Hold onto your hats; this poem's a short one and it goes by pretty quickly. The poem begins with the speaker reminiscing about a happy time in his childhood when he was riding the bus in Baltimore. He catches the eye of another boy and smiles at him. Instead of smiling back, the other boy sticks out his tongue and calls the speaker "nigger." Then the speaker tells us that he spent months and months in Baltimore, but that the only thing he remembers about the city was this incident on the bus. The poem may have begun on a happy note, but it ends very, very, far away from happiness.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
- "Incident" begins pretty simply by setting the scene. The speaker begins to tell us that "once" he was riding a bus in Baltimore.
- The "once" signals that this bus-riding moment was pretty far in the past. (You usually don't use the word "once" to talk about what happened to you yesterday.) The speaker is definitely launching into a story here. (Once upon a time, anyone?)
- And when he was riding that bus "once," he was "heart-filled, head-filled with glee." In other words, these were some good times! The little dude was gleeful in his heart and mind, both emotionally and intellectually. There's a lot to take in when you're a kid riding a bus around Baltimore.
- Do you notice those repeated H sounds in "heart" and "head"? There's some heavy-duty alliteration going on, which, in this instance, feels pretty fun to us. The boy feels gleeful, and this alliteration makes us feel it too.
- Also, we know you haven't read too much of the poem yet, but spoiler alert: this baby's written in what we poetry folks like to call ballad meter. It's a very, very old form of poetry that alternates lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
- Do those terms have you shaking in your boots? You can head over to our "Form and Meter" section for the nitty gritty on ballad meter. For now, you just need to know the basic rhythm of the ballad meter, which goes a little somethin' like this:
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM
daDUM daDUM daDUM
- Or, in other words:
Once riding in old Baltimore
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee
- The poem's ballad meter relates it to a lot of classic American poems (we're looking at you, Emily Dickinson), but it also relates it to music. Ballad meter is a very jaunty, upbeat form. Don't believe us? Check out our favorite example of ballad meter in song here.
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
- So, back to the bus. The speaker says, in a simple and straightforward manner, that he sees a Baltimorean (that's somebody who from Baltimore) looking at him.
- But let's dig deeper. His exact words are that he saw "a Baltimorean / Keep looking straight at me [our emphasis]." Notice that word "keep"? It implies that the Baltimorean was looking at him for a long time. This wasn't a quick glance; it was a sustained look. This story's getting intriguing: why the long glance, Baltimorean?
- Before we move on, let's take a moment to think about form. We've got a continuation of our good pal ballad meter, and we've also got an example of our old friend ABCB rhyme, which usually accompanies ballad meter.
- This means that the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme ("glee" and "me" in the first stanza), while the first and third lines don't. Those guys can do whatever they darn well please.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
- In this new quatrain we get a little more info, and the speaker, by beginning with the word "now," seems to be in full-on storytelling mode. This poem is starting to sound a little like a fable or fairytale to us. (It did start with the word "once" after all.)
- So, back to our story: line 5 tells us that the speaker, at the time of the incident on the bus, was just eight years old. And he was a little dude at that. We're picturing a skinny kid with chicken legs on that bus.
- Then we find out that the other person in the poem—that "Baltimorean"—was also a kid, and that he was "no whit bigger."
- The word "whit," btw, means "the least bit." It's usually used in the negative, as in "no whit." So basically the speaker is saying that the Baltimorean was also a "very small" kid.
- These two lines are telling us that we've got two little—and young—kids on our hands here. There's a real sense that this poem happens in the past; it has a retrospective tone to it. Our speaker may have been eight years old on the bus, but he's definitely older now.
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
- Man. The poem was pretty chill until this point. The speaker has noticed the other little boy on the bus looking at him, so finally he decided to do a totally normal, kid-like thing: he smiles at him.
- Does he get a smile in return? Nope. He gets a racial slur. The other kid rudely sticks out his tongue, and then he calls the speaker "nigger," which, as we are sure you know, is a racist and hateful term with a pretty revolting history in the USA.
- It's at this moment of racial prejudice that we realize that the speaker of "Incident" is African American. Before this moment, he was just a kid on a bus—now, he's been marked as "other." His racial identity makes him different from the other boy who we can now infer is white.
- It's a shocking moment—we sure as heck didn't see it coming the first time we read the poem. But upon reflection, we think that the poem kinda sorta anticipated this moment.
- First, we are set up for the word "nigger" by the word "bigger" in line 6 (which is part of a rhyming pair of lines).
- Second, there's a subtle hint of the Baltimorean's race. Cullen uses the word "whit," which, let's be honest, is not really a common word. What does "whit" look and sound like? You got it—"white." This is some really subtle linguistic foreshadowing.
- So, before we move on, let's just take stock of what's gone on. We've got two little kids on a bus in Baltimore, one black and one white, and the white kid uses the most offensive word out there to address the black kid.
- Are you feeling angry? Hurt? Betrayed? All these things? That's good, because we don't find out how the speaker feels. The word "nigger" is just hanging out there at the end of the line. It still shocks, even when you've read the poem before, because it's a word that—thankfully—we aren't very used to hearing these days. It's become commonplace to replace it with the phrase "n-word" when we speak about it So even seeing the word in print can be jarring.
- Now you might be thinking to yourself, why aren't we using the phrase "the n-word"? Why are we at Shmoop using the word "nigger"?
- We feel that it's important to talk about the poem in the terms it gives us—that, in a way, the poem is all about the use of the word "nigger." And so it's key that we use the word when discussing the actual poem, even though we'd never ever use it in our daily lives.
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
- After this horrendous incident, instead of telling us his feelings, the speaker leaves us with an empty space—there's a real void between the poem's final two stanzas.
- Does the little boy cry? Pick a fight? Get off the bus? Stay silent? We'll never know what happened.
- But what we do know is what the speaker tells us in this final quatrain: he really got to see the whole city (he "saw the whole of Baltimore") for a nice chunk of time ("from May until December").
- But all this being said, all he remembers of that city is this one incident, when he was the victim of hate speech—when a little kid called him "nigger."
- Half a year of his life has been subsumed by this moment of racism—that's how powerful the word "nigger" is. We don't even know the background of the Baltimorean boy—is he ignorant? Is he being purposefully vile? Who knows? What we do know is that his intentions don't really matter: the word stings our speaker no matter what the sentiment behind them is.
- It's a real coming-of-age moment for our speaker. The incident of "Incident" causes our speaker to realize that he's different, and, among some people (well, unfortunately, a lot of people), hated for his difference. This moment marks the beginning of the speaker's recognition of himself as a black person in a society dominated by white people.
- And before we finish up, we just want to think about the form of the poem a bit. As we've already discussed, it's written in a ballad meter (and has an appropriate ABCB rhyme scheme). The ballad meter has a sing-song-y, lighthearted feel to it, which matches with the content of the poem at the beginning.
- But by the end of the poem, boy is there a conflict between form and content. We have a lighthearted ballad form and some seriously heavy-duty issues.
- And that, we think, is the point: you can be a sweet, gleeful kid, riding along, minding your own business on the bus, and then BAM: the ignorance of others has the power to intrude on your day, and define (in a horrible way) a big ol' chunk of your life.
- The poem makes us feel this clash in our bones. The poem is only 12 lines long, but boy does it take us on a ride. And boy, does it make us feel for that eight-year-old boy who experiences hate, and who is consumed by it. Countee Cullen sure did know how to shock his readers into moments of empathy, recognition, and anger. (And we're pretty sure that's why we're still reading this poem almost 100 years after it was written.)