‘Poem About My Rights’ by June Jordan is a long free verse following a speaker’s thought process as they analyze social issues like misogyny, sexism, and racism. Read like modern lyric poetry, the poem intentionally employs a stream-of-consciousness narrative technique and explicit language to portray its political and social themes. It is one of the best-known feminist poems of the 20th century.
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‘Poem About My Rights’ by June Jordan is a free verse telling of misogyny, sexism, and the aftereffects of colonialism as experienced by the speaker, a woman of color.
The poem begins on a slightly jarring note, with the poet’s persona deep diving into the issues of misogyny and racism. They refer to themselves as having the wrong skin, being the wrong sex, and having their rights suppressed because of this. Then the speaker cites a specific—and most predominant—form of misogyny: sexual assault. They underscore the perpetrators of sexual assault before their thoughts transition into racism, its specific instances, its consequences, and perpetrators.
As the poem progresses, the speaker briefly narrates their personal experiences with sexism and colorism before summarizing all social issues discussed and relating them to their identity. Up until this point, as a darker-skinned African American woman, the persona had seemingly acknowledged that they were the problem in society and that their perpetrators were right to restrict the rights of black people. However, towards the end of the poem, this seeming acknowledgment reveals itself to be sarcasm. In the final lines of Poem About My Rights, the speaker firmly states that they are not wrong for being who they are and their people do not deserve the injustices they have faced. The persona wraps up the poem by saying they will continue fighting until their rights are no longer suppressed.
‘Poem About My Rights’ by June Jordan is a one-stanza poem comprising one hundred and fourteen lines. It is also a heterometric poem, meaning its lines are of varying length and meter. This is a direct consequence of the speaker employing the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, which intentionally ignores the use of punctuation or polished grammar while imitating the human thought process. The only punctuation mark used in the poem is the backward slash. The speaker uses this occasionally to remind the audience that their thoughts are connected. The omission of other punctuations emphasizes the natural flow, and eventual urgency, of the speaker’s thoughts. As expected of a heterometric, ‘Poem About My Rights‘ is written in free verse.
- Implied Metaphor: ‘Poem About My Rights‘ reveals its themes using implied metaphors. This is most obvious between lines 21-44. Here, using language like “penetrating” and “monster jackboot ejaculation” in relation to countries forms implied metaphors that point to sexual abuse and the perpetrators behind it. The persona uses these phrases without mentioning the government or men to expose the people they talk about.
- Imagery: The result of using implied metaphors is powerful imagery. Besides implied metaphors, the speaker also uses highly descriptive—even explicit—language. As a result, they are able to share a glaring picture of the brutality people of color experience.
- Metonymy: The implied metaphors in lines 21-44 would not be complete without metonymy. By using the name of the countries within these lines instead of mentioning “the government” or “men,” the persona successfully employs metonymy. This figure of speech is also dominant between lines 77-101. “I” in these lines does not necessarily mean the persona but rather women and men of color like her who experience the injustices she describes.
- Enjambment: Enjambment appears throughout ‘Poem About My Rights’ due to the pacing of the persona’s thoughts. This is a by-product of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. Devoid of any punctuations except the backward slash, the persona’s thoughts freely run into each other.
- Repetition: Repetition takes on many forms, and ‘Poem About My Rights’ employs some of them. The most basic form appears in line 110 with the words “my own my own my own.” This emphasizes the speaker’s tenacity in taking back their rights. Other forms of repetition, like the anaphora, appear between lines 77-79, with “I” beginning the persona’s sentences. Parallelism is most obvious with the repetition of the phrase “the wrong…”. Like every form of repetition, these three underscore the themes of the poem. By repeating the aforementioned words and phrases, the persona succeeds in bringing their meaning to the listener’s/reader’s attention.
- Sarcasm: Besides being an instance of parallelism, the phrase “the wrong…” is also sarcasm. The speaker shows this towards the end of the poem, where they retract the statement that they are “wrong.” The speaker’s bitter tone in repeating they are the wrong skin, sex, and so on tells listeners/readers that they are being sarcastic. Another sarcastic take appears in line 43, with the persona calling their perpetrators the “big boys.” Though the persona truly acknowledges that they are not the ones in power, the rising tension at this point in the poem makes their words sound like a taunt.
- Soliloquy: This device is another by-product of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. By default, the speaker’s thought process is the poem, and so by the speaker thinking to themselves, the poem becomes a soliloquy.
