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).
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.
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.
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.”
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
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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,...
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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 whole. Placing the two poems next to each other, we are struck first by their differences. The latter presents a strenuous drive toward self-definition, while the former flaunts a facetious, capricious resistance to self-definition. This contrast is reinforced by the respective tones of the two poems: the one serious, urgent, menacing; the other flippant, elusive. Yet earnestness and insouciance converge as two sides of the same coin. Both poems testify to the connection between naming and identity, to the power of language to deform the self. For all its positive insistence on “self-determination,” “Poem about My Rights” spends most of its energy fending and sloughing off false terms: “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my...
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SOURCE: Hacker, Marilyn. “Provoking Engagement.” The Nation 250, no. 4 (January 29, 1990) 135-39.
[In the following review, Hacker considers the political nature of Jordan's collectionNaming Our Destiny.]
June Jordan's new book is an anthology of causes won, lost, moot, private and public, forgotten and remembered. Anyone who doubts the relevance and timeliness of poetry ought to read Jordan, who has been among the front-line correspondents for almost thirty years and is still a young and vital writer. So should anyone who wants his or her curiosity and indignation aroused, or wants to read a voice that makes itself heard on the page.
There are as many kinds of poetry as there are novels and plays. But some critics, who would not fault a novel of social protest for failing to be a novel of manners or a nouveau roman, seem to want all poetry to fit one mold. June Jordan epitomizes a particular kind and strength of American poetry: that of the politically engaged poet whose commitment is as seamlessly joined to her work as it is to her life.
What makes politically engaged poetry unique, and primarily poetry before it is politics? Jordan's political poetry is, at its best, the opposite of polemic. It is not written with a preconceived, predigested agenda of ideas and images. Rather, the process of composition is, or reproduces, the process of discovering how...
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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 marley wail in the night ralph featherstone burning temples as pages of books become ashen and smolder by his ankles walter rodney's blood fresh soakin the streets/leon damas spoke poems with his face/cesaire cursed our enemies/making welcome our true voice.
—Ntozake Shange, “irrepressibly bronze, beautiful & mine”
Poet June Jordan asks in the first line of the epigraph to this paper, “And who will join this standing up”—this standing up for every individual, regardless of race, nationality, gender, and sexuality? The words in the epigraph invoke a call to the many African-descended peoples throughout the world and to their allies, be they black (by race or by...
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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 series of articles in popular American magazines,1 a whole generation of African-American intellectuals is making the transition from experts on race matters to the more broadly defined role of the public, national intellectual, and in the process redefining “what it means to be an intellectual in the United States” (Bérubé 73). Whether or not these “new intellectuals,” as Robert Boynton names them in The Atlantic, are or should be “race-transcending,” or if they are reincarnations of the black spokespersons whose time West says is past, has spurred some acrimonious debate. Adolph Reed argues in The Village Voice that these public intellectuals trade on their blackness to gain authority with their...
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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 the casual or democratic sensibilities of free verse but also the bald, repetitive, encantatory powers of oratory. Hers is a persistently spoken poetry, whose closest contact with song is the chant and, occasionally, the heavily stressed, feigned naivety of the blues, as in “Winter Honey,” where “sugar know / ain' nothin' run me for my money / nothin' sweet like winter honey.”
[Henri] Coulette is representative of some of the ongoing influences of Neoclassicism in American poetry, and di Prima charts the development of at least one strain of Romanticism. June Jordan reminds us that while these two aesthetics have comprised the dichotomy of Western philosophy and literature for thousands of years, they are incomplete...
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Brown, Fahamisha Patricia. “Black Is … and Black Ain’t: Of Gender and Generations in African American Poetry.” In Performing the Word: African-American Poetry as Vernacular Culture, pp. 105-07. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Highlights the interaction between gender and race in Jordan’s poetry.
Jordan, June. “June Jordan.” In I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers, pp. 142-51. Edited by Rebecca Carroll. New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.
Outlines Jordan’s attitudes toward writing.
Rowe, Monica Dyer. Review of Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991-1997. American Visions (February-March 1998): 30-1.
Remarks favorably on the collection Kissing God Goodbye.
Additional coverage of Jordan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism Supplement; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors, New Revision, Vols. 33-36; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 70; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 11, 23, 114; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38; DISCovering...
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