There were not many books around my house growing up other than those obtained from our many trips to the library.  Books, after all were expensive and the library cost us only a long walk.  It was mostly downhill going but of course we trudged back again, a mother and her three children all book-laden.  We spent a long time in the library tasting books determined to take only those worthy of the effort and the wait until the next time.

I remember most the trips in the winter wind and how warm the library was when we finally opened the door and tumbled in.  When my father died I was eleven, my sister nine and my brother five.  These journeys began not long after though how long I can not say.   My memory of my eleventh and twelfth years has never been good and after sixty-five years has hardly improved.  But I remember the joy.  And my house is filled with books.

There was one book that my mother owned I remember vividly.  I can see it yet lying on her desk, the one that now resides in my home and is the most revered thing of hers I have.  I picked it up and found marvelous poems by a man whose name I had never heard.  I had read poems in school but had never thought of a book of poems all by the same person.

The book was Color, the poet; Countee Cullen.  Instead of just looking to see what it was I began to read, finally sitting down on the day bed where I finished it.  Well, not finished for I returned many times.  This was probably the first book by a colored man I had ever seen.

Race was not an issue for me growing up. My neighborhood and elementary school were both all white and I rarely encountered African-Americans, to use the current name, until high school.  So Countee Cullen was my first black (I think he would still be using black) author and he and the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance he led me to helped to educate me about what my country was and what it should be.

There were many poems that impressed me and one that is with me still.  I have never tried to memorize poems or other works that speak to me.  I didn’t with “Incident”.  I simply read it into a corner of my brain where after all these years it still shines.


 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.

Countee Cullen<a href="http://By Heart” title=”Incident” target=”_blank”>