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Jordan, June 1936–2002

June Jordan 19362002

Poet, novelist, essayist, educator, activist

At a Glance

Selected writings

Sources

I write for as many different people as I can, acknowledging that in any problem situation you have at least two viewpoints to be reached, June Jordan said in a Publishers Weekly interview. Im also interested in telling the truth as I know it. By the mid-1990s Jordan had become one of the countrys most prominent contemporary black women writers. A nationally renowned lecturer and activist, she produced an extensive and varied body of work, through which she strongly affirmed herself, herrights as a woman, her thoughts on black consciousness, and her ties to the African-American community. Though she was best known for her intimate, powerfully direct poetry, Jordan also wrote award-winning childrens fiction, highly charged nonfiction pieces, plays, and songs.

Jordans poetry and other works reflect her belief in addressing the concerns of audiences of color, exploring black life, creating better living conditions for black families, and enhancing black culture. While self-realization is crucial, Jordan also believed in shared human goals for a better society; her poetry enabled her to express her political ideas while making art. She was frequently compared with politically conscious black poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, but her verse bore traces of other influences, including those of white American poet Walt Whitman, whose self-celebratory poems she admired.

Jordans varied works include her debut book of poems, titled Who Look at Me; her first young adult novel, His Own Where, which was nominated for the National Book Award and written entirely in black English; a biography written for young readers about Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who struggled for black voting rights; the classic verse collection Things That I Do in the Dark; the essay collection Civil Wars, about violence in America from the 1960s to the 1980s; Naming Our Destiny, a 30-year compilation of poetry; and the 1992 book of essays, Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union.

In all, Jordan published twenty-seven books. One of her last books, Soldier: A Poets Childhood, published in 2000 is an autobiography and discusses her early childhood with an almost indifferent mother and sometimes brutally abusive father in some detail. In an Essence magazine interview with Alexis DeVeaux,

At a Glance

Born on July 9, 1936, in New York, NY; died June 14, 2002, in Berkeley, CA; daughter of Granville Ivanhoe (a postal clerk) and Mildred Maude (a nurse; maiden name, Fisher) Jordan; married Michael Meyer, 1955 (divorced, 1965); children: Christopher David. Education: Attended Barnard College and University of Chicago.

Career: Poet, prose writer, educator, activist. Assisted producer for film The Cool World, 1963-64; City College of the City University of New York, instructor, 1966-68, assistant professor of English, 1975-76; Yale University, visiting lecturer in English and Afro-American studies, 1974-75; taught English and directed Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK Program) at Connecticut College, New London, 1967-69; taught literature at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, 1969-74; State University of New York at Stony Brook, assistant professor, 1978-82, professor of English, 1982-89, director of poetry center and creative writing program, 1986-89; professor of Afro-American Studies and Womens Studies at University of California at Berkeley, 1989-02.

Memberships: Board member, Center for Constitutional Rights, 1984-02, New York Foundation for the Arts, and PEN American Center.

Awards: Rockefeller grant for creative writing, 1969-70; Nancy Bloch Award, 1971, for The Voice of the Children; chosen one of the years best young adult novelists, New York Times, 1971; National Book Award nomination, 1971, for His Own Where; Yaddo fellow, 1979-80; National Endowment for the Arts fellow in poetry, 1982; award for international reporting from National Association of Black Journalists, 1984; New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry, 1985; Writers for Writers Award from Barnes & Noble. 2001.

Jordan summed up her relationship with the two of them. My mother was shadowy. I would be very hard-put to tell you what about me, about the way I am or think, comes from my mother. My father was very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant. She also told De Veaux that the message that she hoped to send to young black girls who read Soldier is that the girl can survive and become the womanthat she need not assume a victim mentality that she can take control and overcome adversity.

