Jordan, June (Vol. 114)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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, thus, 'Who Look at Me?' In a nation suffering fierce hatred, the question—race to race, man to man, and child to child—remains: 'Who Look at Me?' We answer with our lives. Let the human eye begin unlimited embrace of human life."
By intermixing 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, she has given children a splendid opportunity to "begin unlimited embrace of human life."
Her text begins with a question: "Who would paint a people black or white?" The implied answer is that centuries of derogatory generalizations about Negroes have done precisely that....
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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 any rate, this revelation about Whitman has sharply altered Jordan's cultural acceptance of progressive White American poetry. She says, "What Whitman envisioned we, the people and the poets of the New World, embody. He has been punished for the political meaning of his vision. We are being punished for the moral questions that our very lives provoke."
June Jordan was a poet of the sixties, or the Black Arts Movement—Renaissance II. These writers were strong nationalists who were sometimes too quick to categorically dismiss English and American writers into a ruble of racist reactionaries who articulated the insensitive values and attitudes of a repressive ruling culture. This active resistance to prevent the...
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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 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...
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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 casual or democratic sensibilities of free verse, but also the bald, repetitive, encantatory powers of oratory; hers is persistently spoken poetry, whose closest contact with song is the chant and, occasionally, the heavily stressed, feigned naïveté of the blues, as in "Winter Honey":
and sugar go
but sugar know
ain' nothin' run me for my money
nothin' sweet like winter honey
[Poet Henri] Coulette is a good representative of some of the ongoing influences of Neoclassicism in American poetry, and di Prima charts the...
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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 equality.
Like most great American agitators, and she is proudly an agitator, Jordan holds up our country's ideals and points out the distance we are from realizing them. Hers is a patriotic quest in the best sense: to make America live up to its promise.
In "My Perfect Soul Shall Manifest Me Rightly: An Essay on Blackfolks and the Constitution," Jordan documents the problems in our society. "There is a terrible trouble across the land," she writes. "As a nation we have become a beacon for tyrants, greed-driven entrepreneurs, and militaristic fantasies. As a people we have become accustomed to the homeless, the beggars, the terrorized minorities, and the terrified elderly. As an electorate, we have become...
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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 have caused her kin. "Calling someone a Communist," she continues, "is an entirely respectable, and popular, middle-class way to call somebody a low-down dirty dog." Yes, Jordan often must have outraged her relatives because she is such an unapologetic "barbarian," so piercing in her analysis, often so provocative beyond apparent reason. Yet after all, reason prevails in Technical Difficulties, this new collection of essays. Kin-folk notwithstanding, Jordan scarcely could be considered anyone's cup of tea (warm, sweet, milky—if that's what one seeks) or even their meat and potatoes; she is, rather, the very finest bitter vetch, the best champagne or straight shot of Stoly.
Technical Difficulties is a book...
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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 (Civil Wars; On Call, South End, and Technical Difficulties), hers is a voice that epitomizes wise sister, alter ego, conscience, song. She manages to tap that place where race and sexuality, class and justice, gender and memory come together. She doesn't go with the cutting-edge idea but reaches for that difficult terrain where others may fear to tread.
I have yet to teach a college class in which I haven't read out loud Jordan's essay "Many Rivers to Cross" at one of the early sessions. It focuses the students. And renews my sense that we have writers now—most of them women, many of them women of color—who simply know how to say what must be said, with brilliance.
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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 choices in America. You weren't poor if you had gone to college. On the other hand, you would not get certain kinds of poetic recognition in your lifetime if you had gone to Something State rather than Harvard; or if you hadn't involved yourself in one of what he called 'the serious jack-off scenes'". June Jordan displayed a similar understanding of the pernicious effect of the old-boys' network in her preface to Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980, which proposes a new perspective on the American literary tradition through recognition of the prototypically independent voice of Walt Whitman. She offers a potent description of the poetic energy that exists outside of the grant-giving, book-publishing, white, heterosexual male mainstream:...
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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 successfully.
Melding memoir to the presentation and analysis of the cultural and political evolution of an entire community is a tricky business. However, particularly in the case of a "nonpublic" person, it is critical that insight into the universal application of the individual life be clear and unambiguous, and the tale engagingly told. June Jordan, in both of her new books, shows us how this is best accomplished. Essays in her Moving Towards Home: Political Essays (1981) and her Technical Difficulties (1992) initially appeared about a decade apart, providing the reader a fortunate retrospective as well as a bird's-eye view of Jordan's own literary evolution. Her prose, like the finest poetry, perfectly...
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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 violative ways, she also says such words "are the ones from whom we must redeem / the words of our beginning"—invoking a faith in what Stevens calls "The thesis of the plentifullest John"—or that we have traditionally inherited as "In the beginning was the Word." Jordan herself admits to being drawn to this phrase as a child, suggesting that it empowered her early on as a poet: "Early on, the scriptural concept that 'in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God'—the idea that the word could represent and then deliver into reality what the word symbolized—this possibility of language, of writing, seemed to me magical and basic and irresistible." It may well be much to the point that Jordan, writing at the...
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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
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.
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Jordan, June. "Writing and Teaching." Partisan Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 3 (1969): 478-82.
An essay in which Jordan explains her perception of issues of language related to the production, teaching and understanding of literature.
Moramarco, Fred. "A Gathering of Poets." Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1970): 201-07.
Considers Jordan's first book of poetry in the context of several poetry collection by other contemporary American poets.
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