Early Life and Upbringing

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A prolific poet who merged personal and political concerns, June Jordan exploited a full range of literary genres in addition to poetry. During her career, she published ten volumes of poetry and eighteen volumes of essays, memoirs, and children’s fiction. By turns, her extensive energies were also devoted to journalism, opera, film, teaching, urban planning, and political, linguistic, and feminist activism. As poet and writer Penelope Moffet reported in 1986, it was Jordan’s overriding sense that “politics [is] the duty of an artist.”

That view can be understood in the light of Jordan’s background, for her New York City upbringing in a working-class family and her unique experiences as an educationally privileged African American eventually led her to larger concerns than herself. Of Jamaican ancestry, she was born in Harlem to Granville Jordan and Mildred Jordan on July 9, 1936; the family moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area when she was five. Both her parents—her father was a postal clerk, her mother a nurse—at times worked nights to help give her advantages.

Frustrated with his own life, her father sometimes beat June physically “to the extent of occasional scar tissue” but also introduced her to literature—notably the Bible and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, and Paul Laurence Dunbar—when she was still a young girl. At age seven, Jordan started writing poems herself. Her 1975 essay “Notes of a Barnard...

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Forging a Career

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Over the course of a college teaching career that began in 1967, Jordan was a member of the English departments at several colleges and universities, including the City College of New York, Sarah Lawrence College, and Yale University. At the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she was director of the Poetry Center, and at the University of California at Berkeley she became founder and director of Poetry for the People. In 1989, while at Berkeley, she concurrently started work as a political columnist for The Progressive magazine. Through the years, she was also poet-and playwright-in-residence, lecturer, and visiting professor at various other colleges and institutions.

Though it lacked concrete results, Jordan’s work in 1964 with visionary architect Buckminster Fuller on a plan for renovating Harlem gave her a sense of her own potential and helped her get past her “hatred for everything and everyone white.” Such essays as Jordan’s “Civil Wars” document relevant aspects of her complex career and political development. Jordan’s friendships with writer Alice Walker and activist Fannie Lou Hamer both date from her first trip to Mississippi in 1969. Hamer also helped Jordan deal with her racial antipathies.

Jordan’s persistent advocacy of black English triggered much opposition over the years from African Americans and many others who see dialectal patterns as detrimental to acquisition by African Americans of the...

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Growth in the 1980’s

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The optimistic tone of the poems that Jordan wrote in the 1980’s is colored by an almost paradoxical mix of disciplined aggression and love. In her 1977 essay “Thinking About My Poetry,” Jordan notes her own personal transition from “the limitations of a victim mentality” into a sense that she can effectively oppose her enemies, especially “the power of our own fear and our own self-hatred.” Jordan’s symbiotic concerns with women and Third World peoples are apparent in this essay and in many of her poems.

The collection Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980 (1980) opens with Jordan’s praise of Walt Whitman, the father of “New World” poets such as herself; a second motif in Jordan’s preface is the difficulty a “dissident American poet” has finding publishers. An essay on Jordan in African American Writers (1991), in the context of its full and detailed exposition of her career, suggests rightly that poems in Passion are “war cries of women’s and Third World peoples’ movements.”

Jordan’s collection Living Room: New Poems appeared in 1985, concurrently with other of her political writings. International concerns and bitter topical satire are bold in such poems as “The Beirut Jokebook”:

1. June 8, 1982: This is not an invasion.2. July 9, 1982: This is a ceasefire.3. July 15, 1982: This is a ceasefire.4. July 30, 1982: This ceasefire is strained.5. August 4, 1982: This is not an invasion.

Jordan’s writings from the 1980’s, whether prose or verse, often emphasize internationalism and the poet’s important role in achieving a worldview and human cohesion. A recurring device is for the personas of her poems to presume to speak for large constituencies: “I am become a Palestinian” or “I am the history of rape/ I am the history of the rejection of who I am.” Walt Whitman’s “cosmic I” seems to be a precedent in the use of this technique for broadening impact and relevance and giving Jordan’s lyric poems a public voice.