Born in Harlem on July 9, 1936, Jordan was the only child of hardworking immigrant parents who moved to New York City from the island of Jamaica. Her father, Granville Ivanhoe Jordan, held a night position at the U.S. Postal Service, while her mother, Mildred, worked as a nurse. Jordan spent her first five years in Harlem before the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. It was there that she wrote her first poems at the age of seven. Her concern with her family and locale stayed with her into adulthood and prompted her to write in her essay collection Civil Wars: You begin with your family and the kids on the block, and next you open your eyes to what you call your people and that leads you into land reform into Black English into Angola [and that] leads you back to your own bed.

Jordans childhood was a painful one. She grew up in a home where her father beat her out of his own sense of oppression while her mother stood passively by. These early experiences contributed to her passionate search for self-realizationa search that was delayed by her parents decision to send her for three years to an all-white New England preparatory school, the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts. In her English classes there, she studied almost exclusively the work of white male poets, which she later acknowledged had a stifling effect on her growth as an African-American artist.

After graduating from prep school, Jordan entered Barnard College in the fall of 1953. There she met Michael Meyer, a Columbia University student, whom she married in 1955. Because Meyer was white, the couple experienced the anguish of intense racial prejudiceduring the pre-civil rights era in the United States, interracial marriages were against the law in many states. Jordan interrupted her schooling at Barnard in 1955 for a year of studies at the University of Chicago, where her husband was getting his graduate degree in anthropology; she returned to Barnard the next year.

Two years later, their son, Christopher David Meyer, was born. But Jordans relationship with her husband was deteriorating. Increasingly she was raising and supporting her son alone and developing her own varied interests in poetry, journalism, the civil rights movement, and the Harlem community. She assisted a documentary filmmaker in producing a film about Harlems street kids called The Cool World. She also worked on a proposal with architect Buckminster Fuller to build low-cost, aesthetic housing in the Harlem community. Her work of the period was extensively influenced by her surroundings, by the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and by the factors that lead to the Harlem riots of 1964, which she observed and wrote about.

After she and her husband divorced in 1965, Jordan supported herself and her son alone and took various teaching positions. She taught English and literature at the City College of the City University of New York, Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. By 1982 she had been named a full professor at SUNY Stony Brook, and four years later she was directing the schools poetry center and creative writing program. She began teaching Afro-American and womens studies at the University of California at Berkeley in 1989.

After the publication of her first book of poetry, Who Look at Me, in 1969, Jordan wrote a series of powerful works that chronicled her lifes struggle and reflected her growing maturity. The title poem in this first book best shows her movement away from victimization and toward resistance; in it she wrote about the way she thought many white people of that era viewed people of color: A white stare splits obliterates/the nerve-wrung wrist from work/the breaking ankle or/the turning glory/of a spine. Although the world/forgets me/I will say yes/AND NO. I am black, alive and looking back at you.

By the time her major collection of poetry, Things That I Do in the Dark, edited by novelist Toni Morrison, was published in 1977, Jordan viewed herself thus: I am a stranger/learning to worship the strangers on earth/around me/whoever you are/whoever I may become. In her heavily autobiographical essay book Civil Wars, published four years later, Jordan describes an American landscape torn apart by racial tension and violence. Black writer Toni Cade Bambara summarized the book and put it in historical context in Ms. magazine: [Civil Wars is a] chilling but profoundly hopeful vision of living in the USA. Jordans vibrant spirit manifests itself throughout this collection of articles, letters, journal entries, and essays. What is fundamental to that spirit is caring, commitment, a deep-rooted belief in the sanctity of life. Civil Wars is an autobiography very much in the vein of Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, by W. E. B. Du Bois, the distinguished black scholar and activist of an earlier generation.

Jordans works reveal an unwavering concern for basic human rights and equity for all people. In her Poem About My Rights, which appeared in her famous collection about violence in society titled Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, she expresses rage and frustration at racial and sexual discrimination: We are the wrong people of /the wrong skin on the wrong continent. It was my father saying I was wrong saying that/I should have been a boy because he wanted one. I am the history of the rejection of who I am. But she also affirms herself and vows to defend herself if necessary: I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name/My name is my own my own my own/and I cant 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.

