June Jordan

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June Jordan
June Jordan.jpg
June Jordan
Born (1936-07-09)July 9, 1936
Harlem, New York, United States
Died June 14, 2002(2002-06-14) (aged 65)
Berkeley, California, United States
Occupation writer
Nationality United States
Alma mater Barnard College
Period 1969–2002
Genre African-American literature, LGBT literature
Subject Civil rights, Feminism, Bisexual/LGBT rights movement
Spouse Michael Meyer (married 1955, divorced 1965)
Children Christopher David Meyer

June Millicent Jordan (July 9, 1936 – June 14, 2002) was a Caribbean-American poet, essayist, and activist.[1]

Early life[edit]

Jordan was born the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents, Granville Ivanhoe and Mildred Maud Jordan, in Harlem, New York. Her father worked as a postal worker for the USPS and her mother as a part-time nurse.[2] When Jordan was five, the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York. While life in the Jordan household was often turbulent, Jordan credits her father with passing on to her a love of literature, and she began writing her own poetry at the age of seven. Jordan describes the complexities of her early childhood in her 2000 memoir, Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, which she dedicated to her father. In this short memoir she explores her complicated relationship with a man who encouraged her to read broadly and memorize passages of classical texts, but would also beat her for the slightest misstep and called her "damn black devil child".[3] In her 1986 essay "For My American Family" Jordan explores the many conflicts to be dealt with in the experience of being raised by black immigrant parents with visions of the future for their offspring that far exceeded the urban ghettos of the present.[4] In Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, Jordan recalls her father telling her "There was a war on against colored people, I had to become a soldier".[3] While grateful to America for allowing him to escape poverty and seek a better life for his family, her father was conscious of the struggles his daughter would face and encouraged her to fight.

After attending Brooklyn's Midwood High School for a year, Jordan enrolled in Northfield Mount Hermon School, an elite preparatory school in New England. Throughout her education Jordan became "completely immersed in a white universe"[5] by attending predominantly white schools, but was also able to construct and develop her identity as a black American and a writer. In 1953, Jordan graduated from high school and enrolled at Barnard College. Jordan later expressed how she felt about Barnard College in her 1981 book Civil Wars, writing: "No one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force. Nothing that I learned, here, lessened my feeling of pain or confusion and bitterness as related to my origins: my street, my family, my friends. Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America."[6]

Personal life[edit]

At Barnard College, Jordan met Columbia University student Michael Meyer, whom she married in 1955. She subsequently followed her husband to the University of Chicago, where he pursued graduate studies in anthropology. She also enrolled at the university but soon returned to Barnard, where she remained until 1957. In 1958 Jordan gave birth to the couple's only child, Christopher David Meyer. The couple divorced in 1965.

Jordan self-identified as bisexual in her writing.[7]


Jordan's first published book, Who Look at Me (1969) was a collection of poems for children. 27 more books followed in her lifetime, one (Some of Us Did Not Die, Collected and New Essays) was in press when she died. Two more have been published posthumously: Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) and a re-issue of the 1970 poetry collection SoulScript, edited by Jordan.

In her memoir Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, Jordan depicted in detail her relationship with her father in the book and was happy with the outcome stating, "I wanted to honor my father, first of all, and secondly, I wanted people to pay attention to a little girl who is gifted intellectually and creative, and to see that there's a complexity here that we may otherwise not be prepared to acknowledge or even search for, let alone encourage, and to understand that this is an okay story. This is a story, I think, with a happy outcome, you know".[8] She was also an essayist, columnist for The Progressive, novelist, biographer, and librettist for the musical/opera I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, composed by John Adams and produced by Peter Sellars. When asked about the writing process of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky Jordan stated: "The composer, John [Adams], said he needed to have the whole libretto before he could begin, so I just sat down last spring and wrote it in six weeks I mean, that's all I did. I didn't do laundry, anything. I put myself into it 100 percent. What I gave to John and Peter [Sellars] is basically what Scribner's has published now."[9]

Jordan's teaching career began in 1967 at the City College of New York. Between 1968 and 1978 she taught at Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Connecticut College. Jordan then became the director of The Poetry Center and was an English professor at SUNY at Stony Brook from 1978 to 1989. From 1989 to 2002 she was a full professor in the departments of English, Women Studies, and African American Studies at the University of California Berkeley.

