Who Look at Me Critical Essays

June Jordan


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The poems that Jordan has written for Who Look at Me are both a commentary on and an extension of the images. The poet and the visual artists are all concerned with the art of vision, hoping to engage the imaginative responses of their audience, and Jordan’s poetry is purposely arranged on the page in different shapes and forms so as to complement the pictures with additional visual patterns, black letters on a white background. As the separate stanzas appear, Jordan follows her initial question “Who would paint a people . . . ?” with some of the specific sources of her own motivation, indicating that her inquiring intelligence has compelled her to try to understand the dimensions of human experience as a way of understanding herself. The hostile, dismissive posture of a too-frequently racist society, she believes, is partly the result of confusion, fear, and uncertainty before a mystery that she can help to explain. “Is that how we look to you,” she asks, “a partial nothing . . . ?”

Her commentaries on the illustrations are designed to dispel doubt and supply some of the details of black life that have an immediate correspondence in any culture. They then touch on some of the most captivating qualities of African American citizens of the United States and their particular contributions to the richness of American life. While her poems are clearly in the mainstream of contemporary poetry of the latter decades of the twentieth century, her use of the rhythmic patterns of black vernacular speech enlivens her descriptions, and her inclusion of tonal inflections and syntactic arrangements that convey the flavor of the oral...

(The entire section is 676 words.)