Critics have underscored Jordans simultaneously personal and universal appeal, as well as her use of Black English and irony. She is a poet for many people, speaking in a voice they cannot fail to understand about things they will want to know, commented Susan Mernit in Library Journal [Passion] elucidates those moments when personal life and political struggle, two discrete elements, suddenly entwine. Commenting on the power and skill of Jordans writings, Ms. magazine contributor Joan Larkin wrote, June Jordans language is a high energy blend of street and literary idiom. Irony is basic to Jordans perception of a violent, antiblack, antifemale culture. Other reviewers acknowledged her adherence to a black oral tradition. In a lengthy essay in African American Review, Scott MacPhail discusses Jordans role as a black intellectual. About Jordan he says, June Jordans career thus inspires a broadening of our expectations for what an African-American intellectual can and should do, and how she can do it.

Because of her personal experiences, Jordan often expressed identification with other nonwhite peoples around the globe who seek self-determination. Her books On Call and Living Room, collections of essays and poetry respectively, reflect her identification with the Palestinian people. In the 1980s her scathing poetic and prose criticism of Israeli policy concerning Lebanon and the Palestinians generated considerable controversy.

And, at other times on other topics, Jordan has drawn fire from critics for being one-sided and rhetorical. In 1989 when Naming Our Destiny her compilation of poetry spanning three decadeswas published along with previously uncollected verse, Publishers Weekly commented: [Jordan] attempts to shoulder too many causes here, at times losing herself in rhetoric and politics that could benefit from a fuller discussion. However, in her best work, Jordan takes an infectious delight in language, playing with words to transform experience. She makes artful use of rhyme, and draws from slave ballads and blues music to protest the everyday human tribulations that otherwise might go unnoticed. We witness the author progressing from a youthful struggle with identity to a mature feminist assertion of the rights of all people.

In her 1992 collection of essays, Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Jordan discusses her immigrant Brooklyn familys quest for the American dream; she also deals with enduring stereotypes about race and class, as well as myths surrounding African-American historical figures from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Anita Hill. Commented Adele Logan Alexander in the Womens Review of Books, June Jordan has a prolific intellect and a vast reservoir of extraordinary and broad-based knowledge, yet her writing maintains its solid grounding in everyday experience. Though Jordans voice often made those who support the status quo uncomfortable, her clear aim was to raise questions about the way we live and to provide people with visions of future alternatives.

In her written work and her activities, Jordan worked throughout her life to make sure that the black community remembered to value the black experience and black culture. She campaigned for the recognition of Black English and wrote several poems, essays, and a full-length book, His Own Where, in Black English. Two of her essays, Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation explain why she felt Black English is important and why it should be studied as a dialect. In her later years, Jordan often took up the cause of black figures that she felt needed it. In one if her essays she speaks out against the black leadership in America for their failure to back Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In another she wrote a Requiem for the Champ, speaking about the forces that formed Mike Tyson and caused him to react with such violence. She explains that in determining responsibility for this type of violence, we must look to the community and economic structure that formed the manshe says There must be some way for our culture to reward a black man for something other than violence; there must be something else for a black man from the ghetto to do or be.

In 1995, in a rather interesting side track to her career, Jordan collaborated with composer John Adams and director Peter Sellers in a romantic musical that explored life in late 20th century Los Angeles. The result was a short-lived production called I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I saw the Sky. In a review for Insight on the News, Gale Hanson writes But the best anyone could wish for this ill-conceived and badly executed effort is that the stage floor would open and swallow the production whole.

Much of Jordans written work is drawn from her own life and experiences. Perhaps the clearest indication of her character can be found in her introduction to Civil Wars. Here she talks about how her uncle helped her learn to stand up to the bullies in this worldIts a bully. Probably you cant win. But if you go in there, saying to yourself, I may not win this one but its going to cost you theyll leave you alone. It is apparent that she lived her life with this philosophy. nobody fought me twice, she continues in the introduction. They said I was crazy. She spent her life working for the improvement of conditions in the black community and in many other areas where she thought there were inequalities and injustice.

