Protesting Baltimore’s Racial Divide

Protesters demonstrate before Baltimore police station

Protesters demonstrate before Baltimore police station

My heart breaks as I see violence breaking out in Baltimore as a result of African American Freddie Gray dying while in police custody. Many of my students are from Baltimore, a good friend preaches at a church in a poor section of northwest Baltimore (near the Pimlico race track), and I have visited the city often.

The city hasn’t seen rioting like this since Martin Luther King was assassinated. Observers trace the unrest, not only to the nation’s ever expanding list of unarmed black men killed by police, but to Baltimore’s long history of poverty and racial divisiveness. As with many urban areas, things went downhill in Baltimore when jobs left the city in the 1960s.

One of the iconic poems to come out of the Harlem Renaissance takes note of Baltimore’s racial divide. The quiet simplicity of Countee Cullens’ “Incident”–the poem reads almost like a nursery rhyme–makes the incident described all the more horrifying.

Written in 1925, the poem reminds us that the world looks much different to those who are marked out by the color of their skin. Statistics show that, even when all other things are equal, Blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped on the sidewalk, pulled over while driving, suspended from school, and given jail time. Cullen points out that the prejudice starts young:

Incident

By 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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  • Carl

    The same poem occurred to me, Robin. In fact, when blogger Shay Stewart-Bouley (“Black Girl in Maine”) wrote recently about the first time her daughter heard that epithet used aganst her, I asked my American Lit students to suggest Harlem Renaissance-era poems to link to the event, and “Incident” was their top choice.

    Another was the excruciatingly mournful “Black Woman”, by Georgia Douglas Johnson — one of very few African-American female poets to publish durng that era; her poem is a sort of dimmer view from an angle similar to that made famous by Langston Hughes in “Mother to Son”.

  • Robin

    Of course I had to track down “Black Woman” after getting your note, Carl. I don’t know the poem and, yes, it reminds me of “Mother to Son.” I am also put in mind of the mother in Baltimore who was so terrified of what could happen to her son that she beat him and dragged him from the protest marches.

    Don’t knock at the door, little child,
    I cannot let you in,
    You know not what a world this is
    Of cruelty and sin.
    Wait in the still eternity
    Until I come to you,
    The world is cruel, cruel, child,
    I cannot let you in!

    Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
    I cannot bear the pain
    Of turning deaf-ear to your call
    Time and time again!
    You do not know the monster men
    Inhabiting the earth,
    Be still, be still, my precious child,
    I must not give you birth!

  • Derrick Early

    You may like this article on Baltimore in The Economist.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/05/pundits-baltimore?fsrc=nlw|newe|5-05-2015|NA

  • Robin

    Thanks for article, Derrick. My one objection to it is that, in criticizing Krugman and Brooks for looking at Baltimore through the lens of their particular hobby horses–Krugman’s being economic inequality, Brooks’ being moral character–it ignores the fact that the pundit it praises, Douthat, has his own hobby horse–which is anti-unions (which in this case is police unions covering for bad cops). Then again, not one of us has an entire grasp on truth (as the parable of the blind men and the elephant illustrates).

    The ultimate novel about hobby horses, by the way, is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

  • Derrick Early

    I agree with your hobby horse view of the article, and I’ll have to read Tristram Shandy. I’m thinking that the only way to get the police to modify abusive and lethal behavior is to craft laws to make them accountable with independent enforcement. At least, officers have been charged in Baltimore. This is a rarity.


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