June Jordan Essay - Jordan, June (Vol. 114)

Jordan, June (Vol. 114)

Introduction

June Jordan 1936–

American poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, critic, biographer, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Jordan's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 11, and 23.

Although best known as a poet, June Jordan has published a substantial number of children's works, novels, essays, and plays. Jordan's works explore the African-American experience in America, focusing on a wide range of topics including conflicts in Nicaragua and Africa, and more personal issues of love and self-awareness. Critics have praised Jordan for uniting in poetic form the personal, everyday struggle and political oppression of African Americans.

Biographical Information

Jordan was born in 1936 in Harlem, the only child of immigrants from Jamaica. When she was five, the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. Jordan's father, a post-office clerk, introduced her to poetry, from the Scriptures to the writings of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and her mother, a nurse, provided an example of community service. Jordan's parents jeopardized their daughter's developing sense of identity, however, with harsh treatment—beatings from her father, and her mother's failure to intervene—and by opposing Jordan's ambition to become a poet. Coming to terms with her parents and her childhood became a major biographical theme in Jordan's writing. For a year, Jordan was the only African-American student in the high school she attended; she then spent three years at the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts before entering Barnard College in 1953. At Barnard she met Michael Meyer, a white student at Columbia University, and they were married in 1955. The marriage ended in divorce in 1965, but the couple's child, Christopher David Meyer, provided another biographical theme in Jordan's writing: motherhood and, by extension, nurturing for the broader African-American community. Her first book, Who Look at Me (1969), was dedicated to Christopher, as was her autobiographical essay collection Civil Wars (1981). Jordan has also enjoyed a distinguished university teaching career, including positions at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of California-Berkeley.

Major Works

Who Look at Me is a long poem that turns on the image of eye contact between the races to treat the history of African Americans in a prejudiced white America. Twenty-seven paintings of African Americans from Colonial days to the present complement the poem and reinforce the theme of looking at others as individuals rather than stereotypes. In her first poetry collection, Some Changes (1971), Jordan explored her efforts to find her poetic voice despite her troubled relationship with her parents. While continuing to address the African-American experience, she elucidated her artistic ideals, appealing for a revision of the literary canon that would incorporate African-American writers and writing on social consciousness. His Own Where (1971) is a novel for teens in which a young man and woman make themselves a place to live in the midst of urban ruin. This book is noteworthy in part for Jordan's use of Black English, which she fervently espouses and promotes through her work. Jordan's second poetry collection, New Days (1974), deals with the civil rights movement and returns to the poet's evolving perception of her mother, for whom she had found a kind of surrogate in Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer during trips to Mississippi in 1969 and 1971. A poem in the collection is addressed to Hamer, who is also the subject of a 1972 biography for young readers. A major collection, Things That I Do in the Dark (1977), contains poems from earlier works as well as pieces never previously published. The essays collected in Civil Wars are a good source of information on Jordan's life, thought, and development as a writer. Jordan's books for children and young adults include, in addition to His Own Where and Fannie Lou Hamer (1972), the novels New Life, New Room (1975) and Kimako's Story (1981). In Naming Our Destiny (1994) Jordan achieves unity between her lyrical poetic voice and the political voice of her essays. She uses a variety of voices and personas to convey her investigation of the "we/us" versus "they/them" rhetoric which she sees as central to the divisiveness of American culture.

Critical Reception

Susan McHenry in Nation remarked that "Jordan's characteristic stance is combative. She is exhilarated by a good fight, by taking on her antagonists against the odds." This commitment to urgent political issues, this need to, as Matthew Rothschild put it, "make America live up to its promise," is combined with a concern for the quotidian. This is reflected in a style which is "oratorical," inviting comparisons, from critic David Baker, to Carl Sandburg and the blues, as Jordan "makes public art out of public occasion." An avoidance of the scholarly and academic veins of discourse is one of her strengths. She may deal with weighty political and social issues like race, gender, and social justice but she does so with imagery and language taken from the world readers recognize, using situations with which readers are familiar. The ideas are delivered, Dorothy Abbott believes, by a "politically grounded writer," with a "lyric precision and a beautiful sense of celebration." This praise is corroborated by several critics, like Honor Moore who commented in Ms. that Jordan "never sacrifices poetry for politics," and that the details of her craft are "inseparable from political statement." In terms of literary community and intellectual trends, P. Jane Splawn places Jordan in the category of "New World consciousness," an aesthetic and sensibility traceable to Walt Whitman and postcolonial thinker and activist Frantz Fanon, and which is characterized by a heterogeneous, pluralistic, and democratic spirit.

Principal Works

Who Look at Me (poetry) 1969
Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry [editor] (poetry) 1970
The Voice of the Children [editor] (poetry) 1970
Some Changes (poetry) 1971
His Own Where (juvenile novel) 1971
Dry Victories (juvenile novel) 1972
Fannie Lou Hamer (biography) 1972
New Days: Poems of Exile and Return (poetry) 1974
New Life, New Room (nevel) 1975
Things that I Do in the Dark (poetry) 1977
In the Spirit of the Sojourner (drama) 1979
Passion: New Poems (poetry) 1980
For the Arrow that Flies by Day (drama) 1981
Civil Wars (essays) 1981
Kimako's Story (juvenile) 1981
Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1989
Technical Difficulties (essays) 1992
Haruko/Love Poems (poetry) 1994

Criticism

James A. Emanuel (review date 16 November 1969)

SOURCE: A review of Who Look at Me, in The New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1969, p. 52.