In early 2002 Jordan received the 2001 Writers for Writers Award from Barnes & Noble. She was honored as a writer who had given generously to other writers and helped broaden the literary community. In particular, she was praised for her work in establishing the organization Poetry for the People. This organization offers free poetry workshops in high schools, community centers, churches and prisons in underprivileged communities.

Jordan died on June 14, 2002 in San Francisco at the age of 65. She had breast cancer. She leaves a legacy of her writings for future generations to read and emulate.

Selected writings

Poetry Who Look at Me, Crowell, 1969.

Some Changes, Dutton, 1971.

New Days: Poems of Exile and Return, Emerson Hall, 1974.

Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry, edited by Toni Morrison, Random House, 1977.

Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, Beacon Press, 1980.

Living Room: New Poems, Thunders Mouth Press, 1985.

Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems, Virago Press, 1989.

Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems, Thunders Mouth Press, 1989.

Essays Civil Wars, Beacon Press, 1981.

On Call: Political Essays, South End Press, 1985.

Moving Towards Home: Political Essays, Virago Press, 1989.

Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Pantheon, 1992.

For young readers His Own Where, Crowell, 1971.

Dry Victories, Holt, 1972.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Crowell, 1972.

New Room: New Life, Crowell, 1975.

Kimakos Story, Houghton, 1981.

Plays In the Spirit of Sojourner Truth, produced in New York City at the Public Theatre, May 1979.

For the Arrow That Flies by Day, (staged reading), produced in New York City at the Shakespeare Festival, April 1981.

Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, 1995.

Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997, 1997.

Soldier, A Poets Childhood, 2000.

Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays, 2002.

Sources

Books

Authors of Books for Young People, Scarecrow Press, 1990, p. 377.

Black Writers, 2nd edition, Gale, 1994.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1976; Volume 11, 1979; Volume 23, 1983.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.

Jordan, June, Who Look at Me, Crowell, 1969.

Jordan, June, Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry, edited by Toni Morrison, Random House, 1977.

Jordan, June, Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, Beacon Press, 1980.

Jordan, June, Civil Wars, Beacon Press, 1981.

Jordan, June, Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Pantheon Books, 1992.

Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton, 1988, p. 1467.

Periodicals

African American Review, Fall 1998, p. 504; Spring 1999, p. 57.

Essence, October 1992; September 2000, p. 102.

Insight on the News, June 12, 1995, p. 33.

Lambda Book Report, April 2002, p.32.

Library Journal, November 1, 1989, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1992, p. E-l.

Ms., April 1975; April 1981; July/August 1990, p. 71.

Nation, January 29, 1990, p. 135.

New Statesman, June 5, 1987, p. 38; January 6, 1989, p. 31.

Ou t magazine, December 1992/January 1993.

Progressive, October 1989, p. 12; February 1991, p. 18; July 1991, p. 12; November 1991, p. 11; January 1992, p. 11; February 1992, p. 18; March 1992, p. 13; June 1992, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1981, pp. 12-13; October 27, 1989, p. 62; August 17, 1992; May 8, 2000 p. 218; July 8, 2002, p. 42.

Village Voice, July 20, 1982; August 17, 1982.

Womens Review of Books, April 1993, p. 6.

Alison Carb Sussman and Pat Donaldson

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Jordan, June 1936–

June Jordan 1936

Poet, novelist, essayist, educator, activist

At a Glance

Search for Self-Realization Spurred by Abusive Childhood

Themes of Resistance

Struggled with Race and Gender Bias

Seeking Self-Determination

Selected writings

Sources

I write for as many different people as I can, acknowledging that in any problem situation you have at least two viewpoints to be reached, June Jordan said in a Publishers Weekly interview. Im also interested in telling the truth as I know it. By the mid-1990s Jordan had become one of the countrys most prominent contemporary black women writers. A nationally renowned lecturer and activist, she has produced an extensive and varied body of work. In it she strongly affirms herself, her rights as a woman, her thoughts on black consciousness, and her ties to the African American community. Though she is best known for her intimate, powerfully direct poetry, Jordan has also written award-winning childrens fiction, highly charged nonfiction pieces, plays, and songs.

