Born July 9, 1936, in New York, NY; died of breast cancer June 14, 2002, in Berkeley, CA; daughter of Granville I. (a postal clerk) and Mildred Maude Jordan; married Michael Meyer, 1955 (divorced, 1965); children: Christopher David. Education: Attended Barnard College, 1953-57, and University of Chicago, 1955-56. Politics: "Politics of survival and change." Religion: "Egalitarian."
Poet, essayist, novelist, editor, and author of children's books. Assistant to Frederick Wiseman, producer of motion picture The Cool World, New York, NY, 1964; Mobilization for Youth, Inc., New York, NY, associate research writer in technical housing department, 1965-66; City College of the City University of New York, teacher of English and literature, 1966-68, assistant professor of English, 1975-76, writer-in-residence; Connecticut College, New London, CT, teacher of English and director of Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK Program), 1967-69; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, teacher of literature, 1969-74; State University of New York at Stony Brook, NY, associate professor, 1978-82, professor of English, 1982-89, director of Poetry Center and creative writing program,1986-89; University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, professor of Afro-American Studies and Women's Studies, 1989-93, professor of Afro-American Studies, 1994-2002, founder and director of Poetry for the People program, 1991-2001. Visiting poet-in-residence, MacAlester College, 1980; writer-in-residence, City College of the City University of New York; visiting poet, State University of New York at Stonybrook; playwright-in-residence, 1987-88, poet-in-residence, 1988, New Dramatists, New York, NY; poet-in-residence, Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, 1988; poet-in-residence, Swarthmore College, 2001; writer-in-residence, University of Pennsylvania, 2001; artist-in-residence, New York University, 2002. Visiting lecturer in English and Afro-American Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1974-75; Reed Lecturer, Barnard College, New York, NY, 1976; chancellor's distinguished lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1986; visiting professor, Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, summer, 1988. Has given poetry readings in schools and colleges around the country and at the Guggenheim Museum. Founder and co-director, Voice of the Children, Inc. (creative writing workshop for children); co-founder, Afro-Americans against the Famine, beginning 1973. Member of board of directors, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Inc., beginning 1978, and Center for Constitutional Rights, beginning 1984; member of board of governors, New York Foundation for the Arts, beginning 1986.
National Coalition for Land Reform, American Civil Liberties Union, Poets and Writers (former member of board of directors), PEN American Center (former member of executive board), American Writers Congress.
Prix de Rome Environmental Design Award, American Academy in Rome, 1970-71; Architectural Design Award, American Institute of Architecture, for a joint proposal for the African Burial Ground in New York, NY; Best Young Adult Books selections, American Library Association, 1970, for Soulscript, 1971, for His Own Where; National Book Award finalist, and New York Times Outstanding Young Adult Novels selection, both 1971, both for His Own Where; Nancy Bloch Award, 1971, for The Voices of the Children; Children's Books of the Year selection, Child Study Association of America, and Notable Children's Trade Book, National Council for Social Studies and Children's Book Council, both 1975, both for New Life: New Room; New York Council of the Humanities award, 1977; Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, 1980, for His Own Where; award for international reporting, Association of Black Journalists, 1984; Massachusetts Council for the Arts award, 1985, for essay "On the Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry, or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley"; Nora Astorga Leadership award, 1989; PEN West Freedom to Write Award, 1991; Ground Breakers-Dream Makers Award, Women's Foundation (San Francisco, CA),1994; Lila Wallace Writers Award, Reader's Digest, 1995; Critics Award and Herald Angel Award, Edinburgh Arts Festival, 1995, for I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky; President's Certificate of Service and Contribution to the Arts, Harvard University, 1997; Students' Choice Louise Patterson African American Award, University of California, Berkeley, 1998, for outstanding African American faculty; Lifetime Achievement Award, National Black Writers' Conference, 1998; Writer for Writers' Award, Poets & Writers, 2002. Fellowships and grants include Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship for creative writing, 1969-70; Yaddo fellowship, 1979; Creative Artists Public Service Program poetry grant, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982; New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry, 1985; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1987.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Who Look at Me (poetry), Crowell (New York, NY), 1969.
(Editor, with Terri Bush) The Voice of the Children (poetry anthology), Holt (New York, NY), 1970.
His Own Where (novel), Crowell (New York, NY), 1971.
Dry Victories (nonfiction), Holt (New York, NY), 1972.
Fannie Lou Hamer (biography), illustrated by Albert Williams, Crowell (New York, NY), 1972.
(Editor) Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry (anthology), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
Some Changes, Dutton (New York, NY), 1971.
Poem: On Moral Leadership as a Political Dilemma (Watergate, 1973), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
New Days: Poems of Exile and Return, Emerson Hall (New York, NY), 1973.
