Study Guide

June Jordan

June Jordan Essay - Jordan, June

Jordan, June

Introduction

June Jordan 1936-

American essayist and poet.

An acclaimed African-American poet, Jordan is best known for her politically charged, autobiographical verses. Her work, which features vernacular, non-standard English, is famed for its immediacy, accessibility, and representation of African-American culture and experience. In her poetry, Jordan has encouraged social responsibility, self-identity and political solidarity among oppressed groups. Among her best-known poems are “Poem about My Rights” (1980) and “Alla That's All Right, but” (1980).

Biographical Information

Jordan was born in Harlem, New York, on July 9, 1936. Her father Granville, a postal clerk, and her mother Mildred, a nurse, had immigrated from Jamaica before June, their only child, was born. Jordan began writing poetry as a child, influenced by her father and her uncle. Her experience within her family and her community would play a paramount role in her poetry; much of her work has focused on her authoritative and abusive father and her caring, but disillusioned, mother. Jordan attended local schools, absorbing the African-American culture of her neighborhood, until she was a teenager. She commuted more than an hour to attend Midwood High School before enrolling at Northfield School for the Girls, where she was the only African-American student. Although Jordan's interest in poetry continued through these years, she chafed under an education restricted to mainstream white male poets. She met her future husband while she was attending Barnard College, and they embarked upon an interracial relationship which was illegal in many states. During the late 1950s, Jordan pursued numerous careers including freelance writing, architecture and urban planning, and assistant on the film Cool World (1964.) An intense desire to improve the standards for African-Americans and to represent their voice in mainstream society drove her efforts. She became a vocal proponent of Black English, directing a writing workshop for children in Brooklyn. In the mid-1960s, Jordan suffered two personal blows: she divorced her husband and her mother committed suicide. These events as well as her own journey of self-discovery created the focus for much of her writing. In 1969, she published her first volume of verse, the politically charged and largely autobiographical collection Who Look at Me. Over the course of the next three decades, she published numerous volumes of poetry as well as several collections of essays. She accepted a teaching position at City College, New York, where she stayed until 1978 when she transferred to State University of New York, Stony Brook. In 1989, she began teaching African-American and Women's Studies at University of California, Berkeley.

Major Works

Jordan's poetry is intensely autobiographical. She is focused upon forging her identity and representing her experiences and viewpoints in a world which she feels has not paid adequate attention to the voice of African-American women. Jordan employs the speech patterns and vocabulary of Black English, creating an informal, conversational style. Her writing is emphatic and emotional. Much of her work can be characterized by four themes: family, love, political activism and language. In poems such as “Ah, Momma,” written after her mother's suicide, she has grappled with her painful past and family issues. Her 1971 poem “Let Me Live with Marriage” reflects her attempt to come to terms with her divorce. She portrays the erotic love between two women in her 1976 poem “Metarhetoric.” Issues of self-determination and political solidarity dominate much of her poetry, such as “The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones,” (1976) “Poem about My Rights” (1980), and “First Poem from Nicaragua Libre: teotecacinte” (1989). In addition to her outrage over racial inequality in the United States, Jordan has written about injustices among the Palestinians, Nicaraguans, Lebanese and Africans. Her work “Moving Towards Home” (1989) has been translated into Arabic and has served as a rallying point in the Middle East. In addition to her poetry, Jordan has published several collections of essays, including Civil Wars (1981), for which she is best known.

Critical Reception

Jordan's emphatic style and strong opinions on social and political issues have gained her detractors. For instance, she has been accused of being anti-Semitic and her advocacy of Black English created controversy. However, other critics praise her outspoken style, the autobiographical nature of her writings, and her focus on the experiences of the oppressed. They argue that she helps acquaint readers with the voice of African-American women and contradicting damaging social stigmas. Scholars praise her use of the vernacular language of the African-American community, the accessibility of her poetry, and her focus on racial and gender issues. They note her development of a philosophy of solidarity among people who are oppressed throughout the world and praise her poetry for forcing readers to come to terms with their own racial prejudices. But some reviewers cite inconsistencies in the quality of her poetry. For instance, David Baker (2000) argues that Jordan is most compelling when she writes of an immediate experience but that her work weakens when she sinks into a sanctimonious and self-righteous tone. Baker states that Jordan “writes poems as if poetry were sometimes rather far down on her list of interests.” Nevertheless, many critics praise Jordan both for her accessible, informal style, and for the relevancy of her themes. As Marilyn Hacker (1990) states, “Anyone who doubts the relevance and timeliness of poetry ought to read Jordan.”