Jordans poetry and other works reflect her belief in addressing the concerns of audiences of color, exploring black life, creating better living conditions for black families, and enhancing black culture. While self-realization is crucial, Jordan also believes in shared human goals for a better society; her poetry enables her to express her political ideas while making art. She is frequently compared with politically conscious black poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, but her verse bears traces of other influences, including those of white American poet Walt Whitman, whose self-celebratory poems she admires.

Jordans varied works include her debut book of poems, titled Who Look at Me; her first young adult novel, His Own Where, which was nominated for the National Book Award and written entirely in black English; a biography written for young readers about Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who struggled for black voting rights; the classic verse collection Things That I Do in the Dark; the essay collection Civil Wars, about violence in America from the 1960s to the 1980s; Naming Our Destiny, a 30-year compilation of poetry; and the 1992 book of essays, Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union.

Born in Harlem on July 9, 1936, Jordan was the only child of hardworking immigrant parents who moved to New York City from the island of Jamaica. Her father, Granville Ivanhoe Jordan, held a night position at the U.S. Postal Service, while her mother, Mildred, worked as a nurse. Jordan spent her first five years in Harlem before the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

At a Glance

Born July 9, 1936, in New York City; daughter of Granville Ivanhoe (a postal clerk) and Mildred Maude (a nurse; maiden name, Fisher) Jordan; married Michael Meyer, 1955 (divorced, 1965); children: Christopher David. Education: Attended Bamard College and University of Chicago.

Poet, prose writer, educator, activist. Assisted producer for film The Cool World, 1963-64; City College of the City University of New York, instructor, 1966-68, assistant professor of English, 197576; taught English and directed Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK Program) at Connecticul College, New London, 196769; taught literature at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, 196974; State University of New York at Stony Brook, assistant professor. 197882, professor of English, 198289, director of poetry center and creative writing program, 198689; professor of Afro-American Studies and Womens Studies at University of California at Berkeley, 1989. Visiting lecturer in English and Afro-American studies at Yale University, 197475; board member, Center for Constitutional Rights, 1984, New York Foundation for the Arts, and PEN American Center.

Selected awards: Rockefeller grant for creative writing, 196970; Nancy Bloch Award, 1971, for The voice ol the Children ; chosen one of the years best young adult novelists, New York Times, 1971; National Book Award nomination, 1971, for His Own Where ; Yaddo fellow, 197980; National Endowment for the Arts fellow in poetry, 1982; award for international reporting from National Association of Black Journalists, 1984; New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry, 1985.

Addresses: Office Department of Afro-American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 3335 Dwinelle Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720.

It was there that she wrote her first poems at the age of seven. Her concern with her family and locale stayed with her into adulthood and prompted her to write in her essay collection Civil Wars: You begin with your family and the kids on the block, and next you open your eyes to what you call your people and that leads you into land reform into Black English into Angola [and that] leads you back to your own bed.

Search for Self-Realization Spurred by Abusive Childhood

Jordans childhood was a painful one. She grew up in a home where her father beat her out of his own sense of oppression while her mother stood passively by. These early experiences contributed to her passionate search for self-realizationa search that was delayed by her parents decision to send her for three years to an all-white New England preparatory school, the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts. In her English classes there, she studied almost exclusively the work of white male poets, which she later acknowledged had a stifling effect on her growth as an African American artist.

After graduating from prep school, Jordan entered Barnard College in the fall of 1953. There she met Michael Meyer, a Columbia University student, whom she married in 1955. Because Meyer was white, the couple experienced the anguish of intense racial prejudice. (During the pre-civil rights era in the United States, interracial marriages were against the law in many states.) Jordan interrupted her schooling at Barnard in 1955 for a year of studies at the University of Chicago, where her husband was getting his graduate degree in anthropology; she returned to Barnard the next year.