Okay Now, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1977.
Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 1977, revised edition, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1981.
Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1980.
Living Room: New Poems, 1980-1984, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1985.
High Tide: Marea Alta, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1987.
Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems, Virago Press (London, England), 1989.
Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Haruko/Love Poetry: New and Selected Love Poems, Virago Press (London, England), 1993, published as Haruko: Love Poems, High Risk Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Kissing God Good-Bye: New Poems, 1991-1997, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
In the Spirit of Sojourner Truth, produced at Public Theatre, New York, NY, 1979.
For the Arrow That Flies by Day (staged reading), produced at the Shakespeare Festival, New York, NY, 1981.
Freedom Now Suite, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in New York, NY, 1984.
The Break, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in New York, NY, 1984.
The Music of Poetry and the Poetry of Music, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in New York, NY, and Washington, DC, 1984.
Bang Bang über Alles, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in Atlanta, GA, 1986.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (opera libretto; music by John Adams; produced at Lincoln Center, New York, NY), Scribner (New York, NY), 1995.
Civil Wars (autobiographical essays), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1981.
On Call: Political Essays, 1981-1985, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1985.
Bobo Goetz a Gun, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1985.
Moving towards Home: Political Essays, Virago Press (London, England), 1989.
Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Affirmative Acts: Political Essays, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (memoir), Basic Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan, Basic Civitas Books (New York, NY), 2002.
June Jordan Reading Her Poems (audiotapes), Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, 1974.
New Life: New Room (juvenile picture book), illustrated by Ray Cruz, Crowell (New York, NY),1975.
Things That I Do in the Dark (audiocassette), Spoken Arts, 1978.
Kimako's Story (juvenile picture book), illustrated by Kay Burford, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1981.
(Editor with Lauren Muller) June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, Routledge,1995.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (sound recording), Nonesuch, 1998.
(With Adrienne B. Tory) Collaboration (sound recording), 2001.
Also author of The Issue. Work represented in numerous anthologies, including Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, edited by Patricia Bell-Scott, Harper 1992. Contributor of stories and poems, under the name June Meyer prior to 1969, to periodicals, including Esquire, Nation, Evergreen, Partisan Review, Negro Digest, Harper's Bazaar, Library Journal, Encore, Freedomways, New Republic, Ms., American Dialog, New Black Poetry, Black World, Black Creation, Essence, Village Voice, New York Times, and New York Times Magazine. Author of column "The Black Poet Speaks of Poetry," American Poetry Review, 1974-77; regular columnist for Progressive, 1989-97. Contributing editor for Chrysalis, First World, and Hoo Doo.
"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," poet and novelist June Jordan once said in a Publishers Weekly interview. "I'm also interested in telling the truth as I know it." Carla Frecarra, writing in African American Writers, described Jordan as "a woman of great professional, artistic, and political breadth. She is an activist, a poet, an essayist, a teacher, a playwright, a composer, an urban planner, and an author of children's books." Jordan's concern for young people is found in many of her works, including the novel His Own Where, which was nominated for the National Book Award and written entirely in black English, and the poetry collection Who Look at Me. She also published books of poetry for adults and collections of essays. Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Peter B. Erickson wrote: "The reader coming to June Jordan's work for the first time can be overwhelmed by the breadth and diversity of her concern, and by the wide variety of literary forms in which she expresses them. But the unifying element in all her activities is her fervent dedication to the survival of black people."
Born in Harlem
Born in Harlem, New York, in 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. Her father was abusive and Jordan was often the target of his anger. She recalled in her book Civil Wars that "for a long while during childhood I was relatively small, short, and, in some other ways, a target for bully abuse. In fact, my father was the first regular bully in my life and there were many days when my uncle pounded down the two flights of stairs in our house to grab the chair, or the knife, or whatever, from my father's hands." Jordan told Alexis De Veaux in an interview for Essence that her mother was distant figure in her early life. "Because she was absent in so many ways, she also did not have very much influence on me. 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."
Much of the dramatic tension in Jordan's work came from her painful relationship with her parents. Her mother's suicide in 1966 seemed to prompt a critical reexamination of her mother's life, not as mother of Jordan, but as a woman with separate and distinct unfulfilled dreams. Her mother had dreams of becoming an artist, dreams that were never fulfilled. In the address "Notes of a Barnard Dropout," delivered at the Reid Lecture at Barnard College in 1975, Jordan revealed her mother's life as split between the kitchen and "the little room." The "little room"is a metaphor for the suppressed space that would not allow for the development of her mother as an artist.
