Oh, My Goodness! A Literary Find!

I teach English composition/rhetoric to college freshmen and sophomores (and to upper level students who delay taking the course(s): English 1301/101 and/or English 1302/102).

One of the short stories we read and analyze is “Black Men and Public Spaces” by Brent Staples. I love, love the anxiety Staples raises in the reader with his first sentence. I have taught this personal narrative so many times that every word, word order, and phrase are ingrained in me.

I was going through “Poem-a-Day” sent to me by Poets.org. As I read June Jordan’s poem, the two literary texts collided in the most profound way. Before responding to the questions below, consider the different perspectives of the writers, linear or nonlinear (parallel or divergent).

One is a poem; the other is a short story. One is written by a woman; the other is written by a male. One speaker was born in 1936, and the other was born a generation later in 1951. One wrote the piece in 1986 (and refitted it to the current title in 1987), and the other wrote and dedicated the piece in 1976. One is still alive, but the other passed away in 2002. Both lived in New York City at one time or another. Both were college professors. One married early and was divorced; the other married late and still married. Both were impacted by trauma during childhood.

In the meantime, please read both of them and share thoughts and interpretation.

  • Which of the two pieces mirrors the other?
  • What is the tone of the one written by Staples?
  • Is this surprising? Unnerving?
  • What is the tone of the one written by Jordan?
  • Is this surprising? Unnerving?
  • Are there any expectations of tonal association for a male as opposed to a female? What are they?
  • Whose vocabulary causes empathy? (The presumption is that there is empathy.)
  • What are the effects of each piece of writing? What reactions does it elicit?
  • How does each speaker react to those who see him/her as a danger to their safety and alter their behavior?
  • How does each speaker resolve the situation of fear coming from/perceived by people of the other race?
  • Are the speakers affronted by the unsavory behavior?
  • Do the speakers have any right to react?
  • How should the speakers react to societal rejection/perception?
  • Is the anger/reaction of each speaker justified?

These are generic but in-depth questions. I leave the rest of deeper and challenging questions for in-class conversations.

Please read “Black Men and Public Spaces“.

“I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies”

June Jordan

I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
                                     Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
then turn around
see me
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:
fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or 
condemn me

I must become the action of my fate.

How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
Shall we pick a number? 
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
months will

I must become a menace to my enemies.

And if I 
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
                   terrorist degree)
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries

And if I 
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
                   wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me
I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.

Copyright © 2017 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Used with the permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate, www.junejordan.com.

June Jordan