June Jordan Jordan, June (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

June Jordan 1936–

Black American poet, novelist, essayist, and editor.

Jordan explores the black experience in America in poetry noted for its ironic presentation of emotions ranging from rage to love. Her subjects extend from personal to political experiences. "I expect a distinctively Black poem to speak for me-as-part-of-an-us," Jordan has said. Some of her poetry, particularly in Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980, has been denounced for its radical stance. And Jordan does advocate self-determination and activism to bring about the changes necessary for an amiable coexistence of black and white society.

Civil Wars is a collection of Jordan's essays from 1964 to 1980. These essays address Jordan's main concerns: feminism and the black experience, and children and education. The book, chronologically ordered, is an autobiographical testament to her commitment to the black community.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; and Something about the Author, Vol. 4.)

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a portentous foreword [to "Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980"] Jordan acknowledges her debt to Whitman and proposes to update this "white father's" political vision. However, this collection of talk-poems owes much more to the oral tradition of fellow black poets Nikki Giovanni and Imamu Amiri Baraka than to Whitman. Whether it succeeds in applying Whitman's democratic outlook to the modern world will depend very much on the reader's tastes and beliefs. There are forceful pieces on police brutality, racism, white genocide of Indians and blacks; "personal greetings" to Fidel Castro, "hirsute Spanish-speaking hero"; a man's confessional slyly comparing theft of a Porsche to rape. But the most effective poems are taut, sensitive explorations of personal relationships. In one strong political poem, the refrain "Martin Luther King, Jr., is still dead" sums up the book's underlying mood of desperation and resolution.

"Nonfiction: 'Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the October 17, 1980 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1980 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 218, No. 16, October 17, 1980, p. 58.

Susan Mernit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jordan is a poet for many people, speaking in a voice they cannot fail to understand about things they will want to know. [Passion] elucidates those moments when personal life and political struggle, two discrete elements, suddenly entwine…. Her far-ranging sensibility produces intelligent, warm poetry that is exciting as literature, but even more rewarding as one woman's testimony for change.

Susan Mernit, "Poetry: 'Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, December 1, 1980; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1980 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 105, No. 21, December 1, 1980, p. 2501.

Mildred Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Passion as defined by Webster is "Emotion as distinguished from reason … affection … suffering … sexual desire." June Jordan's latest book of poems [Passion] deals with all of these emotions and a few more. It is a book that hurts sometimes because passion isn't always sweet. Yet it's necessary; as necessary as realizing the amount of violence that exists right now in so many of our communities, as necessary as humor.

June has demonstrated her creativity so well in this new book, her ability to see beyond the surface and cause us to react. In "A Poem About Intelligence For My Brothers And Sisters" … June confronts us with the limitations of intelligence, makes us think about the whole issue of being a genius; like who are they beyond their area of expertise, who can tolerate them personally and how did they get on the pedestal in the first place?

Violence, particularly police violence is a theme that June deals with a lot in this book…. [She] seems committed to generating alternatives to this genocidal trend.

There are some "lighter" poems here also, one about the 30,117 uses of the peanut and another about the awkwardness of using telephone answering machines.

In the preface June celebrates a connection with Walt Whitman, calling him one of the "New World Poets", a poet who had the courage to speak out on issues not necessarily popular at the time. It is about taking risks. Something all writers are familar with. It is what she's done in this collection of passions; taken a few risks, uncovered some fears and shared some further depths … of her thoughts … her world … and ours.

Mildred Thompson, "Book Reviews: 'Passion: New Poems, 1977–1980'," in The Black Scholar (copyright 1981 by The Black Scholar), Vol. 12, No. 1, January-February, 1981, p. 96.

Joan Larkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Passion] June Jordan's language is a high energy blend of street and literary idiom and (usually for ironic purposes) the statistics, headlines, and perverse or rhetorical vocabulary of television and newspapers. Irony is basic to Jordan's perception of a violent, antiblack, antifemale culture. This irony is the expressive vehicle of her outrage and sense of the absurd.

Jordan's preface to Passion gives a context for understanding the poems. A powerful and privileged minority, Jordan says, counts political poetry, and poetry that anyone can understand, as lesser achievements. I am dubious about Jordan's claiming Walt Whitman as her most important poetic ancestor and dismissing Emily Dickinson as irrelevant. But I am grateful for her articulate attack on the poetry establishment for excluding, through critical and economic censorship, important work by minority poets. (p. 78)

Joan Larkin, "Women's Poetry: Once More with Form," in Ms. (© 1981 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. IX, No. 9, March, 1981, pp. 78, 80.∗

Toni Cade Bambara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Civil Wars is a] chilling but profoundly hopeful vision of living in the USA. Jordan's vibrant spirit manifests itself throughout this collection of articles, letters, journal entries, and essays. What is fundamental to that spirit is caring, commitment, a deep-rooted belief in the sanctity of life….

