June 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 and her mother as a part time nurse. When Jordan was five, the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. 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 Jordan 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". 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.
In Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, Jordan recalls her father telling her "There was a war on against colored people, I had to became a soldier". While grateful to America for allowing him to escape poverty and seek a better life for his family, Jordan's 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.
Through her education Jordan became "completely immersed in a white universe" by attending predominately 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 book Civil Wars, she wrote: "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."
It was at Barnard that she met a white Columbia University student, Michael Meyer whom she married in 1955. Jordan subsequently followed her husband to the University of Chicago, where he would pursue 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 couples only child, Christopher David Meyer. The couple divorced in 1965.
Jordan's first published book, Who Look at Me, appeared in 1969, was a collection of poems for children. Twenty-seven 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". 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 states, "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."
Jordan's teaching career began in 1967 at the City College of New York. Between 1968 and 1978 Jordan 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. At Berkeley Jordan founded Poetry for the People in 1991. The program inspires and empowers students to use poetry as a means of artistic expression.
On how she began with the concept of the program Jordan states,"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". Jordan composed three guideline points that embodied the program which was published with a set of her students writings in 1995 titled June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint.
Jordan received numerous honors and awards, including a 1969-1970 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. Jordan 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).
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.June Jordan was a civil rights activist.
Jordan died of breast cancer at her home in Berkeley, California, aged 65. She was survived by her son, Christopher Meyer. 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.
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.
Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan
Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press (June 1, 2007)
Amazon: Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan
“Directed by Desire . . . is a powerful addition to the entire canon of American poetry.”—Booklist
Now in paperback, Directed by Desire is the definitive overview of June Jordan’s -poetry. Collecting the finest work from Jordan’s ten volumes, as well as dozens of “last poems” that were never published in Jordan’s lifetime, these more than six hundred pages overflow with intimate lyricism, elegance, fury, meditative solos, and dazzling vernacular riffs.
As Adrienne Rich writes in her introduction, June Jordan “wanted her readers, listeners, students, to feel their own latent power—of the word, the deed, of their own beauty and intrinsic value.”
From “These Poems”:
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
are you ready?
The cloth edition of Directed by Desire was selected as a Library Journal Poetry Book of the Year and received the Lambda Book Award for Lesbian Poetry.
Soldier: A Poet's Childhood by June Jordan
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Basic Civitas Books (May 8, 2001)
Amazon: Soldier: A Poet's Childhood
Some of Us Did Not Die Brings together a rich sampling of the late poet June Jordan's prose writings. The essays in this collection, which include her last writings and span the length of her extraordinary career, reveal Jordan as an incisive analyst of the personal and public costs of remaining committed to the ideal and practice of democracy. Willing to venture into the most painful contradictions of American culture and politics, Jordan comes back with lyrical honesty, wit, and wide-ranging intelligence in these accounts of her reckoning with life as a teacher, poet, activist, and citizen.
Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays by June Jordan
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Basic Civitas Books (May 8, 2003)
Amazon: Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays
"She remains a thinker and activist who 'insists upon complexity.' "Reamy Jansen, San Francisco Chronicle*Some of Us Did Not Die brings together a rich sampling of the late poet June Jordan's prose writings. The essays in this collection, which include her last writings and span the length of her extraordinary career, reveal Jordan as an incisive analyst of the personal and public costs of remaining committed to the ideal and practice of democracy. Willing to venture into the most painful contradictions of American culture and politics, Jordan comes back with lyrical honesty, wit, and wide-ranging intelligence in these accounts of her reckoning with life as a teacher, poet, activist, and citizen.
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