Principal Works

Who Look at Me 1969

Some Changes 1971

New Days: Poems of Exile and Return 1974

Things that I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry 1977

Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980 1980

Living Room: New Poems 1985

Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems 1989

Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems 1989

Haruko/Love Poetry: New and Selected Love Poems 1993

Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991-1997 1997

His Own Where (juvenilia) 1971

Dry Victories (juvenilia) 1972

Fannie Lou Hamer (juvenilia) 1972

New Life: New Room (juvenilia) 1975

Civil Wars (essays) 1981

Kimako's Story (juvenilia) 1981

On Call: Political Essays (essays) 1985

Moving Towards Home: Political Essays (essays) 1989

Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union (essays) 1992

Affirmative Acts: Political Essays (essays) 1998

Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (memoir) 2000

Criticism

Alexis DeVeaux (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: DeVeaux, Alexis. “Creating Soul Food: June Jordan.” Essence 11 (April, 1981) 82, 138-50.

[In the following essay, DeVeaux remarks the impact of Jordan's youth on her beliefs about poetry.]

After searching through the pockets and corners of Liberation Bookstore in Harlem some years back, I bought a book as a gift for my younger sister. I flipped through it and saw jubilant, shoulders-back/stomach-in words striding across pages. The mighty march of words—so Black, so proud and full of hallelujah—formed one searing question: who look at me?

I cannot remember nor imagine pretty
people treat me
like a doublejointed stick
WHO LOOK AT ME
                    WHO SEE
the tempering sweetness
of a little girl who wears
her first pair of earrings
and a red dress

The next month I bought June Jordan's book Who Look at Me for myself. I memorized the lyric, the blues/sonata of the narrative, the dark sweetness of the poem. I looked for her name on flyers and announcements for poetry readings around town, scoured bookshelves of friends and lovers for more of her work. The more of it I found, the more I discovered that June Jordan's poems nourish the eye, soul, stomach, the back, the very feet of Black people.

For June, poems are housework. They're done at home like women's more traditional work: raising children, making quilts, tending collard green gardens, doing hair in the kitchen on weekends, cooking, sewing, giving music lessons. June sees no distinction between doing these things and working as a writer. “What has been called ‘women's work’ traditionally includes the nurturing of young people, maintaining a house, providing the wherewithal so that people can keep going,” she says, sitting in a rocking chair in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment amid a tasteful arrangement of books, white couch, fresh flowers, plants and bamboo shade. “My work is closely related in purpose to the traditional work. It just takes a different form. I would be very proud if people found in my poetry things that were as useful to them as a decent breakfast before they go to work.”

June Jordan is a writer with prolific energies, a singular consciousness and a sense that work should contribute to the well-being of the community. Comfortably dressed in white painter's pants, a black T-shirt and jogging shoes, she is beautiful. Salt-and-pepper dreadlocks sprout a fountain of poems from her head, dance to match her zany laughter and the eager two-step of her fingers on a cigarette. She has authored 14 books, including Passion (a new collection of poems published last fall by Beacon Press) and three to come this year: Kimako's Story (a children's book from Houghton Mifflin). Things That I Do in the Dark (reissued by Beacon Press) and Civil Wars (a monumental collection of essays from Beacon Press).

While growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the gifted and sensitive only child of a woman who broke fevers and made soup for neighbors, June recognized that women's traditional work is a marriage between their creativity and the nurturing of others. She inherited this sense of lifework from her mother, Mildred Jordan. “My mother was a nurse, and somebody I admired very much because she was always willing to be helpful to other people in the community. People always came to her for advice, a cup of soup, some company.”

Her home life also kindled the passion for words that fuels June's creativity. “It was my father [Granville] and, to a lesser extent, my mother who introduced me to poetry—specifically the Bible and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. This was how to have a good time—to quote the Scriptures or the dialect poetry of Dunbar. I took it for granted. I thought it was normal to be involved in a regular family way with something called poetry.”