As poet, novelist, journalist, scenarist, urban designer, and teacher—June Jordan has always worked hard to keep before us the essential questions of life, death, choice, and honor. She has done it not from the relatively safe vantage point the writer's desk affords, but always from the danger zone, in the heated thick of things….

Civil Wars is an "autobiography" very much in the vein of Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, by W.E.B. DuBois, the distinguished black scholar and activist of an earlier generation. Jordan, like DuBois before her, eschews the "memoir" or a personal account of the "I," in favor of presenting the intellectualy history of an "it" or the battle as experienced by a combatant come of age in an era of race war….

Jordan makes a signal contribution to our understanding of our contemporary "civil wars" because of her candid and lucid balance between the "I" and the "it." Her blend of the public and private voice, the individual and collective vision, her urgent call to dismantle dehumanizing systems and to instill a truly pro-life orientation in our institutions and relations, are what make her testament a rich and usable resource. Engaged in this era's struggles of race, class, gender, and casts, Jordan masks neither her political position nor her passion. (p. 41)

Certainly no I-have-the-word note or Follow-me-my-children chord is struck anywhere in Civil Wars. And yet, what she indeed becomes for readers who would become "attuned to the messy and intricate and unending challenge of self-determination" is guide, teacher, example. Because she takes risks. Because she will not settle for a bogus peace at the expense of the truth. Because she wills to grow. (pp. 41-2)

Toni Cade Bambara, "Chosen Weapons," in Ms. (© 1981 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. IX, No. 10, April, 1981, pp. 40-2.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Civil Wars discloses … Jordan's talents as a prose writer…. [It] is a seamless and eloquent personal retrospective, an intellectual and political autobiography…. [Its] backdrop is two decades of social change, with notable failures and triumphs.

From the Harlem riots of 1964 to the Miami riots of 1980, Jordan surveys a social and political landscape that is shattered by racial conflict and violence. But Civil Wars is not solely about the complexities of America's racial politics. Its real subject, relevant within or outside that American grain, is power: its abuse by those who have it, and the rebellion against that abuse by those who don't.


(The entire section is 466 words.)

Patricia Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Keeping the faith is a slogan from the civil rights movement, rarely used nowadays, when cynics clamor: Faith in what?… [Civil Wars resonates] with a powerful faith in the necessity of change. Jordan, who portrays herself as a fighter, struggles not only with the shadowy difficulties of being an intelligent, gifted black woman living in the 20th century but also with specific movements for change by nations, by a people, by the powerless in this century. Her fight is neither a lonely nor a lone one, but it often seems futile. Hence, that faith.

One of Civil Wars's predominant themes is the issue of self-determination—for an individual, say, a woman alone minding her own business, or...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

Darryl Pinckney

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Civil Wars" [is] a book of thorough and unwavering radicalism….

[The] articles form a kind of autobiography of thought and feeling, the story of one individual's activism and search for community. June Jordan is a poet, a woman, a black, and these things define the issues that engage her….

"Civil Wars" is the record of a strenuous, complicated journey…. Very little is forgotten and much is forgiven as June Jordan travels from one subject to another. Themes recur inextricably linked; in the way a locomotive speedily pulls the rest of the train into view….

Many of her opinions are provocative. Her poetry and her interpretations of literary texts are informed by her experiences as a black woman. (p. 8)

Miss Jordan considers at length the importance and trials of feminism for black women. She prefers to think of feminism as an inseparable part of a worldwide struggle against all forms of domination, and hence she criticizes the narrow concentration of some feminists. Throughout, she writes of her determination to resist the temptation to hate. "Is there, in fact, somebody else alive, besides each one of us? Is there some way to prove that there is somebody else alive, without violence?" she asks. She attempts to find solutions to the problems that capture her imagination: collaborating with Buckminster Fuller on a plan to redesign Harlem, developing a manual for land reform in Mississippi. Rage leads her to applaud the recent disturbances in Miami, but always she seeks to temper her anger with a measure of determined optimism and, as she calls it, love. That is a word she does not shrink from using, at the risk of seeming sentimental or propagandistic, which is valiant in an era as cynical as ours.

"Passion" is an appropriate title for this gathering of 51 new poems. (pp. 8, 26)

The poems in "Passion" mostly in free verse, share many of the themes of the essays. These poems are confidently within an oral tradition, and although the oral can often mean the merely rhetorical, Miss Jordan serves the tradition well, with a sensitive ear for the vernacular, for the ironic tone….

The energy and seriousness of these poems are impressive and, like the essays, they are the work of a writer of integrity and will. (p. 26)

Darryl Pinckney, "Opinions and Poems," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 9, 1981, pp. 8, 26.