Countee Cullen

(30 May 1903 – 9 January 1946 / New York)

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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.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003
Edited: Thursday, October 27, 2011

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Comments about this poem (Incident by Countee Cullen )

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  • Karen Sinclair (11/5/2012 7:33:00 PM)

    I find this one a difficult read, the first stanza he writes with enthusiasm and the exuberance of youth, then the shock, then stored to be remembered with pain.... (Report) Reply

  • Caroline Bulleck (11/5/2012 5:54:00 PM)

    It's horrible how racism is alive today. Everyone is equal, but there will always be favoritism among race. It's so sad. (Report) Reply

  • B Before (8/16/2012 11:28:00 PM)

    Racism is a painful experience and the perpetrators will always try to deny it or twist it up with fancy verbiage and meaningless explanations. The simple brilliance of the poem is a man putting his past into perspective and recognizing the power of words and that they indeed do hurt. (Report) Reply

  • Brittney Ware (5/9/2010 1:59:00 PM)

    Ned Coates, you are an idiot. 'Whit' means a particle or a bit. Like when you say a smidge of something.

    Stop making stuff up. It makes you look stupid. (Report) Reply

  • Sara S (11/24/2009 1:26:00 PM)

    an awesome poem for anyone black or white.... ned coates I don't see revenge or anger or whatever in any of this, it seems like putting it in makes the poet sound bad or mean which i don't get from this (Report) Reply

  • Lamont Palmer (8/13/2009 5:02:00 AM)

    One of the few poems that I have always been able to recite from memory since reading it at the age of sixteen. A simple but poignant poem, exemplifying how racism can be a powerful and destructive force. Cullen is one of the (underrated) masters. -LP (Report) Reply

  • Ned Coates (1/19/2009 8:14:00 PM)

    I would also add that the choice of 'May until December' is symbolic of a transition from callow youth to the chill of disillusionment, a strong note of pathos. Like Holden Caufield, the speaker could be telling this to a shrink. (Report) Reply

  • Ned Coates (1/19/2009 8:05:00 PM)

    When I first read this poem years ago, it had immediate shock value, with the speaker of the poem as total victim and the reader suffering vicariously. Upon reading it again years later, knowing the sharp reversal of stanza two, I looked at other aspects of the poem, realizing that obviously the speaker is not an eight-year-old child but an adult, likely the poet himself. In this second view, one can see that this simple-looking poem is really one of revenge. If we put '-an' onto 'Baltimore, ' we get the sound of balta-moron. The antagonist is a racist moron. Also he is not a whit-i.e., wit-bigger than than the speaker but is now a moron of little wit (an emphatic redundancy) . The incident took place in the whole-that is, the hole-of Baltimore, likely meaning what we mean when we say, 'That place is a hole! ' Let us hope that this incident in 'old Baltimore' is not representative of the city today, which I have found quite enjoyable to visit. Perhaps there are more puns in the poem, or perhaps I'm trying too hard. But it is this second reading that that moved me to give the poem a ten. (Report) Reply

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