Two years later, their son, Christopher David Meyer, was born. But Jordans relationship with her husband was deteriorating. Increasingly she was raising and supporting her son alone and developing her own varied interests in poetry, journalism, the civil rights movement, and the Harlem community. She assisted a documentary filmmaker in producing a film about Harlems street kids called The Cool World. She also worked on a proposal with architect Buckminster Fuller to build low-cost, aesthetic housing in the Harlem community.

After she and her husband divorced in 1965, Jordan supported herself and her son alone and took various teaching positions. She taught English and literature at the City College of the City University of New York, Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronx-ville, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. By 1982 she had been named a full professor at SUNY Stony Brook, and four years later she was directing the schools poetry center and creative writing program. She began teaching Afro-American and womens studies at the University of California at Berkeley in 1989.

Themes of Resistance

Since the publication of her first book of poetry, Who Look at Me, in 1969, Jordan has written a series of powerful works that chronicle her lifes struggle and reflect her growing maturity. The title poem in this first book best shows her movement away from victimization and toward resistance; in it she writes about the way she thought many white people of that era viewed people of color: A white stare splits obliterates / the nerve-wrung wrist from work / the breaking ankle or / the turning glory / of a spine. Although the world / forgets me / I will say yes / AND NO. I am black, alive and looking back at you.

By the time her major collection of poetry, Things That I Do in the Dark, edited by novelist Toni Morrison, was published in 1977, Jordan viewed herself thus: I am a stranger / learning to worship the strangers on earth / around me / whoever you are / whoever I may become. In her heavily autobiographical essay book Civil Wars, published four years later, Jordan describes an American landscape torn apart by racial tension and violence. Black writer Toni Cade Bambara summarized the book and put it in historical context in Ms. magazine: [Civil Wars is a] chilling but profoundly hopeful vision of living in the USA. Jordans vibrant spirit manifests itself throughout this collection of articles, letters, journal entries, and essays. What is fundamental to that spirit is caring, commitment, a deep-rooted belief in the sanctity of life. Civil Wars is an autobiography very much in the vein of Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, by W. E. B. Du Bois, the distinguished black scholar and activist of an earlier generation.

Struggled with Race and Gender Bias

Jordans works reveal an unwavering concern for basic human rights and equity for all people. In her Poem About My Rights, which appeared in her famous collection about violence in society titled Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, she expresses rage and frustration at racial and sexual discrimination: We are the wrong people of / the wrong skin on the wrong continent. It was my father saying I was wrong saying that /I should have been a boy because he wanted one. I am the history of the rejection of who I am. But she also affirms herself and vows to defend herself if necessary: I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own / and I cant 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.

Critics have underscored Jordans simultaneously personal and universal appeal, as well as her use of black English and irony. She is a poet for many people, speaking in a voice they cannot fail to understand about things they will want to know, commented Susan Mernit in Library Journal. [Passion] elucidates those moments when personal life and political struggle, two discrete elements, suddenly entwine. Commenting on the power and skill of Jordans writings, Ms. magazine contributor Joan Larkin wrote, June Jordans language is a high energy blend of street and literary idiom. Irony is basic to Jordans perception of a violent, antiblack, antifemale culture. Other reviewers acknowledged her adherence to a black oral tradition.

Seeking Self-Determination

Because of her personal experiences, Jordan often expresses identification with other nonwhite peoples around the globe who seek self-determination. Her books On Call and Living Room, collections of essays and poetry respectively, reflect her identification with the Palestinian people. In the 1980s her scathing poetic and prose criticism of Israeli policy concerning Lebanon and the Palestinians generated considerable controversy.

And, at other times on other topics, Jordan has drawn fire from critics for being one-sided and rhetorical. In 1989 when Naming Our Destiny her compilation of poetry spanning three decadeswas published along with previously uncollected verse, Publishers Weekly commented: [Jordan] attempts to shoulder too many causes here, at times losing herself in rhetoric and politics that could benefit from a fuller discussion. However, in her best work, Jordan takes an infectious delight in language, playing with words to transform experience. She makes artful use of rhyme, and draws from slave ballads and blues music to protest the everyday human tribulations that otherwise might go unnoticed. We witness the author progressing from a youthful struggle with identity to a mature feminist assertion of the rights of all people.