[In the following review, Emanuel acquaints the reader with the theme and voice in Jordan's first collection of poetry.]

Opposite the title page of Who Look at Me is a painting simply entitled "Portrait of a Gentleman." The gentleman is black. June Jordan's book suggests all black Americans are as unknown as the anonymous early 19th-century artist and his subject.

"We do not see those we do not know," she writes. "Love and all varieties of happy concern depend on the discovery of one's self in another. The question of every desiring heart is,...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Melba Joyce Boyd (review date Summer and Winter 1981)

SOURCE: "The Whitman Awakening in June Jordan's Poetry," in Obsidian, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer and Winter, 1981, pp. 226-28.

[In the following review, Boyd discusses the influence of Whitman evident in Jordan's Passion.]

In the preface of June Jordan's latest book of poetry, Passion, the poet acclaims Walt Whitman as the Great White Father of American poetry. She explains she has most recently realized his significance because during her academic preparation, Whitman was overlooked and obscured by the establishment literati of eastern universities. I suppose this is possibly true of some educational experiences, but it's difficult to imagine.

At...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Marilyn Hacker (review date 29 January 1990)

SOURCE: "Provoking Engagement," in The Nation, Vol. 250, No. 4, January 29, 1990, pp. 135-39.

[In the following review, Hacker surveys the themes and techniques in Jordan's Selected Poems and evaluates some of the poet's positions and propositions.]

June Jordan's new book [Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems] 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...

(The entire section is 3726 words.)

David Baker (review date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: "Probable Reason, Possible Joy," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 152-57.

[In the following excerpt, Baker reviews Jordan's Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems in the context of contemporary American poetry, pointing out what he perceives as the strengths and weaknesses of Jordan's work.]

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 entire section is 2028 words.)

Matthew Rothschild (review date January 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union, in The Progressive, Vol. 57, No. 1, January 1993, pp. 33-4.

[In the following excerpt, Rothschild favorably reviews Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union.]

For those who are June Jordan fans, as I am, Technical Difficulties is an exhilarating collection of some of her best essays and speeches from the last six years, many of which appeared first in these pages. Every time I read Jordan's work, I am struck and re-struck by her authentic voice, her fresh poetic style, and, above all, the intensity of her commitment to justice and...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Adele Logan Alexander (review date April 1993)

SOURCE: "Stirring the Melting Pot," in Women's Review of Books, No. 7, April, 1993, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Alexander surveys the range of concerns and discusses the style of address in Jordan's essay collection Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union.]

"I am one barbarian who will not apologize," June Jordan shouts [in Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union]. (Because I can hear her voice's clarion call, I'm sure that she shouts these words, although I only read them on the printed page.) "Two weeks ago my aunt called me a Communist," she confides, acknowledging the outrage that her opinions...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)

Margaret Randall (review date March-May 1995)

SOURCE: "Dreams Deferred," in American Book Review, Vol. 16, No. 6, March-May, 1995, p. 26.

[In the following review, Randall presents an appreciation of Jordan's skill and thematic range in Haruko/Love Poems.]

June Jordan's work, at this point and for many years now, is perfect. That is, not a word too many, none too few, nothing at all other than it must be. She says exactly what she means to say, and says it so powerfully that the reader (or fortunate, listener) hears each phrase; isolated, made specific, an essential part of the whole. From the collected poems in Naming Our Destiny to the precise columns in The Progressive and spartan essays...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Sue Russell (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "Among Lovers, Among Friends," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 147-53.

[In the following excerpt, Russell illustrates her appreciation of Jordan's Haruko/Love Poems.]

Both Ted Berrigan and June Jordan have shown an inclination to see themselves as outsiders from the literary elite, defined by such external rewards as prestigious grants and New Yorker publication. For Berrigan, the distinguishing criteria might be class and circle of friends, while for Jordan, they are race (black), politics (radical), and sexuality (ambiguous). According to Alice Notley, "Ted came from a working-class background and was very realistic about...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)

Dale Edwyna Smith (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "The Mother Tongue," in Belles Letters, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 68-70.

[In the following excerpt, Smith considers the thematic and stylistic features of Jordan's prose.]

The twinning of politics and poetics as a literary strategy in African-American women's writing is dictated by a variety of circumstances, combined with temperament, intellect, and literary perspicacity. Even so, the tradition has become over time an almost indigenous response, like race memory, a kind of mother tongue; and these titles, with one exception, embrace it well. Among them are June Jordan and Nikki Giovanni, unquestioned exemplars of those currently practicing this art...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Jacqueline Vaught Brogan (essay date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: "Planets on the Table: From Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop to Adrienne Rich and June Jordan," in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall 1995, pp. 273-75.

[In the following excerpt, Brogan situates Jordan in a philosophical context along with poets Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich.]

In Jordan […] we find a poet, at least in her latest works, far more persuaded of the primacy of words, and possibly of the primacy of speech as a redemptive force, despite her acute awareness of the violence cultural scripts impose all over the world. When she "says" she does not want to speak of those who "describe human beings" in certain...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)

P. Jane Splawn (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: "New World Consciousness in the Poetry of Ntozake Shange and June Jordan: Two African-American Women's Response to Expansionism in the Third World," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, June 1996, pp. 417-31.

[In the following essay, Splawn examines the work of Ntozake Shange and June Jordan, in which she finds examples of "a New World aesthetic."]

     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 entire section is 3539 words.)