African American poet, essayist, activist, and professor of English. Born on July 9, 1936, in Harlem and raised in Brooklyn as the only child of Jamaican immigrants, June Jordan was a powerful force in the movements for racial, sexual, economic, and feminist liberation. A survivor of child abuse and sexual assault and eventually a victim of breast cancer, Jordan reveals in her work the sensibility of a fighter and survivor. For Jordan, who skipped two grades and was almost always the smallest person in any given room due to her small build, being a fighter meant believing that those who were called “minorities” could move beyond mere survival through passionate collaboration and poetic faith.
Jordan's first collection of poetry, Some Changes, was published in 1967, but broader recognition of her achievement came in 1969 with her long poem “Who Look At Me,” published alongside paintings, dedicated to her son, and marketed for children. Jordan emerged as a poet in the context of the Black Arts Movement, which Jordan both participated in and expressed distance from due to her political stance, her poetic style, and her refusal of the boundaries of black nationalism. Though Jordan wrote Some Changes before the years that she spent co-directing a poetry workshop for children, co-editing The Voice of the Children anthology, and visiting public libraries and public schools all over the city of New York to read “Who Look at Me” aloud, it was her cultivation of a youth audience that sustained Jordan's career as a poet and teacher.
Though the first edition of Some Changes received little notice, it reappeared in a critically acclaimed second edition the same year as her young adult novel His Own Where (1971), written almost entirely in African American vernacular English. In the early 1970s, Jordan also published two children's books. The republication of Some Changes represented a moment where Jordan could use the leverage she had gained as a black woman poet creating positive images for black children and to publicize her critical analysis of the positionality of black motherhood in relationship to black freedom. Some Changes was the first in a long series of collections of poetry by Jordan that would critique political structures including marriage, capitalism, and imperialist foreign policy through deeply embodied and formally experimental invocations of love.
While leading writing workshops for young people and creating books marketed to public schools and libraries, Jordan boldly asserted the need for Black English to be respected as a language with a grammar reflective of the survival skills of black people under oppression. Jordan went on to publish books targeted toward children about the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, the failures of the civil rights movement, and the struggles of black families in urban environments at the same time that she published collections of poetry and essays about fierce political love. Jordan's calling as a teacher informed her relationship to writing, audience, and accountability throughout her lifetime.
Though Jordan left Barnard College without completing her degree in the late 1950s, her publications eventually earned her a brilliant academic career. In 1967 she went on to teach at the City University of New York alongside Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Christian, Addison Gayle, Jr., and Toni Cade Bambara. During a student uprising, she stood in solidarity with the students who insisted that the public educational system in New York City, including secondary and university units, needed to reflect the predominantly “minority” student population of New York City in its admissions structures and the content of its curriculum. She went on to teach at Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the State University of New York before moving to the University of California where she developed her revolutionary model of community poetry called Poetry for the People.
Through poetry, Jordan asserted that language was political in its very structure. In one of her most often quoted poems, “Poem about My Rights,” Jordan describes the link between the way she is made to feel “wrong” by her father for not being a boy and “wrong” under racism for being black to the mode through which rape is justified on the levels of individual bodies and nation-states. Visiting socialist states including Cuba and (at the time) Nicaragua, she emphasized and revealed social alternatives in poetry from around the world including Chinese T'ang poetry. In a review of June Jordan's 1985 poetry collection Living Room, Arab American feminist Carole Haddad praises Jordan's pursuit of a truly livable and demilitarized world. Jordan strongly advocated the end of the occupation of Palestine and American intervention in Lebanon until the end of her life.
Jordan's prolific journalism created a platform through which she could write political essays on figures from Phyllis Wheatley to O. J. Simpson. She advanced propositions on urban architecture designed to empower the dreams of the children of Harlem and Black English school curriculums that asserted the poetry of black vernacular speech. Through her relationships with Susan Taylor, Cheryll Greene, and Alexis De Veaux at Essence Magazine, Jordan was able to reach the large audience of black women who read this fashion and beauty magazine with her writing in support of the socialist revolution in Nicaragua.
In her extensive work as a public speaker, Jordan was also among the first to theorize the politics of bisexuality as the embodied exemplification of choice. In her 1991 keynote address to the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Student Association at Stanford University, titled “A New Politics of Sexuality,” Jordan explained her belief that “the Politics of Sexuality is the most ancient and probably the most profound arena for human conflict” and explicitly stated that when she talks about a politics of sexual oppression she includes “gay and lesbian contempt for bisexual modes of human relationship.”
June Jordan died of breast cancer in 2002, but up until the end of her life she advocated antimilitaristic alternatives to terror and terrorism. Her words continue to be invoked by contemporary queer activists and musicians including Meshell Ndegeocello, who included Jordan's voice reading her poem “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” on her album Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, released just 10 days before Jordan died. Jordan's phrase “We are the ones we've been waiting for” was the opening headline of Between Our Selves: Women of Color Newspaper in Washington, D.C., and became one of the most well-known refrains sung by the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Publishing 28 books and making lasting contributions to fields as various as architecture, journalism, poetry, activism, and academia, Jordan received many awards and honors including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Achievement Award for International Reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists, and the Chancellor's Distinguished Lectureship at the University of California at Berkeley.
See also Lesbian Literature, African American
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