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:
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.