For one year, Jordan attended Midwood High School as the only black student out of three thousand. She then was transferred to the North-field School for Girls in Massachusetts, a prep school where her parents hoped she would get a quality education. Although she discovered her love of writing while at Northfield, the overwhelmingly white atmosphere of the school made her uneasy. After graduation, Jordan entered New York City's Barnard College in the fall of 1953. Writing in Civil Wars, she remarked of her years at Barnard that "no one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea, for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force. Nothing that I learned, here, lessened my feeling of pain and confusion and bitterness as related to my origins: my street, my family, my friends. Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America."
An Early Marriage
But at college the nineteen-year-old Jordan did meet Michael Meyer, a Columbia University student whom she married in 1955. Because Meyer was white, the couple experienced the anguish of intense racial prejudicem—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.
Jordan wrote about her interracial marriage in On Call: "When two people do something the rest of us don't like or some of us feel real nosy about, then the rest of us interpose ourselves in any way we can. We call out the law. We produce experts. We maintain an attitude. We ostracize. We whisper. We develop jargon such as Interracial Marriage or Sleeping White or Niggah Lover or Identity Conflictor Acting Out or Patterns of Rebellion. And if possible, we kill them, the ones who love each other despite sacrosanct rules of enmity and hatred."
In 1957, the couple's son, Christopher David Meyer, was born. But Jordan's relationship with her husband worsened after she was spending most of her time supporting and raising their child on her own. Jordan and her husband divorced in 1965, and she took teaching positions at the City College of the City University of New York, Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). "In1969," Jordan told a writer for Essence, "I was fired from my teaching position at UCLA, on the initiative of Governor Ronald Reagan, because of my membership in the Communist Party." In 1982 she was named a full professor at SUNY Stony Brook, and four years later she was directing the school's poetry center and creative writing program. In 1989 she began teaching Afro-American and women's studies at the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to her teaching activities, Jordan was involved with the production of The Cool World, a documentary film about Harlem's street kids. She also worked with R. Buckminster Fuller on possible beneficial architectural designs.
First Book of Poetry
In 1969 she published her first book of poetry, Who Look at Me. Aimed at young readers, the book was originally a project of famed black poet Langston Hughes, who died before completing it. Jordan was urged to finish the title, and she did. Jordan explained in her book Soulscript that the poems in Who Look at Me "struggle to determine and then preserve a particular, human voice . . . closely related to the historic struggling of black life in America." James A. Emanuel in the New York Times Book Review found that the collection intermixes "27 paintings of black Americans from colonial times to the present with an original, understated but intense poem that comments indirectly on the paintings and enhances their meaning." The poems especially deal with how the races see each other, emphasizing the need to view people as individuals instead of stereotypes. Erickson explained that "Jordan uses the moment of eye contact as the central image of interaction between the races. Cautiously she threads her way through the pain surrounding this moment and tries to make sense of it. She assesses the damaging effect of white perceptions of black people; she imagines what the white person ('who look at me') actually sees and does not see. The white look is simultaneously a violation and a refusal of contactm—it is an intrusion that negates the existence of the black person."Speaking in an interview for Essence, Jordan revealed that Who Look at Me was written "when I was in Atlanta for Dr. [Martin Luther] King's funeral."
Jordan's 1971 novel for young adults, His Own Where, is also written in Black English. But she also expressed her interests in environmental design in this book about a sixteen-year-old black boy, Buddy, and his younger girlfriend, Angela, who try to create a world of their own in an abandoned house near a cemetery. According to Carla Freccero in African American Writers, "One of the most controversial aspects of her work, Jordan's use and advocacy of Black English, drew protest from African American parents in Baltimore, who in 1971 organized in an effort to ban His Own Where for fear that students would be unwilling to master the standard English required for success in white America." The ban ultimately failed.
In 1972's Dry Victories, Jordan presents a dialogue between two boys about the relative merits and achievements of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Jerome, a descendant of one of the first black men to be elected to the Mississippi state legislature following the Civil War, speaks of Reconstruction. His friend, Kenny, speaks of the Civil Rights era. In the course of their dialogue, the two events in history are compared and contrasted.
Jordan's major collection of poetry, Things That I Do in the Dark, was published in 1977 and contains poems written from 1954 to 1977. According to Erickson: "Things That I Do in the Dark opens up new territory in three areas. 'From The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # One' signals the emergence of a black feminist perspective. 'Metarhetoric,' whose last three lines Adrienne Rich chooses as one of the epigraphs for her essay 'Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia (1978),' moves beyond the label 'Homophobia' given in the opening line and begins to explore the 'bisexuality' Jordan makes explicit in the final essay of Civil Wars. Finally, several new poems undertake a reconsideration of violence as a permissible means of black struggle. Partly because she sees that struggle within an international framework in which military revolution has produced results, and partly because she judges nonviolence to have been ineffectual in the American context, Jordan adopts violence as a legitimate method of self-defense and retaliation."
