June Jordan, 1936–2002


The loss of June Jordan is a great one—a loss for the legions who took up writing poems because she inspired; a loss for friends she held close; a loss for American literature, which did not give her her due; and a loss for countless activists who took courage from the bottomless pit of determination that was June.

I first heard of June when her first book came out while I was at Barnard College. I was told that Jordan was among the few but extraordinary black Barnard women, like Zora Neale Hurston. I checked her out. I personally owe her for telling me how to look at my own life’s metaphors and improve more than poetry, and to “get a bigger wall to write on” when pieces of a novel were dressed up as poems. June was always clear-eyed and impassioned, tough-minded yet quick to enjoy the persistent absurdities of life with a soft nervous giggle and schoolgirl smile.

The sweet mix of Brooklyn and the Caribbean in June’s voice often disarmed those who did not know she wanted to enlist them in a death-defying high-wire act—to fight for what’s right and live to tell about it. Her most recent work, coming out in July, has a title that now seems forbidding—Some of Us Did Not Die. It aptly captures, though, her awareness that “the price of freedom is death,” as Malcolm said, as well as her mission to be a witness, to carry on, to let it be heard that there is no death for the ideals that shaped her fights—from youthful work against McCarthyism to the more recent calls for a sane response to 9-11. The title also salutes her decade of victory over cancer. She spoke often of fallen heroes, but well appreciated in the rest of us the heroism it sometimes takes to survive.

In a time when so few will speak out about anything, and even fewer have found an injustice they are willing to confront at all, a warrior like June seems almost inexplicable. And yet she is not.

She leaves a record of her journey—28 books, mostly poetry and political essays, as well as a novel, several plays, children’s books, and countless articles—a body of work that made her one of the most published African American writers ever. During that career she lit a few firestorms in these pages when she weighed in on the conditions facing Palestinians. Most recently she was a professor of African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Jordan told her readers how she abided the tragedies and rage of her parents’ household in Bed-Stuy, and of the joyous Saturday nights in the early ’50s cruising to the sounds of r&b through the streets of black Brooklyn. In Some of Us , she writes of coming to Barnard and there meeting and marrying a white student, a choice that shaped other encounters:

“That confrontation with heavyweight intolerance carried me through our Civil Rights Revolution and into our resistance to the War Against Vietnam and then into the realm of gender and sexual and sexuality politics. And those strivings, in aggregate, carried me from Brooklyn to Mississippi, to South Africa, to Nicaragua, to Israel, to Palestine, to Lebanon and to Northern Ireland, and every single one of those embattled baptisms clarified pivotal connections among otherwise apparently disparate victories, or among apparently disparate events of suffering and loss.”

Jordan wrote less often of pleasures than of people in crisis, but anyone who caught her shy and sly performance with Sweet Honey in the Rock can still hear the seductive percussion of “what I really want is a seven-day kiss.” In her final book, she thanked those who gave the pleasures. And now it is our turn to give gratitude for both the fleeting and lasting pleasure that was also June.

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.” I’m serious about that.

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