jasper texas 1998

Lucille Clifton

‘jasper texas 1998’ by Lucille Clifton is a devastating poem that illustrates both the poet’s frustrated fury over and the dehumanizing barbarity of systemic racial violence against Black people in the United States.

Lucille Clifton

Nationality: American

Lucille Clifton was a widely read and respected American poet.

Her work was promoted by Langston Hughes in The Poetry of the Negro.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Exasperated disgust and anguish over the perpetuation of racist violence

Speaker: James Byrd Jr

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Disgust, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Lucille Clifton's poem offers a gut-wrenching and soul-withering account of heinous racial violence.

‘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.


‘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.

While repetition and end-stopped lines in the second stanza punctuate the grave intensity of its rhetorical questions.

Literary Devices

‘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).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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.


What is the theme of ‘jasper texas 1998?

The poem touches on a variety of themes, from the inhumane nature of racial violence to its daunting pervasiveness in American society.

Why did Lucille Clifton write ‘jasper texas 1998?

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.

Who was J. Byrd?

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.

What is the tone of the poem?

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.

Similar Poems

Poetry+ Review Corner

jasper texas 1998

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Lucille Clifton (poems)

Lucille Clifton

This is an immensely impactful and moving example of Lucille Clifton's poetry, which often offers unabashed and unblinking glimpses into the cruel ways racism against Black Americans has manifested itself. The poem's incredibly visceral imagery and use of figurative language make it a brutally emotional experience for the reader, one that illustrates in stark terms the barbarism of racial violence.
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20th Century

Born in 1936, the poetry of the late Lucille Clifton exists as an important source of understanding the experience of Black Americans during the 20th century. Her poems offer not just recollections of grievances regarding oppression and violence against such communities but also offer a vision of endurance and perseverance. This poem offers a much more tragic and devastating outcome.
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Lucille Clifton's poem is exemplary of her poetry and possibly one of the more intense ones found in her catalog. It is also indicative of the racism faced by Black people in America and attaches itself to the expression of a real-life tragedy and murder, making its message and themes all the more impactful to the reader.
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Death is one of the themes found within Lucille Clifton's poem, as it centers around a portrayal of the aftermath of the murder of a Black man. As a result, it offers a soul-eviscerating image of racial violence and the death it perpetuates, one that the reader cannot deny nor look away from.
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Another theme that is touched on in Lucille Clifton's poem is this disappointment in the continued perpetuation of racial violence against Black Americans. Throughout the poem, the speaker references the history of the civil rights movement, indicating that the country has yet to overcome the tide of such hate. This is made all the more tragic but potent by the fact that the crime it narrates occurred decades after it ended.
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Identity is a major theme of Lucille Clifton's poem. Racial identity, in particular, is touched throughout the poem, as it is because of the Black man's race that he is murdered. But there is also the identity of his murderers, who were all White men who participated in dehumanizing a fellow human being, a fact that the poem uses to question the existence of their own humanity.
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Anger is a powerful emotion expressed and inspired by Lucille Clifton's poem about the murder of a Black man in 1998. This anger is not just directed at the White men who killed this man but also at the society and institutions that have allowed this to continue happening. The speaker's anger is at its most potent in the last two stanzas.
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Disgust is another emotion adjacent to anger that appears in Lucille Clifton's poem. The speaker expresses such vehement distaste toward the men who have killed the Black man's dead body that they now speak through. But it also offers up a wave of much more general anger that such atrocious acts of violence still occur in America.
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The poem also permeates with this intense sadness that borders on resignation. Lucille Clifton articulates the depressing and distressing sense that racial violence is so ingrained in American society that it persists through centuries and generations. The bodies of those targeted because of their skin color pile up over the decades, and each murder shocks but not enough to inspire meaningful or lasting change.
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African Americans

Lucille Clifton often focused her poetic prowess on illustrating Black experiences in America. This poem is without a doubt one of her more affecting pieces, and not just because it was based on the real-life hateful murder of a Black man in Texas in 1998. What makes it all the more impactful is the lack of hope that many of the poet's verses contain.
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A topic addressed in Lucille Clifton's poem is the idea of humanity; as the target of white supremacists, James Byrd Jr. is dehumanized and murdered because they don't see him as a person. Yet this lack of respect for the life of another human being reveals their own vacant humanity; to inflict such cruelty is revealed as incongruent with possessing humanity.
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Racism is, of course, a central topic explored in Lucille Clifton's poem. It is a portrait of racial violence, one that dives into the real-life murder of James Byrd Jr. as a means of exposing the ways in which racism still exists in America and that, at any moment, a Black person can become the victim of such cruel and barbaric actions.
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The violence of the murder is portrayed only in its aftermath. Yet, Lucille Clifton's imagery offers a truly visceral and grisly allusion to the horror that transpired one night in Jasper, Texas in 1998, one that alludes to the murder's more macabre and heart-wrenching details, leaving the reader with the depressing weight of its tragedy.
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Free Verse

This poem by Lucille Clifton is written entirely in free verse, lacking both a formal rhyme and meter. As a result, the poem follows the rhythm created by the poet's highly emotional verse and its incorporation of sound devices. It is much more reflective of everyday speech but also abruptly curt.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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