This poem describes an incident of racism that had a harmful effect on the speaker. The poem begins with the speaker, an eight-year-old boy, riding on a bus or some other form of public transportation while visiting Baltimore. He sees another young boy, a resident of the city, staring at him. The speaker smiles at the other boy, but this local just sticks out his tongue and calls the speaker the n-word. The poem ends with the speaker describing how a whole summer, fall, and winter in Baltimore were reduced in his memory to this one damaging encounter.
The poem is written with the sing-songy rhythm and rhyme of a ballad. However, by the end of the poem, it is clear that the content is anything but lighthearted. The poem begins with the word “Once,” signaling the beginning of a tale. Indeed, the story begins happily enough: the speaker has come to visit Baltimore. He is riding on public transportation and is overcome with glee, or joy, in his heart and head. These feelings are interrupted when the speaker realizes that a local child is staring right at him. The speaker is perceptive, noticing quickly that the “Baltimorean” is the same age and size as himself. In many respects, they are equal. However, what the other boy sees when looking at the speaker is significantly more limited. All he notices is that the speaker is African American. His response to this is to rudely “poke out / His tongue” and call him “'Nigger.'”
The use of this offensive racial epithet radically transforms the mood of the poem. The final stanza ends with a reflection on the effect of this encounter. Despite staying in Baltimore for seven months, and seeing the city throughout the changing of the seasons, it is only this incident of racism that is etched in the speaker’s mind. Starting as a perceptive child noticing details of the world around him, by the end of the poem his ability to enjoy and encounter the world has been diminished. In a way, he has become painfully aware of how others see him.
Despite using very simple, everyday language without metaphors or similes, the poem contains sophisticated reflections on racism and its effects. The perceptiveness of the speaker is contrasted with the single-minded hatefulness of the Baltimorean child. While the speaker notices many aspects of the city and his young counterpart, the other child can see only race. The effect of this racist encounter is that the speaker’s own capacity to notice and observe is harmed: from all the seasons spent in Baltimore, only this “incident” stands out in his mind.
This incident overlaps with an experience often described in African American literature. This is the moment young African American children first see themselves through the eyes of external racism. The American sociologist, historian, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois (whose daughter, coincidentally, Countee Cullen married) described this phenomenon as “double consciousness.” He used this term to define the particular way African Americans come to understand themselves. He called it a “sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others.” Nobody is born with double consciousness, but society teaches African Americans to see themselves both through their own eyes and those of a larger society that rejects them.
In this way, we can say that Cullen’s poem portrays the exact moment where double consciousness in instilled in the life of one specific child. While the speaker of the poem begins the tale by unselfconsciously enjoying the world around him, he ends it with the painful and inescapable realization that others see him only in terms of his race.