Poem About My Rights

by June Jordan

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The Poem

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“Poem About My Rights,” written in free verse, juxtaposes the personal odyssey of one black woman facing oppression in the United States with the political struggle of nations against oppression in southern Africa. The poem’s title is ironic, as the narrator chronicles the “wrongs” that exist within the person she is as well as the external conditions that impact her. Society’s edicts infringe upon and impede any rights that author June Jordan feels are hers. She is a product of her people’s heritage and, as such, must live according to contemporary cultural suppositions.

Using first person throughout, Jordan details the wrongs that she perceives in herself: wrong color, wrong sex, and living on the wrong continent. She is the potential victim of any man who would physically force himself on her. The rape victim becomes the wrongdoer because the law assumes implied consent in cases of rape and brutality. Burden of proof is also left to the victim in order for justice to be served. Personal, consensual rape is then transferred to the broader area of southern Africa: South Africa’s forced penetration into Namibia and Namibia’s subsequent penetration into Angola are detailed.

Jordan then shifts the scene of “Poem About My Rights” back to the United States and cites both national and personal wrongs. She highlights the use of power by the government and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the killing of black leaders, and the treatment of blacks on college campuses. The poet was even rejected by her parents, who wanted to alter both her behavior and her physical appearance. The latter third of the poem culminates in the poet’s realization that she is very familiar with all of the problems elucidated: “the problems/ turn out to be/ me/ I am the history of rape/ I am the history of the rejection of who I am/ I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of/ my self.” She is also the “problem everyone seeks to eliminate” by forced penetration. In a dramatic ending, Jordan avows that this poem is not her consent to anyone: “Wrong is not my name//. . . my resistance/ my simple and daily and nightly self-determination/ may very well cost you your life.”

“Poem About My Rights” is a pessimistic poem. However, the work ends on a somewhat hopeful and optimistic note. Throughout the poem, the individual is seen as a victim of society. Near the beginning of the work, Jordan asks, “who in the hell set things up/ like this?” The phrase is repeated again near the end of the poem as Jordan calls on the reader to resist and to take an active stance in order to guarantee individual freedom and rights. The poem is reflective of the storytelling tradition. Readers feel as if they are at the scene with Jordan as she shares her thoughts and beliefs and implores them to comprehend her situation from her point of view.

Forms and Devices

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The individual human condition is juxtaposed with national and global conditions. Victimization of the black female by society is compared to the victimization of African countries by more powerful African countries. Jordan has said that when she writes a poem, she searches for the most harrowing or superlative way to express her feelings and get her point across. The rape image in “Poem About My Rights” reflects this practice. The poem’s shocking and violent images are used to make comparisons among individual, national, and global situations. The forced gang rape of an unconsenting female in France is deemed by law as consent since male penetration did not include ejaculation,...

(This entire section contains 560 words.)

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and therefore there is no proof. It is determined that the individual is wrong because of who and where she is at the time of the incident. To Jordan, this is analogous to the penetration of African nations by more powerful countries. Jordan also applies the rape image to her current situation as a black female: “I am the history of rape”; “I have been raped because I have been wrong”; “I have been the meaning of rape”; and “I have been the problem everyone seeks to/ eliminate by forced/ penetration with or without the evidence.”

In Lauren Muller’s June Jordan’s Poetry for the People (1995), Jordan defines poetry as “a political action undertaken for the sake of information and the exorcism that telling the truth makes possible.” She goes on to say that poetry should achieve a maximum impact with a minimum of words. Punctuation should be omitted. Vertical rhythm may be used to move the reader from one line to the next. Jordan also notes that a poem should not depend solely on the distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables but should incorporate musical qualities such as assonance and dissonance. Written in free verse, “Poem About My Rights” has little punctuation but is divided into four segments. In the first segment, Jordan’s personal situation and viewpoint are introduced. The section ends with the word “silence” and a colon. In the second segment, the rape images of both the individual and the globe are presented. The idea of implied consent by the victim and a semicolon end this section. The third section is introduced with the capitalized comment “Do You Follow Me.” This section recounts the wrongs inflicted upon blacks and upon Jordan by her parents, the government, and the world. Jordan is at the same time the product of her history and a member of current society. It is in this section that Jordan states, “I do not consent.” The final section, briefer than the first three, is set off by the italicized words “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name.” It is here that Jordan becomes an active and self-determined resister. She becomes proactive rather than reactive.

The ending of the poem is unsettling. Jordan writes that her “self-determination/ may very well cost you your life.” The poem concludes on a dramatic and implied violent note without punctuation. The poem begins with the tranquil notion of taking a walk so the poet can clear her head and think. This calm setting gradually fades as images of oppression, brutality, and loss of freedom emerge. Rather than reverting back to the calm beginning, the ending portends more violence as the oppressed begin to take action.