Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As the title to June Jordan’s collection of poetry indicates, individual and collective self-determination are central concerns in her work. Throughout the 109 poems in Naming Our Destiny, Jordan uses her own self-naming process to illustrate her contention that women and other oppressed groups must have the freedom to define themselves and choose their own courses of action. Jordan’s dual emphasis on personal and communal autonomy, coupled with her belief that her own self-determination entails recognizing and affirming the interconnections between herself and apparently dissimilar peoples, gives her work a visionary perspective and a defiant optimism that grows stronger in the later poems. As she examines the interconnections between her own destiny and the destinies of increasingly diverse national and international groups, Jordan rejects restrictive notions of isolated, self-enclosed individual identities and creates intimate, potentially transformational dialogues between herself and her readers. Whether she explores her relationships with her mother and other women, racial violence in Atlanta, South African apartheid, or the Middle East, she combines self-expression with revolutionary calls to action.

Divided into four parts spanning a period of thirty years, the poems in Naming Our Destiny illustrate Jordan’s own increasingly expansive individual and collective self-definitions. Part 1, composed of thirty-six poems...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Naming Our Destiny Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like many twentieth century North American women poets, Jordan combines self-expression with social critique to create positive images of female identity that challenge the historic and aesthetic erasure of women. As in Civil Wars (1980), On Call (1985), and Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union (1993), her collections of political essays, she repeatedly emphasizes the importance of creating genuinely democratic forms of language that enable women and other previously silenced groups to name their own destinies. Yet Jordan’s own self-definitions resist easy classification; the self-naming process she enacts in Naming Our Destiny is mobile and open to continual revision and change. Thus, in “A Short Note to My Very Critical Friends and Well-Beloved Comrades,” she defiantly outlines the numerous ways in which her well-meaning friends and comrades have tried unsuccessfully to classify her according to color, sexuality, age, and ideology and asserts that their inability to do so indicates their own limitations rather than her own.

This rejection of restrictive labels makes a significant contribution to twentieth century feminist thinking. By going beyond specific gender and ethnic categories of meaning without denying their temporary historic significance, Jordan redefines identity as a constantly shifting internal process. As she asserts in Civil Wars,Neither race nor gender provides the final definitions of jeopardy or refuge. The final risk or final safety lies within each one of us attuned to the messy and intricate and unending challenge of self-determination. I believe the ultimate power of all the people rests upon the individual ability to trust and to respect the authority of the truth of whatever it is that each of us feels, each of us means.

Jordan’s concept of self-determination functions as an important critique of U.S. feminists’ identity politics, or the tendency to base political actions on restrictive definitions of female, ethnic-specific categories of identity. By repeatedly demonstrating the many commonalities shared by apparently dissimilar peoples, Jordan minimizes the social and political divisiveness of gender, sexual, ethnic, national, and class differences.

Naming Our Destiny Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Erickson, Peter. “The Love Poetry of June Jordan.” Callaloo 9 (1986): 221-234. This essay explores the paradoxical relationship between self-definition and the rejection of restrictive labels in Jordan’s love poetry. It provides detailed interpretations of several poems reprinted in Naming Our Destiny, including “A Short Note to My Very Critical Friends and Well-Beloved Comrades,” “Poem About My Rights,” “Fragments of a Parable,” and “For Dave: 1976.”

Erickson, Peter. “State of the Union.” Transition 59 (1992): 104-109. Although this essay focuses primarily on Jordan’s prose writings, the discussion of her self-naming process provides useful background information for interpreting the poetry. In addition to discussing Jordan’s writing career and Technical Difficulties, this essay explores her critique of identity politics.

Jordan, June. “An Interview with June Jordan.” Interview by Joy Harjo. High Plains Literary Review 3 (1988): 60-76. This interview provides a number of useful insights into Jordan’s writing process, her theory of language, her choice of poetic forms, and her political motivations.

Jordan, June. “Thinking About My Poetry.” In Civil Wars. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980. In addition to summarizing Jordan’s complex relationship with language, this narrative essay explores how her changing political views influence her poetic voices.

Ostriker, Alicia. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. This wide-ranging analysis of twentieth century U.S. women poets contains brief discussions of “Case in Point,” “Getting Down to Get Over,” and several other poems reprinted in Naming Our Destiny.