By the time she was seven, June had decided she was a poet. Her apt rhyming and phrase-making became as useful to other children as her mother's skills were to their parents. “I was good at writing quick rhymes and things,” June recalls, “and the kids around me accepted it. It was not anything my peers considered weird. I would write things for them that they wanted to give to somebody, whether it was a love note or a putdown.” It was at home, where she'd been introduced to poetry so young, that June's decision met resistance. “My father wanted me to grow up to be a doctor; my mother wanted me to marry one. Being a poet did not compute for them.”

Though June's proper Jamaican parents did not want a poet for a daughter, an uncle encouraged her love for words with the music of his own Black speech. “My uncle Teddy lived upstairs in our house,” June recounts. “He was, is, a master of Black English. Anytime he wanted to say anything at all of interest, or that really mattered to him, he said it in Black English. Times at home, like Thanksgiving, when there were a lot of men and women around and the men were all vying, my uncle would tell a story and no one else had a chance—partly because of this language he was speaking. The first time I heard him talk like that I was stunned. I said, ‘What do you call that?’ He said, ‘Preachin’.’ Nobody else in the house could do it. They could imitate anybody who was West Indian, but they couldn't imitate Uncle Teddy. I didn't even try to, but I listened, and I watched.”

When she talks of those early experiences with language, her face opens; a kaleidoscope of metaphors settles on her butter cheeks. But when she talks of life as the daughter of strict and religious people, of going to camp and prep school, she speaks with a cool, pained caution. “Every summer I went to Camp Robinhood, a Y camp upstate New York where the schedule was rigid and camp life totally structured. It was my father's idea. He thought that a disciplined life was good for the character. The combination of going away to prep school and going to camp for the whole summer meant that, in effect, I had been sent away from home.”

That was the lesser of two punishments. While her father wanted her far from the Brooklyn streets (he thought she was acquiring “thuglike mannerisms”), June wanted relief from terror at home. “I felt saved, not from the streets but from the family. My particular family situation was so violent. I mean, I am talking about corporeal violence being inflicted upon me by my father. It was a relentlessly frightening situation at home.”

It is hard for June to name her own parents as agents of abuse, but she is willing to uncover feelings and speak about the forbidden. By transforming silence into action she confronts the pain and, in doing so, conquers it. “My family was very religious and I was too. There was this heavy reliance on the precept of honoring thy mother and thy father, so that all the violent conflict I had with my parents really caused me a lot of doubt and moral anguish. It didn't mean that I didn't resist and defend myself, but it did mean I was concerned about my goodness as a person because my attitude was not one of honor at all. On the street I was afraid, but I learned to deal. There are things you can learn how to do. You can join a gang, for example, or learn how to fight back. You can learn how to talk so people at least think you know how to fight. But in the house, I could never figure it out. These were not people you were theoretically supposed to be fighting—your mother and father.”

There was no one, no sister or brother to talk with. No way to stop the beatings. Living in a household fraught with hostility and trauma set the stage for silence and shyness, doubt and insecurity. June retreated into herself, and into the one place where she could be safe—the landscapes between the pages of books.

June's attention was fixed seriously on the urgent and numbing beauty of words by the time she entered high school. She traveled an hour and 20 minutes by trolley from the Hancock Street brownstone her folks owned to Midwood High School, where she was the only Black student among 3,000 pupils. She attended Midwood only one year; then her father enrolled her in the Northfield School for Girls, “an extremely religious finishing school in Massachusetts,” she notes wryly. There she studied poetry and writing with a systematic eye to figure out why it worked. “If anybody told me so-and-so was good, I had to go and check them out, read them, and see if I could do it. I practiced until I felt comfortable or, at least, understood what I thought he had done. It was always a he-poet at that time,” she adds, “always a white male poet like Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens.”

An ardent student of poetry, she finished at Northfield in 1953 and entered Barnard College in New York City the following year. While there she met and got engaged to Michael Meyer, a young white student attending Columbia University at the time. “When I married Michael, that was defiant,” she tells me with agitation. “In the fifties the central thrust against racism in this country was to integrate, whether it was the schools or getting married. I didn't feel that marrying interracially was any kind of copout.”

Nevertheless, their marriage and subsequent move to Chicago (where she attended the University of Chicago for a year) brought her face-to-face with the ugly realities of race hatred. Interracial marriage was a felony in 43 states, including the ones they drove through on their way west. In Chicago, white people shouted “nigger” and “nigger bitch” at her when she and Michael walked the streets together. She hated Chicago.

