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.