- Apostrophe: Although the persona is speaking to themselves, line 45 tells listeners/readers of an unseen audience whom the speaker directly addresses for the first time.
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
The opening lines captivate readers as the speaker presents the imagery of taking a walk while linking this seemingly common activity to the themes of the poem. With simple language like “the wrong sex,” “the wrong age,” and “the wrong skin,” the speaker communicates the center of their thoughts and the main subjects of the poem: misogyny and racism. Before introducing the subject of the poem, the poet’s persona hints at the direction of their thoughts between lines 2-6. By describing the things they had to change to go for a walk, they point out the struggles and fears of women in society even while doing the most common routines. Line 5 reveals that the speaker is female, which makes her experience and, therefore, the poem more reliable. These lines hint at the fact that she would be speaking from experience.
At the time of the poem’s publication, 1978, the second wave of feminism was well underway. This means topics like sexism and misogyny were the talk of the town. The speaker said that she needs to clear her head before speaking, revealing how much she had already thought about these subjects. In this sense, one can see that the speaker is passionate about these social issues.
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
In these lines, the speaker laments about the restrictions on her, and by extension, women’s, right to freedom of movement. Once again, she portrays another struggle women experience in the expression of their rights. Though she does not say the reason for this restriction, her language between lines 19-20 hints at the patriarchal society. Lines 12-14 also give insight into the character of our speaker. The speaker’s need to go far away and think about heavy topics like God and the world tells readers she is introspective and introverted. This further emphasizes the discomfort the speaker, and possibly women like her, experience with the restrictions on their rights. As she reveals in line 15, these restrictions suppress her personality and capabilities. Furthermore, the speaker thinking about children reveals a compassionate side to her.
The speaker’s commentary on the social restrictions are as relevant today as they were in 1978. The suppression of women’s personalities and capabilities in a patriarchal society remains a social issue. Hence, Poem About My Rights is a timeless poem.
who in the hell set things up
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
self-immolation of the villages and if after that
we lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will they
claim my consent:
The speaker deep dives into the reasons for the suppression she faces in these lines. Also, the poem picks up its pace and sense of urgency. The speaker’s language becomes more explicit and uncensored but intentionally depicts women’s brutal struggles accurately. In doing so, the persona highlights sexual assault, one common form of misogyny. Between lines 23-44, she narrows down the victims of sexual assault to women of color, particularly black women. Calling these people of color “kinsmen and women” (line 41) give the audience more insight into our persona. At this point, the audience can tell she is a black woman who knows a lot about the politics regarding sexual assault.
The countries the speaker refers to in these lines are a metonymy for the perpetrators of violence against women. The explicit description between lines 34-40 reveals these perpetrators as not only men but the governments who form policies encouraging rape culture.
Highlighting specific countries in Africa tells the audience that regions have governments that encourage rape culture. “Blackland” in line 38 indicates that our speaker is speaking for all black men and women across all nations. By speaking of consent, the persona raises another subject in the poem: the right to freedom of expression and the patriarchy’s disregard for it. This issue underscores the timelessness of this poem, considering society still debates the issue of consent today. The women’s rights movement in France has, to a large extent, succeeded in modifying the laws concerning rape. However, most of the African countries mentioned in Poem About My Rights continue, by omission or commission, to encourage sexual assault through their legal systems.
Towards the end of this thought, the speaker’s frustration at her, and by extension, women’s, situation is apparent. Readers see this in her uncensored language; also her calling the perpetrators “big boys.” The latter is a sad yet sarcastic acknowledgment that women do not have enough power.
Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people of
the wrong skin on the wrong continent and what
in the hell is everybody being reasonable about
to walk into the cafeteria because he said he
was wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong
gender identity and he was paying my tuition and
These lines form the transition of the speaker’s thoughts from misogyny to racism. They also indicate the first time the speaker directly addresses her unseen audience. As per the persona’s style, she gives specific instances of racism from her experience, including instances that briefly highlight the theme of colonialism. “the Times” represents an article from the New York Times, namely, “C.I.A. Said to Have Aided Plotters Who Overthrew Nkrumah in Ghana.” This article was published in the same year as Poem About My Rights, hence, the phrase “this week” (line 48). This amount of detail woven into the poem makes it even more raw and captivating. Moreover, the poet’s persona highlights the injustices colonialism served the late activists, the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
Mentioning “my Ivy League…” tells readers that the persona is currently based in America. However, her empathizing with the injustices the aforementioned Africans faced underscores the fact that, as a person of color, she recognizes her roots. Regardless, at this point in the poem, our speaker, probably due to heightened emotions, relates misinformation about her “kinsmen.” As the New York Times article title implies, Nkrumah was ousted from power, not killed. Prime Minister Lumumba, however, was assassinated. The repetition of the word “wrong” in these lines drives the theme of racism home, but in an unexpected way. Contrary to what readers would expect, the speaker says she, not the perpetrator of injustice, is wrong. Considering the tangible tension in the poem at this point, one can say that this repetition is sarcastic.
