TOPICS > Arts

Martin Luther King Day Poem

January 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

Sometimes a poem compresses something large into its most direct, plain and minimal essence. Countee Cullen wrote a twelve-line poem that does something like that for the racial hatred Martin Luther King Jr. resisted, the social and psychological penetration of racism. Here is Countee Cullen’s poem, written in 1925:

INCIDENT

(for Eric Walrond)

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Hear-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.