One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was also known for her fierce commitment to human rights and progressive political agenda. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: over civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. A prolific writer across genres, Jordan’s poetry is known for its immediacy and accessibility as well as its interest in identity and the representation of personal, lived experience—her poetry is often deeply autobiographical; Jordan’s work can also be overtly political and often displays a radical, globalized notion of solidarity amongst the world’s marginalized and oppressed. In volumes like Some Changes (1971), Living Room (1985) and Talking Back to God (1997), Jordan uses conversational, often vernacular English to address topics ranging from family, bisexuality, political oppression, African American identity and racial inequality, and memory. Regarded as one of the key figures in the mid-century African American social, political and artistic milieu, Jordan also taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities including Yale, State University of New York-Stony Brook, and the University of California-Berkley.
Born July 9, 1936, in Harlem, New York, Jordan had a difficult childhood and an especially fraught relationship with her father. Her parents were both Jamaican immigrants and, she recalled in Civil Wars: Selected Essays, 1963-80 (1981), "for a long while during childhood I was relatively small, short, and, in some other ways, a target for bully abuse. In fact, my father was the first regular bully in my life." But Jordan also has positive memories of her childhood and it was during her early years that she began to write. Though becoming a poet “did not compute” for her parents, they did send the teen-aged Jordan to prep schools where she was the only black student. Her teachers encouraged her interest in poetry, but did not introduce her to the work of any black poets. After high school Jordan enrolled in Barnard College in New York City. Though she enjoyed some of her classes and admired many of the people she met, she felt fundamentally at odds with the predominately white, male curriculum and left Barnard without graduating.
In 1955, Jordan married Michael Meyer, a white Columbia University student. Interracial marriages faced considerable opposition at the time, and Jordan and her husband divorced after ten and a half years, leaving Jordan to support their son. At about the same time, Jordan's career began to take off. First working in film, Jordan was soon exploring the impact of environment and architecture on the lives of low-income Black families, working with the architect Buckmeister Fuller. In 1966 she began teaching at the City College of the City University of New York, and in 1969 she published her first book of poetry, Who Look at Me. Aimed at young readers, the book was originally a project of Langston Hughes. Who Look at Me uses Black English poetry to describe several paintings of black Americans, prints of which are included in the book. Jordan felt strongly about the use of Black English, seeing it as a way to keep black community and culture alive. She encouraged black youngsters to write in that idiom through her writing workshops for black and Puerto Rican children. With Terri Bush, she edited a collection of her young pupils' writings, The Voice of the Children; she also edited the enormously popular and influential Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry (1970; reprinted 2004).
Jordan’s concern for children, especially African-American children, always stood out in her work. Her 1971 novel for young adults, His Own Where, also written in Black English, explores Jordan’s interests in environmental design. Sixteen-year-old Buddy, and his younger girlfriend, Angela, try to create a world of their own in an abandoned house near a cemetery. Jordan explained her feelings about the book to De Veaux: "Buddy acts, he moves. He is the man I believe in, the man who will come to lead his people into a new community." Jordan's other work for young people includes Dry Victories (1972), New Life: New Room (1975), and Kimako's Story (1981), inspired by the young daughter of Jordan's friend, fellow writer Alice Walker.
Although Jordan has not written specifically for young readers since Kimako's Story, she explores her own formative years in Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (2000). Jordan’s searing description of learning to be a "good little soldier" under the severe tutelage of her father who drove her to be strong and smart, to appreciate beauty, but often at the cost of a beating, is told in the guileless voice of a child. Jordan explained her goal for the book in an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth of NewsHour: "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…a story, I think, with a happy outcome." Jordan further commented in an Essence interview: "My father was very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.” Booklist critic Stephanie Zvirin observed that Soldier, written “in the flowing language of a prose poem” is "a haunting coming-of-age memoir."
Throughout her long career, Jordan gained considerable renown as both an essayist and political writer, penning a regular column for the Progressive. In Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan (2002), published the same year of the author's death from breast cancer, Jordan presents thirty-two previously published essays as well as eight new tracts. The essays examine a wide range of topics, from sexism, racism, and Black English to trips the author made to various places, the decline of the U.S. educational system, and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. Writing for Lambda Book Report, Samiya A. Bashir called the new essays "fiery," adding that the collection provides "evidence of…[Jordan’s] indomitable spirit." Noting that Jordan writes about homosexuality as well as her own bisexuality, Bashir went on, "In the essay, 'A Couple of Words on Behalf of Sex (Itself),' Jordan moved beyond the ethereal beauty of love in defense of the concrete beauty of sexual experience and desire. In typically humorous style she decried the increasing demonization of sexuality and sexual desire." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote, "Some of the stronger pieces here…address the vast complex of injustice that is contemporary American life." An edition of Jordan’s collected poems was also published posthumously. That volume, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (2005), includes various poems published from 1969 through 2001, many of which discuss her battle with cancer. Janet St. John, writing in Booklist, declared the book "a must-read for those wanting to learn and be transformed by Jordan's opinions and impressions."
In an obituary for the San Francisco Chronicle, Annie Nakao wrote that the author "left a mountain of literary and political works." Nakao added: "As I discovered soon enough when I picked up a June Jordan work, its contents could shout, caress, enrage. The thing it never did was leave you unengaged." In an article of appreciation in the Los Angeles Times following the author's death, Lynell George explained how the author "spent her life stitching together the personal and political so the seams didn't show." George further stated that throughout her life the author "continued to publish across the map, swinging form to form as the occasion or topic demanded. Through poetry, essays, plays, journalism, even children's literature, she engaged such topics as race, class, sexuality, capitalism, single motherhood and liberation struggles around the globe." However, Jordan perhaps understood her own legacy best. In an interview with Alternative Radio before her death, Jordan was asked about the role of the poet in society. Jordan replied: "The role of the poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words." She continued: "Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks…I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that it's a spirit task."
