanlibrary. org/whistlestop/study_collections/desegregation/large/index. php? action=chronology>.