‘jasper texas 1998’ does not shy away from the horrific and violently racist actions it narrates. The poem was dedicated by Lucille Clifton to the memory of James Byrd Jr., a Black resident of Jasper, Texas, who was murdered by three White men (two of whom were white supremacists) in 1998.
It unfolds from the perspective of the deceased Byrd Jr. and describes the grisly circumstances of his death while also questioning the humanity of those capable of such hateful barbarism. The poet’s striking imagery offers a vehement answer to those questions with its surreal but visceral glimpse of the gruesome crime.
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‘jasper texas 1998’ by Lucille Clifton recounts the tragically grim final moments of James Byrd Jr. before he died at the hands of three murderously racist men.
‘jasper texas 1998’ is a short but devastating poem. It begins with the speaker declaring that they are “a man’s head hunched in the road” and that they were chosen by the rest of their body parts “to speak.” An arm is also mentioned as pointing toward the head before being “pulled away.” These are the body parts of James Byrd Jr. that were severed from his body during the murder.
In the second stanza, the head reveals what it was chosen to say. In the face of such vile inhumanity come questions of why a Black person would ever call “a white man brother?” and whether or not those who dehumanize others are even human themselves.
The final stanza opens with the rising sun appearing as a “blister overhead.” The speaker reveals that the townsfolk are already singing “We shall overcome” in response to the murder. Yet despite this uplifting solidarity, the speaker points out that Byrd Jr. still lies dead in the dirt with “hope bleed[ing] slowly” from his mouth. The poem ends sadly and bitterly, with the speaker admitting they are “done with this dust. i am done.”
Structure and Form
‘jasper texas 1998’ is written in free verse, meaning it has no formal rhyme scheme or meter. However, Clifton does create her own unique rhythm within each stanza. Enjambment plays a large role in melding together the surreal visual and kinesthetic imagery of the first stanza.
‘jasper texas 1998’ contains the following literary devices:
- Visual imagery: “i am a man’s head hunched in the road” (1); “the thing that is dragged or the dragger” (9); “while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth” (14).
- Kinesthetic imagery: “the arm as it pulled away / pointed toward me, the hand opened once / and was gone” (3-5).
- Auditory Imagery: “the townsfolk sing we shall overcome” (13).
- Metaphor: “the sun is a blister overhead” (11) .
- Personification: “i was chosen to speak by the members / of my body” (2-3).
- Metonymy: “into the dirt that covers us all” (15).
- Rhetorical Question: “why and why and why / should i call a white man brother?” (6-7).
for j. byrd
i am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
The first stanza of ‘jasper texas 1998’ is characterized by its startling and unsettling imagery, which Clifton uses to allude to the more disturbing details of the murder. After being beaten and inhumanely abused, Byrd Jr. was then chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles while still alive. He was killed when his body hit a concrete culvert — severing his head and right arm.
It is the aftermath of this gruesome torture that the poem opens on. The speaker narrates the events from the perspective of the man’s personified body parts: explaining they were “chosen to speak by the members / of my body” (2-3).
This election is put in much starker terms when they describe the way their arm appeared to point at them (the head) before opening once (perhaps in farewell) and disappearing into the night. The morbid visual and kinesthetic imagery lends the already dreadful scene a new sense of foreboding.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
The second stanza of ‘jasper texas 1998’ is comprised of three rhetorical questions that give voice to the speaker’s searing indignation. “Why and why and why / should i call a white man brother” (6-7), the speaker asks. In other words: why is the burden on Black individuals to embrace White people when such brutality as this is still inflicted so brazenly upon the former by the latter?
The speaker also questions with eviscerating effect who the human is in this scenario: “the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” (9) The implication is that the men who treated Byrd Jr. with vicious cruelty are the ones who are inhuman. While the final question reflects on the speaker’s children and their reaction to their father’s murder, placating their anger with poignant grief.
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
The third stanza of ‘jasper texas 1998’ begins with a metaphor that describes the sun as a “blister overhead” (11) that the speaker wouldn’t be able to bear if they were still alive. One interpretation of Clifton’s diction here is that the sun is literally radiating an unpleasantly intense heat while symbolically representing the outrage that Byrd’s murder will reignite. The word “blister” also recalls the image of a raw and unhealed wound — an excruciatingly precise symbol for racial tensions in the United States.
Under this bleak and blazing sun, the speaker describes hearing the “townsfolk sing we shall overcome” (13), an allusion to one of the rallying gospel songs of the American civil rights movement. But this isn’t the 1960s anymore — it’s 1998 — and a Black man has just been murdered in a manner consistent with lynching traditions used since the post-Civil War. Unsurprisingly, three decades haven’t miraculously changed what a century of disastrous Reconstruction couldn’t fix.
To emphasize this, Clifton juxtaposes the auditory imagery of the singing townsfolk with a depressing vision of the speaker’s mouth, out of which “hope bleeds slowly” (14). The poet uses metonymy to refer to the grave and death when they mention the “dirt that covers us all” (15). The speaker then repeats solemnly and with a small tone of relief that they are “done with this dust” (16), their exasperation and anger nullified by death.
The poem touches on a variety of themes, from the inhumane nature of racial violence to its daunting pervasiveness in American society.
Clifton wrote the poem in honor of the memory of James Byrd Jr. Yet the poem also addresses racial violence against Black people on a historical level as well, shining a spotlight on the fact that very little has changed over the decades and centuries.
James Byrd Jr. was a father of three children who lived in Jasper, Texas, working as a vacuum salesman. On the evening of June 7th, 1998, he accepted a ride home from one of the three would-be murderers he happened to know from around town. But instead, they took him to a remote area to torture and eventually kill him. One of Byrd Jr.’s cousins also happened to be the first wife of Rodney King, another Black man at the center of a flashpoint moment of racial tension.
The poem’s tone can best be described as both scathingly blunt and angry. Yet as these are the words of a man already unjustly killed, there’s also a depressing passivity to them. As if the poem is also questioning the use of such sadness and rage when all it does is wither away the people filled by it without changing much else.
- ‘Enslaved’ by Claude McKay – this poem narrates with fierce intensity and emotion the ways in which institutionalized racism in the United States stems from slavery.
- ‘Nothing’s Changed’ by Tatamkhulu Afrika – this poem illustrates the persistence of racism through the years in South Africa under apartheid.
- ‘Riot’ by Gwendolyn Brooks – this poem offers a compelling vision of what happens when racism and oppression reach a boiling point.