Jordan explored her formative years in the memoir Soldier: A Poet's Childhood. Concerned with the first twelve years of her life, the book tells of how she learned to be a "good little soldier," under the severe tutelage of her father, who often beat her. So scared did she become of him, Jordan took to sleeping with a knife under her pillow from the age of seven. Valerie Boyd in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that "Soldier is a daring book, not just because of the honesty its subject matter requires, but also because of the way it's written. With its creative, not-always-linear structure, it occasionally reads like barely connected snatches of memory." Written "in the flowing language of a prose poem," observed Booklist 's Stephanie Zvirin,Soldier is "a haunting coming-of-age memoir."
In an interview for Alternative Radio, Jordan was asked what she saw as the role of the poet in society. She replied: "Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color,a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks. . . . I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better,
If you enjoy the works of June Jordan
If you enjoy the works of June Jordan, you may also want to check out the following:
Walter Dean Myers, Motown and Didi: A Love Story, 1984.
Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1995.
to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that it's a spirit task."
Biographical and Critical Sources
African American Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
American Women Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale Detroit, MI), Volume 5, 1976; Volume 11, 1979; Volume 23, 1983.
Dallman, Elaine and others, editors, Woman Poet: The East, Women-in-Literature (Reno, NV), 1982.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Muller, Lauren, editor, June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, Routledge (New York, NY), 1995.
Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
African American Review, fall, 1998, p. 504; spring, 1999, p. 57.
American Book Review, March-May, 1995, Margaret Randall, "Dreams Deferred," p. 26.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 7, 2000, Valerie Boyd, review of Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, p. L15.
Austin Chronicle, August 25, 2000, Craig Arnold, review of Soldier.
Belles Letters, spring, 1995, Dale Edwyna Smith, "The Mother Tongue," pp. 68-70.
Booklist, April 1, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Soldier, p. 1461.
CLA Journal, June, 1996, P. Jane Splawn, "New World Consciousness in the Poetry of Ntozake Shange and June Jordan: Two African-American Women's Response to Expansionism in the Third World,"pp. 417-431.
ColorLines, winter, 1999, Julie Quiroz, "'Poetry Is a Political Act' (interview).
Essence, April, 1981, Alexis De Veaux, "Creating Soul Food: June Jordan"; May, 1990, "Woman Talk: In Conversation, June Jordan and Angela Davis," p. 92; October, 1992; September, 2000, Alexis De Veaux, interview with Jordan, p. 102.
Guardian (London, England), June 20, 2002, p. 20.
Insight on the News, June 12, 1995, p. 33.
Kenyon Review, winter, 1992, David Baker, "Probable Reason, Possible Joy," pp. 152-157; spring, 1995, Sue Russell, "Among Lovers, Among Friends,"pp. 147-153.
Lambda Book Report, April, 2002, p.32.
Library Journal, November 1, 1989, p. 92.
Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1992, p. E1.
Ms. Magazine, April, 1975; April, 1981, Toni Cade Bambara, review of Civil Wars, pp. 40-42; July/August, 1990, p. 71; June/July, 2000, R. Erica Doyle, review of Soldier, p. 82.
Nation, January 29, 1990, Marilyn Hacker, "Provoking Engagement," pp. 135-139.
New Statesman, June 5, 1987, p. 38; January 6, 1989, p. 31.
New York Times, July 4, 2000, Felicia R. Lee, review of Soldier, p.B1.
New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1969, James A. Emanuel, review of Who Look at Me, p. 52.
Obsidian, summer and winter, 1981, Melba Joyce Boyd, "The Whitman Awakening in June Jordan's Poetry," pp. 226-228.
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; January, 1993, Matthew Rothschild, review of Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union, pp. 33-34.
Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1981, pp. 12-13; October 27, 1989, p. 62; August 17, 1992; May 8, 2000, p. 218; July 8, 2002, review of Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan, p. 42.
Village Voice, July 20, 1982; August 17, 1982.
Western Humanities Review, spring, 1970, Fred Mora-marco, "A Gathering of Poets," pp. 201-207.
Women's Review of Books, April, 1993, Adele Logan Alexander, "Stirring the Melting Pot," pp. 6-7.
Alternative Radio,http://www.alternativeradio.org/ (October 11, 2000), David Barsamian, "June Jordan: Childhood Memories, Poetry & Palestine."
Online NewsHour,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (August 21, 2000), Elizabeth Farnsworth, "A Conversation with June Jordan."
Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2002, p. B19.
New York Times, June 18, 2002, p. A23.
Washington Post, June 16, 2002, p. C8.*