it was my father saying I was wrong saying that
I should have been a boy because he wanted one/a
my nose and braces for my teeth and telling me
to let the books loose to let them loose in other
Here, the persona’s thoughts transition from racism to the themes of sexism and colorism. As per the speaker’s style, she tells from experience. Until now, the perpetrators of the social issues she highlighted had been people unrelated to her. However, the perpetrators here are the persona’s family. The train of thought within these lines shows how deep the speaker has gone into her thoughts. In turn, this gives readers even more insight into the struggles of black people, this time in their own community. The speaker uncovers the ideologies in her home: fathers believing having boys is better than raising girls, mothers believing women do not need to be educated and should only focus on being pretty, and lighter skin being more favorable than darker skin. These ideologies are still debated today within the African and African American communities.
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
In these lines, the persona summarizes all social issues discussed up to this point. Here, the speaker draws on all the intersections of who she is, a knowledgeable dark-skinned African American woman. At the same time, she reminds her audience of the different perpetrators that have a problem with those intersections. These are the most potent lines within the poem. They are the climax of the speaker’s thoughts.
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
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/
Poem About My Rights reiterates the effects of the injustices served to black people along these lines. Some of those effects are introduced with the phrase “the history of. “ This phrase emphasizes how long black people have tolerated these social injustices. The speaker employs violent descriptions to make readers, especially if they are perpetrators themselves, uncomfortable. She also uses the repetition of the word “wrong” to spell out her perpetrators’ ideology. By calling herself wrong, she is indirectly telling the perpetrators, “You treat me this way because you think I am wrong.”
but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life
The last lines of Poem About My Rights reveal that the speaker disagrees with the ideology of her perpetrators. This encourages black women and men of color who can relate to any part of her poem. The repetition of “my own” in line 110 represents a reclamation of the rights revealed as suppressed at the beginning of the poem. In line 113, the poet’s persona encourages her people to resist suppression, even with the most straightforward activity. The poet’s persona ends the poem on a strong—and slightly threatening—note, which is typical of certain forms of activism. In this sense, one can interpret Poem About My Rights as the thoughts of an activist.
‘Poem About My Rights‘ shoulders the themes of misogyny, sexism, colorism, racism, and colonialism. As the title of the poem implies, it is also about reclaiming one’s rights, liberation, and determination. These are all types of poems discussing social issues.
The speaker sprinkles enough detail throughout the poem to tell readers/listeners that she is an African-American woman who is not only interested in social issues but very much aware of how they affect her. Typical of political and modern lyric poetry, this persona is the poet herself, June Jordan. She is also portrayed as an introspective and empathetic person.
The tone changes throughout the poem. However, the speaker’s bitter mood persists. Though the speaker calmly begins her poem, her tone becomes more urgent, sarcastic, and passionate as it progresses. It is almost as if the speaker is screaming her points at her listener/reader but eventually settles into a calm, firm, determined tone.
‘Poem About My Rights‘ was first published in Essence Magazine in 1978. Given its timelessness, it has been republished in several other anthologies like Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan in 2005.
June Jordan was born at a time when there were many political movements, reformations, and revolutions, like the American Civil Rights movement. Given this circumstance, the poet was influenced by the society at the time and her interaction with this society.
About June Jordan
June Jordan was a Jamaican American poet, essayist, and educator who used all tools at her disposal (namely, her writing) to promote her people’s interest in the political world. Her works are mostly autobiographical, heavily employing her experiences to advance her activism course. Unsurprisingly, she stood for women’s rights, particularly African American ones. Aged 65, the prolific writer with over a score of published works died of breast cancer in 2002. Some of her literary works were published posthumously.
If you enjoyed Poem About My Rights, you should check out these other poems as well:
- ‘Women‘ by Alice Walker: a poem appraising African American women who fought so their female children can be granted the right to an education.
- ‘July 4, 1974‘ by June Jordan: a poem about motherhood and the heavy responsibility of parenting.
- ‘Lineage‘ by Margaret Walker: a poem documenting how women persisted through slavery.