Jordan was known as "the Poet of the People",[10] and at Berkeley, she founded the "Poetry for the People" program in 1991. Its aim was to inspire and empower students to use poetry as a means of artistic expression. Reflecting on how she began with the concept of the program Jordan said: "I did not wake up one morning ablaze with a coherent vision of Poetry for the People! The natural intermingling of my ideas and my observations as an educator, a poet, and the African-American daughter of poorly documented immigrants did not lead me to any limiting ideological perspectives or resolve. Poetry for the People is the arduous and happy outcome of practical, day-by-day, classroom failure and success".[11] Jordan composed three guideline points that embodied the program, which was published with a set of her students writings in 1995, entitled June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint.[11]

Contributions to Feminist Theory[edit]

"Report from the Bahamas"[edit]

In her 1982 classic personal essay "Report from the Bahamas", Jordan reflects on her travel experiences, various interactions, and encounters while in The Bahamas. Writing in narrative form, she boldly discusses both the possibilities and difficulties of coalition and self-identification on the basis of race, class, and gender identity. Although not widely recognized in its first appearance in 1982, this profound essay has gained much classroom status throughout the United States in Women's and gender studies, sociology, and anthropology. Jordan reveals several issues as well as important terms regarding race, class, and gender identity.


In essentially every one of Jordan's works, including her poems and essays, she repeatedly emphasizes the term or the idea of privilege when discussing issues of race, class, and gender identity. She refuses to privilege oppressors who are similar to or more like certain people than other oppressors might be. There should be no thought of privilege because all oppression and oppressors should be viewed at an equal standpoint.

Concepts of race, class, and gender[edit]

"[In 'Report from the Bahamas'] Jordan describes the challenges of translating languages of gender, sexuality, and blackness across diasporic space, through the story of a brief vacation in the Bahamas."[12] Vacationing in the Bahamas, Jordan finds that the shared oppression indicated by race, class, and gender is not a sufficient basis for solidarity. She notes, "these factors of race and class and gender absolutely collapse...whenever you try to use them as automatic concepts of connection. They may serve well as indicators of commonly felt conflict, but as elements of connection they seem about as reliable as precipitation probability for the day after the night before the day."'

As Jordan reflects on her interactions with a series of black Bahamian women, from the hotel maid "Olive" to the old women street sellers hawking trinkets, she writes, "I notice the fixed relations between these other Black women and myself. They sell and I buy or I don't. They risk not eating. I risk going broke on my first vacation afternoon. We are not particularly women anymore; we are parties to a transaction designed to set us against each other. (41)

Interspersing reflections of her trip with scenes of herself as a teacher advising students, Jordan details how her own expectations are constantly surprised: for instance, she recounts how an Irish woman graduate student with a Bobby Sands bumper sticker provides much needed assistance to a South African student suffering from domestic violence; the incident is at variance with Jordan's own history of being terrorized by Irish teenagers hurling racial epithets.

Jordan's concluding lines thus emphasize the imperative to forge connection actively rather than assuming it on the basis of shared histories: "I am saying that the ultimate connection cannot be the enemy. The ultimate connection must be the need that we find between us...I must make the connection real between me and these strangers everywhere before those other clouds unify this ragged bunch of us, too late."[13]

Common identity vs. individual identity[edit]

Jordan firmly acknowledges and explains that we as human beings possess two very contrasting identities. The first identity is the common identity, which is the one that has been imposed on us[13] by a long history of societal standards, controlling images, pressure, a variety of stereotypes, and stratification. The second is the individual identity that we ourselves have chosen[13] once we are given the chance and feel are ready to expose our true selves.

