Study Guide

Incident Quotes

  • Prejudice

    Once riding in old Baltimore,
       Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
    I saw a Baltimorean
       Keep looking straight at me. (1-4)

    The poem starts on a happy note, then transitions to a curious one. What's up with this Baltimorean dude? Why's he staring at our speaker?

    Now I was eight and very small,
       And he was no whit bigger, (5-6)

    These lines establish that the speaker and the other boy are peers—they're both little kids. Maybe these two, in a different life, could be best pals. That makes the other boy's remark that much more tragic.

    And so I smiled, but he poked out
       His tongue, and called me, "Nigger." (7-8)

    The force of these lines is always like a smack in the face. The blatant racial prejudice in these lines is overwhelming, and we are forced to look the racial slur "nigger" in the face, just as our speaker is. The poem makes clear that the speaker wasn't expecting this hatred, and, to be frank, neither were we.

    I saw the whole of Baltimore
       From May until December;
    Of all the things that happened there
       That's all that I remember. (9-12)

    We sense a feeling of distance from the past in these lines. The incident happened long ago, but doesn't mean that it's not still potent, or hurtful. All the speaker remembers of his time in Baltimore is this one moment in which he came face-to-face with prejudice. This whole chunk of his life is defined by this vile incident. The effects of racism are tangible and long-lasting.

  • Language and Communication

    Once riding in old Baltimore,
       Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
    I saw a Baltimorean
       Keep looking straight at me. (1-4)

    The poem begins on a really happy and low-key note. The only strange thing about it is that staring Baltimorean. But even he doesn't prepare us for what happens next.

    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." (5-8)

    So this is the incident that the title warns us about. And, let's be honest: it's a pretty mind-blowing (and not in a good way) incident for a little boy to have to experience. He reaches out to make a friend, and BAM: he's hit with "nigger," pretty much the worst racial slur around. This word has power (and not the good kind).

    I saw the whole of Baltimore
       From May until December;
    Of all the things that happened there
       That's all that I remember. (9-12)

    The word "nigger" reverberates through the rest of the poem, and through the rest of the speaker's life. It even eclipses the rest of his time in Baltimore. Who knew one word could do so much harm?

  • Coming of Age

    Once riding in old Baltimore,
       Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
    I saw a Baltimorean
       Keep looking straight at me. (1-4)

    In the beginning of the poem, the speaker is a happy little kid—"heart-filled, head-filled with glee." The poem couldn't have a more cheerful, kid-like start. Even the ballad meter reinforces this gleeful feeling.

    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." (5-8)

    And here, all that glee disappears. We find out how old the boy is—just 8—and then, bam. He, and by extension, we, are hit with the word "nigger." It's a shock to us, so just imagine the shock to the speaker's young self.

    I saw the whole of Baltimore
       From May until December;
    Of all the things that happened there
       That's all that I remember. (9-12)

    This last stanza explains that this distressing incident is a defining moment for the speaker. It defines his experience in Baltimore, and he remembers it all these years later. This incident is a moment of growing up, of recognition of his relationship with the big (and sadly, racist) world out there.