Poet, essayist, novelist, editor, and author of children's books. Assistant to Frederick Wiseman, producer of motion picture The Cool World, New York, NY, 1964; Mobilization for Youth, Inc., New York, NY, associate research writer in technical housing department, 1965-66; City College of the City University of New York, English and literature faculty, 1966-68, assistant professor of English, 1975-76, then writer-in-residence; Connecticut College, New London, CT, English faculty and director of Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK Program), 1967-69; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, literature faculty, 1969-74; State University of New York at Stony Brook, NY, associate professor, 1978-82, professor of English, 1982-89, director of Poetry Center and creative writing program, 1986-89; University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, professor of Afro-American studies and women's studies, 1989-93, professor of Afro-American studies, 1994-2002, founder and director of Poetry for the People program, 1991-2002. Visiting poet-in- residence, MacAlester College, 1980; writer-in-residence, City College of the City University of New York; visiting poet, State University of New York at Stonybrook; playwright-in-residence, 1987-88, poet-in-residence, 1988, New Dramatists, New York, NY; poet-in-residence, Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, 1988; poet-in-residence, Swarthmore College, 2001; writer-in- residence, University of Pennsylvania, 2001; artist-in-residence, New York University, 2002. Visiting lecturer in English and Afro-American studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1974-75; Reed Lecturer, Barnard College, New York, NY, 1976; chancellor's distinguished lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1986; visiting professor in department of Afro-American studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, summer, 1988. Has given poetry readings in schools and colleges around the country and at the Guggenheim Museum. Founder and codirector, Voice of the Children, Inc. (creative writing workshop for children); cofounder, Afro-Americans against the Famine, beginning 1973. Member of board of directors, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Inc., beginning 1978, and Center for Constitutional Rights, beginning 1984; member of board of governors, New York Foundation for the Arts, beginning 1986.
(Editor) Soulscript: Afro-American Poetry (anthology), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
Some Changes, Dutton (New York, NY), 1971.
Poem: On Moral Leadership as a Political Dilemma (Watergate, 1973), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
New Days: Poems of Exile and Return, Emerson Hall (New York, NY), 1973.
Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry, Random House (New York, NY), 1977, revised edition, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1981.
Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1980.
Living Room: New Poems, 1980-1984, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1985.
High Tide—Marea Alta, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1987.
Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems, Virago Press (London, England), 1989.
Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Haruko/Love Poetry: New and Selected Love Poems, Virago Press (London, England), 1993, published as Haruko: Love Poems, High Risk Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Kissing God Good-Bye: New Poems, 1991-1997, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor) Soulscript: A Collection of African American Poetry, Harlem Moon (New York, NY), 2004.
Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Sara Miles, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2005.
FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
Who Look at Me (poetry; for young adults), Crowell (New York, NY), 1969.
(Editor, with Terri Bush) The Voice of the Children (poetry anthology; for young adults), Holt (New York, NY), 1970.
His Own Where (young adult novel), Crowell (New York, NY), 1971.
Dry Victories (nonfiction; for young adults), Holt (New York, NY), 1972.
Fannie Lou Hamer (biography; for young adults), illustrated by Albert Williams, Crowell (New York, NY), 1972.
New Life: New Room (picture book), illustrated by Ray Cruz, Crowell (New York, NY), 1975.
Kimako's Story (picture book), illustrated by Kay Burford, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1981.
In the Spirit of Sojourner Truth, produced at Public Theatre, New York, NY, May, 1979.
For the Arrow that Flies by Day (staged reading), produced at the Shakespeare Festival, New York, NY, April, 1981.
Freedom Now Suite, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in New York, NY, 1984.
The Break, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in New York, NY, 1984.
The Music of Poetry and the Poetry of Music, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in New York, NY, and Washington, DC, 1984.
Bang Bang über Alles, music by Adrienne B. Torf, produced in Atlanta, GA, 1986.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (opera libretto; music by John Adams; produced at Lincoln Center, New York, NY), Scribner (New York, NY), 1995.
Civil Wars: Selected Essays, 1963-80 (autobiographical essays), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1981, revised edition, Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.
On Call: Political Essays, 1981-1985, South End Press (Boston, MA), 1985.
Bobo Goetz a Gun, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1985.
Moving towards Home: Political Essays, Virago Press (London, England), 1989.
Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Affirmative Acts: Political Essays, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (memoir), Basic Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan, Basic/Civitas Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Also author of The Issue. Work represented in numerous anthologies, including Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, edited by Patricia Bell-Scott, Harper, 1992. Contributor of stories and poems (prior to 1969 under name June Meyer) to national periodicals, including Esquire, Nation, Evergreen, Partisan Review, Negro Digest, Harper's Bazaar, Library Journal, Encore, Freedomways, New Republic, Ms., American Dialog, New Black Poetry, Black World, Black Creation, Essence, and to newspapers, including Village Voice, New York Times, and New York Times Magazine. Author of column "The Black Poet Speaks of Poetry," American Poetry Review, 1974-77; regular columnist for the Progressive, 1989-97; contributing editor for Chrysalis, First World and Hoo Doo.
Biography from: www.poetryfoundation.org