Study Guide

Incident Language and Communication

By Countee Cullen

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, "N*****." (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 "n*****," 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 "n*****" 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?