Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 1981, June Jordan published her first collection of essays, Civil Wars: Selected Essays 1963-1980, a pioneering volume described by the publisher as the first book of political essays to be published by a black woman in the United States. Perhaps best known as a poet and anthologist/critic, Jordan has also been very active politically as a commentator, teacher, organizer, and witness. Despite her national reputation, she never had the kind of forum available to political writers who were less critical of conventionally accepted ideas and policies. “If political writing by a Black woman did not strike so many editors as presumptuous or simply bizarre,” she wrote in 1985, “I might regularly appear, on a weekly or monthly schedule, as a national columnist.” Instead, she published her work in periodicals sympathetic to the challenging or unconventional view, magazines such as The Village Voice in New York City and The Progressive in Madison, Wisconsin.

Even with these forums available, Jordan’s second collection, On Call: Political Essays (1985), and Technical Difficulties contain essays that were not published previously. She explained the necessity for these collections by saying that books “must compensate for the absence of a cheaper and more immediate” print outlet and emphasized the need “to pose our views in the realm of public debate” as the major impetus behind her books. In such comments, against what she describes as an “American censorship” that she identifies as the restrictions imposed by all the positions of power across the political spectrum, she sees herself as “a dissident American poet and writer” who is determined to work toward the betterment of “my country, my home.” Explaining further that her politics are an expression of “my entire real life,” she asserts that nothing in her writing or thinking “reflects any orthodox anything” and lists as the goal of her work “my political efforts to coherently fathom all of my universe, and to arrive at a moral judgement that will determine my further political conduct.”

The essays gathered in Technical Difficulties were written between 1986 and early 1992 and express Jordan’s extremely critical judgments about the direction of governmental policy and social expectancy during that time. Continuing the coverage of the issues of race, gender, and class from her previous collections, Jordan combines reflections on her own experiences as a single parent, a professional African American writer and educator, and a person gradually discovering all the dimensions of her sexuality. Her reportorial technique employs statistics, factual information, and a carefully developed, logical argumentation to present a powerful, openly personal perspective on the “State of the Union.” As she did in her earlier essays, Jordan juxtaposes essays on the virtues of American democracy in theory and practice, often concentrating on exemplary people whose lives exhibit these qualities in action, with the worst examples of what she considers to be the most serious impediments to the realization of these...

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Technical Difficulties

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

June Jordan is a central figure of “the cultural left” in America. A poet, essayist, columnist, and orator, she champions a series of causes, persons, and positions that together function as a kind of orthodoxy. A regular contributor to The Progressive magazine, she reproduces in many of her utterances judgments supportive of that publication’s most cherished principles. Jordan in fact dedicated this book to Matthew Rothschild, publisher of The Progressive. The centerpiece of her political ideology is a view of human entitlements and of the capacities of the nation-state to guarantee such entitlements.

The seventh essay in Technical Difficulties lists “the universal entitlements of citizenship” Jordan expects the state to guarantee. These include a life lived above the poverty line through guaranteed jobs and/or guaranteed annual incomes; minimum wages at levels above those currently in use and the abolition of radical discrepancies in international minimum wages; equal pay for equal work, with a significant upward revaluation of compensation for “women’s work”; firm application of affirmative action policies; a comprehensive national health program; and “acceptable, safe, and affordable housing for every citizen,” possibly through housing allowances, public housing construction, or subsidies.

Jordan’s list of entitlements carries items that would endear her to the staunchest European Social Democrat. Citizens have a claim to state-supported education—and “perpetual reeducation”—including graduate study. In her world, the state will offer subsidies to families for each child and ensure the flow of child-support payments when couples break up. Both parents must receive paid leaves in the months surrounding a child’s birth and will be offered “universal, state-controlled child care programs” if they need them. Youths also have their entitlements: to “appropriate, universal sex education in our public schools, and universal teenage access to contraceptive means, including abortion, if necessary.” In Jordan’s view, a further entitlement is the “na- tionalization of vital industries to protect citizen consumers and citizen workers, alike, from the greed-driven vagaries of a ‘free-market.’” Citizens also may expect, as a matter of right, “aggressive nuclear disarmament policies” and “aggressive state protection” of the environment.

Jordan’s entitlements-based political philosophy is the key to much that is exasperating and perplexing in this collection. Her overriding commitments are to universality, social (as distinct from political) rights, enlightened reason and scientific progress, and the state, as both an instrument and an end of the good human life. At one point, Jordan speaks of “a national budget that will invariably commit the main portion of our collective monies to our collective domestic needs for a good life.” The “our” here refers to a national community assumed to have a unified moral conscience. That Jordan could imagine a national budget that invariably values domestic over military spending is equally revealing. At the level of fundamental worldview Jordan speaks the optimistic language of the Enlightenment, that is, classical liberalism as corrected by several traditions of evolutionary socialism.

So strong is this philosophic strain in her work that the reader comes to expect overall consistency. Jordan, however, wishes to do justice also to the many streams of artistic and intellectual expression that recently have called her viewpoint into question: black consciousness, feminism, the postcolonial self-affirmation of Third World peoples, and the epistemological challenges posed by gay, lesbian, Native American, and other marginalized groups. One wishes that Jordan’s grappling with the discordant ideas springing from these new sources could produce rich dialogue and thoughtful, self-reflective essays. Barbara Ehrenreich, whose basic views closely resemble those of Jordan, shows that such a response is possible. Unfortunately,...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. Twelve essays on images of race in popular culture, including a discussion of the Thomas-Hill hearings.

Jordan, June. Civil Wars: Selected Essays 1963-1980. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981. Jordan’s first collection of political essays.

Jordan, June. On Call: Political Essays. Boston: South End Press, 1985. Jordan’s second collection, with many connections to Technical Difficulties.

Jordan, June. Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry. New York: Random House, 1977. A representative group of poems illustrating the strengths of Jordan’s grasp of language and style.

Kinloch, Valerie. June Jordan: Her Life and Letters. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. This critical biography of Jordan gives equal time to her poetry and prose, devoting two full chapters to her political essays.

Madhubuti, Haki. Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Chicago: Third World Press, 1990. Incisive essays and poems discussing the same issues Jordan covers but from a masculine perspective.

Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Routledge, Chapman, Hall, 1990. An examination of the relationship between black men and women, paralleling some of the concerns Jordan addresses.