The new poems in Jordan’s...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jordan’s accomplishments established her as an intellectual force in the spheres of twentieth century American academia, literary life, and political and feminist controversy. Beginning in 1969, when she was awarded a Rockefeller Grant, she received numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1982), a National Association of Black Journalists Award (1984), and special recognition by the United States Congress for “outstanding contributions to literature, the civil rights movement, and in recognition of outstanding and invaluable service to the community” (1999). Jordan’s writings are available internationally in translation, and some of her poems written in the late 1980’s and later show evidence of experimentations that derive from various international cultural traditions, including the Chinese T’ang poems and Japanese tanka and haiku. She died of breast cancer on June 14, 2002.

The posthumous collection Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (2005) includes the poems from the nine books of poetry Jordan published during her lifetime, with an additional seventy unpublished poems written during the last years of her life. Many of these last poems address contemporary events, such as “Poem on the Death of Princess Diana,” “Kosovo Fugue in Seven Parts,” and the brief “T’ang Poem for Amadou Diallo”:

Branch break rain bring bloodLake light fold close mudStorm wreck chime rhyme airShoot stop heart lose flood

Several of the last poems deal with Jordan’s own years of surgery and chemotherapy following her diagnosis of breast cancer. In “Ode #2 Written During Chemotherapy at UCSF: Or, Ode to I’d Rather Be Sailing,” she demonstrates that even through the “intravenous drips and problematic pokings” she never stopped desiring love, sex, and intimacy; she concludes the poem with the saucy “I’d really rather be somebody’s/ Sweet potato pie!” The last poems also revisit political and social issues that Jordan addressed throughout her career. Three poems mourn the loss of friend and fellow activist Dr. Elizabeth Ann Karlin, a physician and abortion provider, while “Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet in Black English Translation” and “Ode to the Gun Lobby” speak directly to Jordan’s own activism. “A Couple of Questions” presents an idea that informed Jordan’s work for decades: “How many hours before we agree that loving ourselves/ does not require our hatred of somebody else?”


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Alexander, Amy. “June Jordan.” In Fifty Black Women Who Changed America. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1998. Brief but vivid and accessible biography.

Blassingame, John W., ed. New Perspectives on Black Studies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. Places Jordan’s important essay “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” (1969) in the context of other discussions of programs in black studies.

Erickson, Peter B. “June Jordan.” In Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Vol. 38 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Illustrated essay by a Wesleyan University professor. Detailed, informative, and insightful. Discusses Jordan’s creative works through 1985 in the chronological context of her eventful biography.

Freccero, Carla. “June Jordan.” In African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. Biographical and critical overview that quotes liberally from Jordan’s poems and essays, offers facts and opinions in a clear chronological format, and adds a useful bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Jordan, June. Interview by Angels Carabi. In Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets, edited by Janet Palmer Mullaney. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Jordan discusses her childhood in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, her challenges as an African American and a woman, and how she sees literature as a means for helping her students achieve self-understanding.

Keating, AnaLouise. “The Intimate Distance of Desire: June Jordan’s Bisexual Inflections.” In Romancing the Margins? Lesbian Writing in the 1990’s, edited by Gabriele Griffin. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2000. Examines both Jordan’s poetry and her prose, tracing her resistance to strict definitions of gender and sexual roles.

Kessler, Jascha. Review of Some Changes, by June Jordan. Poetry 122 (February, 1973): 301-303. Describes Jordan’s poems about the black experience as strong, simple, skillful in adapting the models of earlier poets, and political but not “politicized.”

Kinloch, Valerie, and Margret Grebowicz, eds. Still Seeking an Attitude: Critical Reflections on the Work of June Jordan. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004. The fourteen articles in this first full-length collection examine Jordan’s poetry, as well as her literature for children, and explore her activism and her ideas about language.

Rollock, Barbara. Black Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: A Biographical Dictionary. 2d ed. New York: Garland, 1992. Summarizes Jordan’s biography and lists her six publications for children (1969-1981).