144. Incident: Countee Cullen

This is a pretty blunt poem that says all that needs to be said.

Use it when you are talking about the power each of us has to crush another person. My students don’t realize, or much believe, that their negative connecting has any real power. When they do say something (“just a joke”) I have them say five positive things to “erase” it. Often, they cannot. If s/he is “a friend, so it’s okay” how can you not have five nice things to say to this “friend”?

The simple structure works, as it lets the bluntness of the word hang there. Sometimes, simple is best.

The word is strong. I was listening to an interview with a professor who reprinted “Huckleberry Finn” with the n-word replaced by “slave”. His reason was that his daughter’s friend (who is black) hated reading the text for class because of that word; to her it was not academic. It was too raw. He is a Twain scholar, and it upset him that this student would prohibited from enjoying his work because of this, so he reworked the text. Know your students.

Countee Cullen

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.


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