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.”