Death and legacy[edit]

Jordan died of breast cancer at her home in Berkeley, California, aged 65. Shortly before her death, she completed Some of Us Did Not Die, her seventh collection of political essays (and 27th book), which was published posthumously. In it she describes how her early marriage to a white student while at Barnard College immersed her in the racial turmoil of America in the 1950s, and set her on the path of social activism.[14]

The June Jordan School for Equity, or JJSE (formerly known as the Small School for Equity) in San Francisco was named after her by the founding group of students who, through a democratic process of research, debate, and voting, chose her over Philip Vera Cruz and Ella Baker.[citation needed] A conference room is also named after her in UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall, which is used by the Associated Students of the University of California.[citation needed]

Honors and awards[edit]

Jordan received numerous honors and awards, including a 1969-70 Rockefeller grant for creative writing, a Yaddo Fellowship in 1979, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1982, and the Achievement Award for International Reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1984. She also won the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers Award from 1995 to 1998 as well as the Ground Breakers-Dream Makers Award from The Woman's Foundation in 1994.

She was included in Who's Who in America from 1984 until her death. She received the Chancellor's Distinguished Lectureship from UC Berkeley and the PEN Center USA West Freedom to Write Award (1991).[15]

In 2005, Directed by Desire: Collected Poems, a posthumous collection of her work, had to compete (and won) in the category "Lesbian Poetry" at the Lambda Literary Awards, even though Jordan identified as bisexual. However, BiNet USA led the bisexual community in a multi-year campaign eventually resulting in the addition of a Bisexual category, starting with the 2006 Awards.


Author Toni Morrison commented: "In political journalism that cuts like razors in essays that blast the darkness of confusion with relentless light; in poetry that looks as closely into lilac buds as into death's mouth... [Jordan] has comforted, explained, described, wrestled with, taught and made us laugh out loud before we wept...I am talking about a span of forty years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art."[16] Poet Adrienne Rich noted: "whatever her theme or mode, June Jordan continually delineates the conditions of survival- of the body, and mind, and the heart".[16] Alice Walker stated: "Jordan makes us think of Akhmatova, of Neruda. She is among the bravest of us, the most outraged. She feels for all of us. She is the universal poet."[16] Thulani Davis wrote: "In a borough that has landmarks for the writers Thomas Wolfe, W. H. Auden, and Henry Miller, to name just three, there ought to be a street in Bed-Stuy called June Jordan Place, and maybe a plaque reading, 'A Poet and Soldier for Humanity Was Born Here.'"[17]



  1. ^ Keating, AnnLouise (2003-01-03). "Jordan, June". glbtq.com. Archived from the original on 2014-03-27. Retrieved 2011-10-16. 
  2. ^ Smith, Dinitia (2002-06-18). "June Jordan, 65, Poet and Political Activist". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  3. ^ a b Jordan, June. Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, New York, NY: Basic Civitas Books. 2000.
  4. ^ Jordan, June (2002). Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays. New York: Basic/Civitas. pp. 137–142. ISBN 0465036929. 
  5. ^ Margaret Busby, "Obituary", The Guardian (UK), June 20, 2002.
  6. ^ Jordan, June (1981). Civil Wars. New York: Touchstone. p. 100. ISBN 0807032328. 
  7. ^ June Jordan, "On Bisexuality and Cultural Pluralism", in Affirmative Acts (1998), pp. 132, 138.
  8. ^ "Online NewsHour: Conversation - August 21, 2000". Pbs.org. 2000-08-21. Retrieved 2011-03-19. 
  9. ^ Ortega, Julio. "BOMB Magazine: June Jordan by Josh Kuhn". Bombsite.com. Retrieved 2011-03-19. 
  10. ^ "June Jordan profile" (Press release). Berkeley.edu. 2002-06-17. Retrieved 2014-06-29. 
  11. ^ a b "History". June Jordan's Poetry For The People. 1998-11-19. Archived from the original on 2011-03-19. Retrieved 2011-03-19. 
  12. ^ ""These words/ they are stones in the water": Introduction to The Feminist Wire Forum on June Jordan". The Feminist Wire. 2016-03-18. Retrieved 2016-12-10. 
  13. ^ a b c "Report from the Bahamas, 1982 on JSTOR". p. 14. JSTOR 40338566. 
  14. ^ June Jordan biography, biography.com; accessed August 4, 2015.
  15. ^ "June Jordan". Csufresno.edu. Retrieved 2011-03-19. 
  16. ^ a b c Junejordan.com
  17. ^ Davis, Thulani. "June Jordan, 1936–2002". Village Voice. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 

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