So 12 months later and back in New York, she reentered Barnard. But not to stay. When the army called her husband, June withdrew from school, intent upon supporting herself and continuing her writing. Instead of battle fatigues and a stint in Korea, however, Michael received a student deferment; he'd been drafted by mistake. June, nevertheless, felt compelled to defer her own creativity to support her husband's. “I thought I was going to concentrate on my writing, but there were pressures on me as Michael's wife to defer anything about myself because he was still a grad student and somebody was going to have to support this couple, this marriage. There was tremendous pressure on me from his mother to support him and me until he finished his master's degree.”

Like so many other women forced to reconcile their own aspirations with their roles as mothers and wives. June accepted the pressures of her new marriage and soon put to work the example of her own mother's life: she would employ her creativity in the framework of the household. “While I was married, and certainly after my son Christopher arrived, I had uppermost in my mind being a good wife, being the best housekeeper ever and being the best mother that ever existed. Those were my top priorities. After Christopher went to sleep at night and I had interacted with my husband, then—very calmly, with no sense of resentment—I sat down to do my reading and writing.”

She wrote free-lance articles on then-current issues: the need for the Black Freedom National Bank; the law; rent strikes. Her commitment to social change grew. She wrote speeches for James Farmer (then national director of the Congress of Racial Equality); learned city-planning techniques as a research associate in a social program for youth; became an advocate for better housing and wrote position papers on architecture; landed a job as assistant to the producer of Cool World, the feature-length film on Black life in Harlem.

While June's reputation as a young activist and free-lance writer grew, she found her marriage to Michael unraveling. Why? “I don't know,” she says firmly, crossing her legs. Firmness grows like a shell over her entire body. Encases and protects her. When pressed, it is difficult for her to articulate a reason. She absolutely refuses to call it racial, or to give it a name at all.

In 1963, separated, with a son to raise, handling herself as a working mother proved a formidable challenge, but June paid the rent and the writing got better. Three years later she experienced another traumatic separation—the death of her mother. “One of the things that pained me so much was that she should have died prior to my doing anything, as far as I was concerned, that might suggest to her who I was as a poet.”

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Peter Erickson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Erickson, Peter. “The Love Poetry of June Jordan.” Callaloo 9, no. 1 (winter, 1986) 221-34.

[In the following essay, Erickson surveys changes in Jordan's concepts of love and self-determination.]

In an earlier article I undertook a comprehensive survey of June Jordan's work, including fiction, children's stories, drama, and essays as well as poetry.1 The present study focuses more specifically on the poetry.2 Two poems from Passion—“A Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades” and “Poem about My Rights”—may be taken as coordinates or lightning rods for the deeper motives of the poetry as a...

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P. Jane Splawn (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Splawn, P. Jane. “New World Consciousness in the Poetry of Ntozake Shange and June Jordan: Two African-American Women's Response to Expansionism in the Third World.” CLA Journal XXXIX, no. 4 (June, 1996) 417-31.

[In the following essay, Splawn extols Jordan's and Ntozake Shange's call for a New World consciousness.]

And who will join in this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
if necessary
even under the sea
we are the ones we have been waiting for.

—June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women”

of course he's lumumba
see only the eyes/bob...

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Scott MacPhail (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: MacPhail, Scott. “June Jordan and the New Black Intellectuals.” African American Review 33, no. 1 (spring, 1999) 57-71.

[In the following essay, MacPhail addresses the models of African-American intellectuals which influenced Jordan.]

In Race Matters, Cornell West states that “the time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for black America.” The contemporary black political and intellectual leader should “be a race-transcending prophet who critiques the powers that be … and who puts forward a vision of fundamental social change for all who suffer from socially induced misery” (70). If we are to believe a...

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David Baker (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Baker, David. “Probable Reason, Possible Joy.” In Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry, pp. 199-204. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Baker explains Jordan's motivation for ignoring Western standards of poetry to create an immediate, direct voice of political activism.]

Occasionally I feel about Diane di Prima's poems the way I do about June Jordan's—that she writes poems as if poetry were sometimes rather far down on her list of interests. That is both compliment and complaint. Jordan is obviously devoted to the poetics of politics and judgment; she's a poetry activist. Her aesthetic includes not only...

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