Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Amiri Baraka's "Dope" and June Jordan's "Poem about My Rights"

I first discovered June Jordan's "Poem about My Rights" (1980) in the spring of 1998, while I was participating in a program taking courses at New York University. A year later, I discovered Amiri Baraka's "Dope" while I was on a graduate school visit to Pennsylvania State University. I first read Jordan's poem in a book, and my first encounter with Baraka's poem was through an audio recording. Those two compositions by Jordan and Baraka have been important in my thinking about black poetry now for close to 20 years.

Yesterday on Facebook, William J. Harris - one of my former professors and a specialist on Amiri Baraka - noted that he had seen Jordan read "Poem about My Rights" on May 22, 1979, at the Public Theater in New York. His comment led me to post a link from YouTube of Jordan reading the poem. While conversing with Harris and Tony Bolden online about Jordan's poem, I noted that I had always, for some reason, linked the two poems.

Baraka's "Dope" and Jordan's "Poem about My Rights" are both somewhat longish, at least in relation to their most anthologized poems. Both poems contain really powerful critiques of white and black people. It was the international perspectives presented in the poems, though, that first made me link the two pieces.

At one point in her poem, which among other things is about rape, Jordan makes analogies by mentioning "South Africa penetrating into Namibia penetrating into Angola" and later Zimbabwe. She claims that Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba were killed by the C.I.A. Baraka too had mentioned the killing of Lumumba. And Zimbabwe. In fact, he had written the word "Rhodesia," the previous name for Zimbabwe, and in his reading, he said "Salisbury," the previous name for Harare.

As an undergraduate, I was not accustomed to poets tackling politics and the histories of apartheid in southern Africa, or to poets referencing the assassination of African leaders. Of the 52 most anthologized African American poems, there's relatively little mention of Africa. Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought From Africa to America" and Countee Cullen's question "What is Africa to me?" in his poem "Heritage" are it for the most part.

I was thus intrigued by the Africa present to me by Jordan and Baraka. Just recently learning that the poems were first composed around the same period confirmed my suspicions that they shared some common time and world views.

My initial and longstanding interest in Baraka's "Dope," no doubt, relates to the dynamism of his delivery. I had heard powerful readings by spoken word artists, but I had never come across a canonical poet read perform like Baraka on "Dope."

Only fairly recently did I discover the audio recording of Jordan's poem, so for years, I would read it aloud to students in my classes. The defiance of her words gave me feelings of empowerment, and I valued the idea that I was passing along to students this artistic composition that was so radiant with resistance. The closing of the poem always moves me:
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
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

Almost two decades ago when I encountered Baraka's and Jordan's poems, I had no idea that I would place them in such heavy rotation throughout my teaching career. And now, as I look ahead, it's hard to imagine future poetry classes without those pieces.

A Notebook on Amiri Baraka
Reading June Jordan's "Poem about My Rights"

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