In her 1992 collection of essays, Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Jordan discusses her immigrant Brooklyn familys quest for the American dream; she also deals with enduring stereotypes about race and class, as well as myths surrounding African American historical figures from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Anita Hill. Commented Adele Logan Alexander in the Womens Review of Books, June Jordan has a prolific intellect and a vast reservoir of extraordinary and broad-based knowledge, yet her writing maintains its solid grounding in everyday experience. Though Jordans voice often makes those who support the status quo uncomfortable, her clear aim is to raise questions about the way we live and to provide people with visions of future alternatives.

Selected writings

Poetry

Who Look at Me, Crowell, 1969.

Some Changes, Dutton, 1971.

New Days: Poems of Exile and Return, Emerson Hall, 1974.

Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry, edited by Toni Morrison, Random House, 1977.

Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, Beacon Press, 1980.

Living Room: New Poems, Thunders Mouth Press, 1985.

Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems, Virago Press, 1989.

Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems, Thunders Mouth Press, 1989.

Essays

Civil Wars, Beacon Press, 1981.

On Call: Political Essays, South End Press, 1985.

Moving Towards Home: Political Essays, Virago Press, 1989.

Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Pantheon, 1992.

For young readers

His Own Where, Crowell, 1971.

Dry Victories, Holt, 1972.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Crowell, 1972.

New Room: New Life, Crowell, 1975.

Kimakos Story, Houghton, 1981.

Plays

In the Spirit of Sojourner Truth, produced in New York City at the Public Theatre, May 1979.

For the Arrow That Flies by Day, (staged reading), produced in New York City at the Shakespe are Festival, April 1981.

Other

Editor of anthologies, including Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry, Doubleday, 1970; and The Voice of the Children (a reader), Holt, 1970. Composer of lyrics and libretto Bang Bang Ueber Alles, 1985. Recorded readings include Things That I Do in the Dark, Spoken Arts, 1978; and For Somebody to Start Singing, Black Box/Watershed Foundation, 1980.

Contributor of stories and poems, sometimes under name June Meyer, to various periodicals, including Esquire, Nation, Evergreen, Partisan Review, Black World, Black Creation, Essence, Village Voice, New York Times, and New York Times Magazine. Political columnist for New Yorks Progressive magazine.

Sources

Books

Authors of Books for Young People, Scarecrow Press, 1990, p. 377.

Black Writers, 2nd edition, Gale, 1994.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1976; Volume 11, 1979; Volume 23, 1983.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.

Jordan, June, Who Look at Me, Crowell, 1969.

Jordan, June, Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry, edited by Toni Morrison, Random House, 1977.

Jordan, June, Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, Beacon Press, 1980.

Jordan, June, Civil Wars, Beacon Press, 1981.

Jordan, June, Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Pantheon Books, 1992.

Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton, 1988, p. 1467.

Periodicals

Essence, October 1992.

Library Journal, November 1, 1989, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1992, p. E-1.

Ms., April 1975; April 1981; July/August 1990, p. 71.

Nation, January 29, 1990, p. 135.

New Statesman, June 5, 1987, p. 38; January 6, 1989, p. 31.

Out magazine, December 1992/January 1993.

Progressive, October 1989, p. 12; February 1991, p. 18; July 1991, p. 12; November 1991, p. 11; January 1992, p. 11; February 1992, p. 18; March 1992, p. 13; June 1992, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1981, pp. 12-13; October 27, 1989, p. 62; August 17, 1992.

Village Voice, July 20, 1982; August 17, 1982.

Womens Review of Books, April 1993, p. 6.

Alison Carb Sussman

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"Jordan, June 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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June Jordan

June Jordan

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.

First Book Publication

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.

Her Many Works

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.

Later Work

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.

Further Reading

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). □

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