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
The power of this poem lies in the reversal of expectations.
It begins with a care-free whimsical air and as the account progresses in the second stanza you discover that the speaker is an eight year old boy. Naturally one assumes that the perspectives of an eight year old are going to be of a 'lighter' nature than those of us 'wiser' and 'burdened' adults, so subconsciously our expectations for a happy ending are increased. Then at the last word of the second stanza I had two shocking revelations: The author is black; and this is not a whimsical poem.
That the author is black is shocking only in that I am not black, and so my imagination tends to place 'me' in the position of the 'speaker' of the poem, and at that point I realize this poem is not about me (though ultimately it is about anyone). It makes me curious as to whether a black reader would be as shocked by the turn of events as I was? But it revealed (again) to me how far I can get into something having made assumptions that I never realized I had made. Ironically while the poem is less about me, it makes me realize that it might have been written more for directly for me; to communicate to those of us who have not directly experienced this form of discrimination what the consequences are. I have experienced a certain degree of racial (to a lesser extent) and religious (to a greater extent) discrimination, so I can relate on a variety of levels, but not, no doubt, to level that the author did.
The second shock is that this poem, far from being 'child's play' is really quite brutal. Of course it must have been the intent of the author to portray exactly that consequence of the experience: How in on moment, in one word, innocence and pleasantness (optimism?) is sucked out of us and we are left stunned by the unprovoked ugliness that roves 'out there'.
What I find frightening is that as a father I have no control over when my children will experience these rude awakenings... perhaps on a bus somewhere, on a holiday, at school, at meeting... will I be there to soften the blow? Will I be there to explain and embrace? It is frightening to think that I may not even know that it has happened... In some ways I want to prevent them from ever happening, yet it seems these are the split seconds, the brief moments, the uncontrolled events, which forge so much of who we ultimately become, for better or for worse.
I like poems that surprise me. Though to say I 'like' this poem seems wrong, as there is nothing to be liked in the searing of a child's mind... But I guess what I mean is that this poem rings with 'truth', not in a doctrinal sense, but in an experiential sense; the numbness and feeling in the gut as one moment overflows and overwhelms a larger section of life...