The Jamaican American poet June Jordan (born 1936) explored multicultural and multiracial reality, feminism, and Third World activism in her many poems. She was also politically active in revolutionary movements in the Third World.
June Jordan was born in Harlem on July 9, 1936, to Jamaican immigrants, Granville Ivanhoe and Mildred Jordan, who had left rural Jamaica in search of American prosperity. In 1942 the Jordans moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn where Jordan was raised in a home that was optimistic about America and middle-class in its aspirations. Her father was a postal worker, her mother a nurse, and one of her aunts the first African American principal in the New York public school system. The Jordans belonged to the Episcopal Church, and Jordan completed the last three years of high school at Northfield School for Girls, a religious preparatory school in Massachusetts.
As a young girl, Jordan's struggle to define herself as a female, African American person, and poet was both hampered and nurtured by the cultural ambivalences of her Jamaican American home. She had often violent disagreements with her parents. Growing up in Brooklyn, she survived physical abuse from her father starting at age 2. Yet she insists he had the greatest influence on her. An African American nationalist, he taught her how to fight using boxing, chairs and knives. "I got away any way I could," Jordan said. "I had the idea that to protect yourself, you try to hurt whatever is out there. I think of myself as my father's daughter." Her mother, who committed suicide when Jordan was an adolescent, never tried to intervene in their fights, she said. "At this point I'm far more forgiving of my father than my mother."
Jordan found the all-white environment of Northfield School crippling to her sense of identity and her urge to express her own reality in poetry.
Jordan entered Barnard College in 1953 but left New York in 1955 for Chicago after marrying Michael Meyer, a white student at Columbia University. While Meyer pursued a graduate degree at the University of Chicago, Jordan resumed her undergraduate career and struggled to cope with the tensions of an environment hostile to her interracial marriage. Back in New York, a year later, Jordan re-entered Barnard but ultimately chose to sacrifice her college education to raise her son Christopher and to support her husband's pursuit of a graduate degree. She wrote freelance articles under the name June Meyer, wrote speeches for James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), worked in city planning and in social programs for youth, and even served as a film assistant to the noted documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who was filming The Cool World, a portrait of Harlem.
Her first book-length publication was Who Look At Me (1969), a series of poetic fragments about Black identity in white America interspersed with paintings in the tradition of Langston Hughes' The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), whose text alternated with the photographs of Roy de Carava. Jordan's book ends with the lines: "Who see the roof and corners of my pride / to be (as you are) free? / WHO LOOK AT ME?"
Jordan published early poems in Negro Digest and Black World, the journals out of which grew the nationalistic Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s, but she felt the Black Arts movement was "too narrow." Her second volume, Some Changes (1971), includes poems reminiscent of the Black poetry of the 1960s, such as "Okay 'Negroes"' and "What Would I Do White." It also contains intense personal reflections, vivid domestic portraits such as "The Wedding" and "Uncle Bullboy," and historical poems that redefine America through a focus on its multicultural and multiracial reality, such as "47,000 Windows."
Subsequent volumes of poetry continued to explore these themes and reflected Jordan's increasing interest in feminism and her radical belief in the need for the Third World to combat Western domination. Her feminism reveals itself strongly in poems such as "Case in Point," which describes being raped, and "1978," a feminist statement of solidarity with all women (Passion, 1980). Jordan supported the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, the Palestinian struggle, and the South African fight against apartheid in both her writing and political activism. Although she called for violence in such poems as "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies" in Things I Do in the Dark (1981), she also perceived herself as an American poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman, who she felt lost his deserved prominence in the American poetic tradition because of his all-encompassing vision of a multi-cultural, multiracial America and because of his life as an outsider, homosexual, and bohemian.
