Incident Quotes and Analysis

Once riding in old Baltimore,
  Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

The speaker, looking back on an event from his childhood

The first two lines mislead the reader into thinking the poem will narrate a happy tale about something that happened in the past. The alliteration of “heart-filled” and “head-filled” illustrates the speaker’s gleeful mood that will quickly be interrupted.

Now I was eight and very small,
  And he was no whit bigger,


These lines from the second stanza emphasize the various common attributes shared by the speaker and the “Baltimorean.” The phrase “no whit” (more commonly, “not a whit”) means “not at all.” However, this word holds a powerful place in the poem because it can also mean “person” or “creature.” Additionally, in a poem so clearly focused on the issue of racism, it is possible that the word “whit” is also calculated to make the reader think of the word “white.”

And so I smiled, but he poked out
  His tongue, and called me, "'Nigger.'"

The speaker

There is a strong contrast set up here between the welcoming act of smiling versus the hostile gesture of poking one’s tongue out. The enjambment (mid-sentence line-break) between “poke out” and “His tongue” further emphasizes the shocking nature of the act. It is also notable that the speaker does not use the offensive word “'Nigger'” himself, but rather leaves in quotation marks. It is the single instance of quoted speech (something directly said by a character) in the poem.