On Writing, Rage, and June Jordan

Recently I’ve been meditating on the idea of black rage. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about stereotypes about “angry black women”—where these ideas come from, who they serve, and how black women artists engage with anger in their work.

Encountering June Jordan’s work later in my academic career gave me a lens to understand the utility of anger, and how poetry is a perfect place to wrestle with anger and grief. Her poem “Poem About Police Violence” was particularly instructive. Revisiting this piece in the context of my work now has brought me a deeper understanding of how her writing informed mine, and how it continues to be relevant today.

This poem opens with the speaker posing a hypothetical to a friend or lover. “Tell me something,” Jordan begins. “What you think would happen if/ everytime they kill a black boy/ then we kill a cop/ everytime they kill a black man/ then we kill a cop/ you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?” Here was a poet who wasn’t afraid of the “redundancies” of being sad or angry. Not only was she bold enough to wonder aloud about violence, her diction was deliberately black.

Her use of black vernacular, “what you think would happen” versus the standard “what do you think” clued me into the power of using colloquial language. As a writer and a reader, I noted how her use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) called out to me in a familiar tone. The conversation transpiring in the poem felt familiar too, reminiscent of the dialogues I have with friends and loved ones almost daily. What would it take to end state violence against our community? What would it take to move the mechanisms of systemic power towards justice? Throughout the poem, Jordan delivered an eerie parallel to the dialogue about police brutality happening around me.

In the fourth stanza, she writes “I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rapid/ and repetitive affront as when they tell me/ 18 cops in order to subdue one man/ 18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle.” In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, statistics like this are reported and repeated, turned into chants. The numbers get repeated like charms to ward off forgetting. Jordan showed me how numbers can tell the story, like how it is common knowledge that Mike Brown’s body was in the street for four hours, or how he was shot six times.

It is worth saying more about the man whose murder prompted Jordan to write this poem. In 1978, Arthur Miller, a black organizer and business owner in Crown Heights, went outside to see why the police were arresting his younger brother. Eighteen cops restrained Arthur, resulting in a chokehold that led to his death. Jordan’s word choice—ugly, bestial, rapid—brings to mind Darren Wilson’s attempts to justify Mike Brown’s murder, comparing himself to a five-year-old next to Brown’s hulk-ish frame. Jordan continues remarking on the language the police used to describe their encounter with Miller: “…and that the murder/ that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn/ street was just a “justifiable accident” again/ (Again).”

Jordan showed me how punctuation can be strategically deployed to highlight aspects of the writer’s argument. Her quotations around “justifiable accident,” the parenthesis around the word “again,” floating alone as the last line in the stanza. She set this up with a parenthetical earlier in the stanza: “(don’t you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue/ and scuffle my oh my).” Here Jordan calls out the ways in which people in power use language to control a narrative and, by extension, manipulate outcomes in their favor.

This is certainly true in the case of Arthur Miller, and many like him. No one was held accountable for Miller’s death. The medical examiner found “no evidence of savage or excessive beating.” The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York found “insufficient evidence” that Miller’s rights had been violated.

The word “accident” appears repeatedly in this poem, each time a conscious choice on Jordan’s part. She opens and closes the poem with a reference to the accident rate. Her use of the phrase is even more meaningful when the full scope of her advocacy is taken into account. The death of Arthur Miller, like the death of Emmett Till before and Mike Brown after him, was not a mere accident. They are the natural outcomes of a system built on the devaluation of black and brown bodies. The fifth stanza opens with Jordan’s observation that “People been having accidents all over the globe” is an excellent example of how Jordan is able to center the experiences of black people victimized by the state without losing sight of global violence enacted by state actors, and the connections between the two.

Jordan’s work often incorporates a poetic power analysis. In life as an educator, writer, and advocate, she perpetually shone a light on who was being excluded from the conversation. In 1991 she founded Poetry for the People, a program that trained undergraduates to take poetry to community groups as a form of political empowerment. Her belief in poetry as a tool in the arsenal for equity stuck with me. Not that poetry was the only tool—she was explicit in calling attention to the need for systemic change, particularly in her final essay collection “Some of Us Did Not Die.” But that arming marginalized communities with language was a tactic that undermines structural inequality. Jordan’s poetry and advocacy continue to ground me in this increasingly difficult political moment.

-Simone John, 2017 WROB Fellow

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