Jordan’s essays illustrate one of the more serious social concepts to emerge from the furor of the 1960’s, the insistence that the political is personal and that to attempt any kind of disengagement is deceptive. Jordan does not present herself as either a spokesperson or a pundit. Rather, she writes in the spirit of an alert citizen of a democratic state trying to refine what she has called “the starter tablet of laws” that is the American Constitution. In the “Alternative Commencement Address” delivered at Dartmouth College, she declares that the history of the United States is “the history of a democratic republic under torturous but steadfast construction” and that attacks on the protections and rights guaranteed by the Constitution and its amendments are assaults on “the basis for liberty and the well-being of all of our lives.” One of the most crucial points of the entire book is that African American citizens have responded to and worked for these essential rights as steadfastly as any other Americans. Contrary to the inaccurate depiction of black people as somehow outside the process of American life, she describes her parents as living in America “full of faith,” “eager Black immigrants . . . as grateful and loyal” as any other arrivals “whose trust in the democratic promise of the mainland has never been reckoned with, fully, or truly reciprocated.” Her goal in these essays is to keep the faith in the possibilities of American democracy and to work toward the inclusion of all the citizens of the country in a vision of America defined and evoked by its hopeful immigrants in the most expansive terms.
Recognizing the power inherent in the employment and control of language, Jordan uses the entire range of her skills as a writer to speak for those denied a voice as a result of any “technical difficulty.” She has claimed for herself the role of celebrator of the heroes of her culture, like an ancient epic poet, and the role of a “conscience of a generation” in the tradition of British essayist George Orwell, whose progressive politics placed him in opposition to powerful forces in the political establishment of his country. The union of these tasks has led her to an examination of the contradictions between the isolated individual artist and the committed social activist. After drawing some revealing parallels between the arrogance of an artist’s “illusions of autonomy” and the “misbegotten American dreams . . . about you and me as gloriously rugged, independent individuals” that have deterred the “simplest capabilities for cooperation” necessary for a just, decent society, Jordan explains how (in the essay “Of Those So Close Beside Me, Which Are You?”) she decided that the aim of art is to “comfort and to empower the possible victims of evil” and to “impart all that we can of our inspired, our inherited humanity.”
The strategy she follows for empowerment is based on a reasoned, logical exposition of the techniques of control and suppression employed by “self-selected...
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The fact that Jordan was the first black woman to publish a collection of political essays in the United States is interesting and important as a register of the historical constraints placed on both women and African Americans. As John Thompson, the basketball coach at Georgetown, remarked when his team won the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship, he would not have been the first black coach to achieve this honor if similarly capable people had had similar opportunities. Jordan joins other pioneering black writers finding means to speak, but her work is clearly within a tradition of commentary. What is more significant is that her work has an enduring power that satisfies Ezra Pound’s definition of literature as “news that stays news.” While they are still firmly grounded in the specific experiences of her life as a poet and professor of African American studies, and as a woman of color in the United States in the late twentieth century, Jordan’s concerns are those of all responsible Americans, and her writing has a relevance that American citizens ignore at the nation’s peril.
A poet, essayist, columnist, and orator, June Jordan is a central figure on “the cultural left.” A regular contributor to THE PROGRESSIVE magazine, she reproduces in many of her utterances judgments supportive of that publication’s most cherished principles. The centerpiece of her political ideology is an exalted view of human entitlements and of the capacity of the nation-state to guarantee them.
Jordan’s list of entitlements — found in the seventh of the twenty-four essays in this volume — includes items that would endear her to the staunchest European Social Democrat. Citizens have a claim to state-supported education — “and perpetual reeducation” — including graduate study. Both parents must receive paid leaves in the months surrounding a child’s birth and should be offered “universal, state-controlled child care programs.” Youths have a claim on “appropriate, universal sex education in our public schools, and universal teenage access to contraceptive means, including abortion, if necessary.” She asserts that the “nationalization of vital industries” is also an entitlement — “to protect citizen consumers and citizen workers, alike, from the greed-driven vagaries of a free-market.”
Unfortunately, many essays contradict the socialist-humanist philosophy upon which this view of entitlements rests. Jordan’s pronouncements on educational policy, the Western literary canon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse...
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