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.)
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.
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.
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...
(This entire section contains 293 words.)
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.
[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.∗
[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.
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.
Jordan's characteristic stance is combative. She is exhilarated by a good fight, by taking on her antagonists against the odds….
Jordan's belief in words as holy and powerful enough to transform experience was planted in her mind as early as age 2, she says, when her mother carried her every Sunday to Harlem's Universal Truth Center; here she heard the majestic phrase, "In the beginning was the Word…." During her embattled girlhood, she conceived of words as a set of unique weapons she could use. In this connection, she was unconsciously the literary daughter of Richard Wright, who wrote in Black Boy how his attraction to language and writing was less a means of communication than a way to flatten his oppressors.
Unlike Wright, however, Jordan succeeded in effectively uniting her impulse to fight with her need and desire to love….
Other essays in Civil Wars reveal Jordan as an advocate for children, "the only blameless people alive." She is outspoken against their abuse, whether in the context of family violence, or the neglect of and assault on the psyches and intellects of black children by inner-city public schools. (p. 437)
Civil Wars deals also with the misinterpretation of black concerns by white-controlled media…. Jordan herself feels much beleaguered by the white critical and editorial establishment….
But more interesting and ultimately more important than these complaints is the essay "On Listening: A Good Way to Hear."… Taking off from William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner ("Styron's stunt," she calls it), Jordan describes the insidious pattern of black people's limited access to hearing and speaking in their own voices. This is no simple-minded "only-black-folk-can-understand-the-black-experience" argument…. What she deplores is the failure of "white" media to solicit the opinions of black critics on work like Styron's, and the proliferation of "professional white intermediaries" who interpret black experience. They are, she says, multiplying faster than the opportunities for black self-expression and interpretation. Unfortunately, this remains true even though there are now a few more of us token black critics and writers who appear in "mainstream" publications. (p. 438)
Susan McHenry, "… The Jumping into It," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 14, April 11, 1981, pp. 437-38.
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 a nation, say, Angola…. Essentially Jordan develops a personal version of self-determination, culminating in the finely wrought title essay. But she covers a lot of ground before she gets there.
The chronological arrangement of the collection offers a rare glimpse into the development of a black writer…. Civil Wars becomes valuable not only as a showcase for Jordan's considerable talent but also as a testament to the work of a living black writer.
She deserves the honor. Although her biases are evident, they are the biases of a strong-willed, thinking woman. Jordan is not an apologist for the status quo; nor does she espouse comfortable nationalistic rhetoric. Whether she's writing on Angola ("A Victory and a Promise"), or black literature ("Notes Towards a Balancing of Love and Hatred"), it's clear that there's a fine mind at work—a mind that knows the complexity of living in the 20th century, especially as a person of color, and does not bother with simple solutions/easy answers. Jordan occasionally lapses into a kind of rhetoric that is only useful at the moment it's being spoken, but not in these two essays.
Her description of and enthusiasm for the political upheaval in Angola is neither a naive anticolonialism nor a misguided vision of the victory. She understands well the stakes in Africa and the difficulty of keeping a leftist victory alive. She also sees that poetry, politically adept poetry, can be useful to a revolution. The essay—ostensibly about Angola … is a clearly thought-out statement on the usefulness of artists and writers in a systematic struggle for change. "Notes Towards a Balancing of Love and Hatred" demonstrates the power of two very different authors: Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Jordan's feminism informs her writing in the very best way—by making the lives of women part of the culture, not separate from it. Here she allows Wright his masculine protest of the oppression of black people and Hurston her feminine affirmation of the lives of black people. The romanticism that flows through both authors is broached gingerly, but the heart of the essay is a declaration for looking at the products of black culture in a particular light: "The functions of protests and affirmation are not, ultimately, distinct; that, for instance, affirmation of black values and lifestyle within the American context is indeed an act of protest."
This sense of affirmation and protest connects with the notion of self-determination in "Civil Wars," her final essay, which blends elements similar to those found in feminist writing by Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker (also poets): an attention to the personal, an embracing of the concept of silence, a deliberate rendering of the circuitous movement from one idea to another back to the original idea, a tendency to be colloquial in speech but formal in style (a combination that sometimes leaves readers in the lurch) … "Civil Wars" becomes a statement of affirmation and protest with strong dashes of Jordan's humor (usually masked in her more seemingly militant pieces).
Not all of the essays in Civil Wars are as clearly written or as pleasurable. Because Jordan is an ambitious thinker, she tends to overwrite….
Finally, though, Jordan's problematic works are overwhelmed by the illuminating, combative, educational ones. Whether speaking on the lives of children, or the victory in Nicaragua, or the development of her poetry, or the consequences of racism in film, Jordan brings her faithfulness to bear: faith in her ability to make change, the sort of faith that caused her to plan a Utopia for Harlem with Buckminster Fuller. Civil Wars has as many questions in it as answers, and not all of them are easy to understand. But the book makes you respect June Jordan's quest and her faith. She is a knowing woman.
Patricia Jones, "June Jordan's Faith Healing" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1981), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 22, May 27-June 2, 1981, p. 44.
"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.