Other books of poetry include New Day: Poems of Exile and Return (1974), I Love You (1975), The Things I Do in the Dark (1977), Things I Do in the Dark: Selected Poems 1954-1977 (1981), Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980 (1980), Living Room, New Poems: 1980-1984 (1985), and Naming Our Own Destiny: New and Selected Poems (1989). Her strength as an essayist is reflected in Civil Wars, Selected Essays: 1963-1980 (1981), On Call: New Political Essays: 1981-1985 (1986), and Moving Towards Home: Political Essays (1989).
Jordan's interest in children is reflected in The Voice of the Children (1970), an edited collection that grew out of a creative workshop for Black and Hispanic children, and poems for young people, such as Dry Victories (1972), Fannie Lou Hamer (1972), New Life: New Room (1975), and Kimako's Story (1981). She wrote a novel for young adults entitled His Own Where, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1971.
Jordan wrote and produced three plays: In the Spirit of Sojourner Truth (1971), For the Arrow that Flies by Day (1981), and Bang Bang Uber Alles, a musical in collaboration with the composer Adrienne Torfin. The last, which targeted racial hate groups, was picketed by the Ku Klux Klan. Jordan wrote the libretto for "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky"—an unusual song-play about social issues in Los Angeles told in popular song with composer John Adams, and director Peter Sellars.
She also brings her analysis to bear on events that have captured the national stage in Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union (1995). "America in Confrontation With Democracy" looks at the reasons behind Jesse Jackson's failed 1988 presidential campaign. Jordan examines the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings in "Can I Get a Witness," where she condemns Hill's enemies. "To be a Black woman in this savage country: Is that to be nothing and no one revered and defended and given our help and our gratitude?" she writes. Other topics Jordan explored in "Technical Difficulties" included the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.; the poverty of American education; the fall of Mike Tyson; and the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots.
In addition to her essay collection, Jordan released a book of poems. The book is a serious, intense, poetry collection. Jordan rewrites and stretches the definition of love. She is not subtle or afraid of the full range of passion that these four letters encompass. She writes as a confident woman, a poet for whom words are precious tears caught in one's palm. Through her provocative and vivid imagery, she invites the reader to celebrate everyday pleasures that are transformed into extraordinary feelings as a result of being in love.
Touchstone (1995) is a collection of essays and previously unpublished musings, first issued in 1980. The final essay was written when Jimmy Carter worked in the Oval Office. Yet the writing remains amazingly fresh, a testimony to the strength of Jordan's convictions, and the intractability of segregation and ignorance in this country. Whether she's writing letters, magazine articles or speeches, Jordan pours herself into the issue at hand, which could be police brutality, neglect of New York City schoolchildren or Zora Neale Hurston's overlooked status as a writer. Jordan's think pieces contain a vision of current events wide enough to contain history, and that gives them shelf life long after their use-by dates.
Overall, Jordan is probably best known for her strident poems decrying the unjust murder of black youths by police throughout New York. Underlying the angry tone of those poems about police brutality, is the love Jordan feels for her people. Jordan has never shown that she fears undressing in public. Evidenced in her poignant, poetic essay, "Many Rivers to Cross," Jordan traces her remarkable journey from being a recently divorced single parent, confronted by unemployment and her mother's suicide, to a woman who relinquishes weakness. In other essays and poems about being raped, June Jordan repeatedly shares deeply personal pains; she renders herself vulnerable so that others may garner strength and stand bravely assured, determined to survive the storm.
Jordan was awarded a Prix de Rome in environmental design to write and live in Rome, in 1970 after being nominated by R. Buckminster Fuller. Jordan taught at City College in New York, Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, and State University of New York, and Stony Brook, Long Island, where she taught for many years. She was a professor of African American studies at the University of California (Berkeley) in 1997.
For more biographical information, see Jordan's Civil Wars (1981); Alexis Deveaux, "Creating Soul Food," in Essence (April 1981); and The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Dramatists and Prose Writers after 1955 (volume 38); further critical analysis can be found in Peter Erickson, "June Jordan," in Black Sister II: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980 (1981), edited by Erlene Stetson; and Erickson, "The Love Poetry of June Jordan" in Callaloo (Winter 1986). □