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June Jordan, 1936–2002

Like her contemporaries Alice Walker and the late Audre Lorde, June Jordan’s legacy as an African-American feminist writer combines poetry, journalism, memoir, and political activism. Coming into her own as a writer, scholar, and activist at a time when black women sought a stronger voice in the burgeoning feminist movement, Jordan became a role model for a generation of women who came of age during an era when literature was as much a touchstone of politics as community organizing. Author of 26 books and winner of numerous literary prizes, Jordan was professor of African-American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley when she died on June 14, at age 65, of breast cancer — the disease that also claimed Lorde.

Born in Harlem, in 1936, to Jamaican-immigrant parents and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Jordan won a scholarship to the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts (now the co-ed Northfield–Mount Hermon School). Though she left the state to attend Barnard College in New York, Jordan remained a popular and influential figure in local academic and political circles.

The widely admired poet-activist, who’d also taught at City College of New York, Yale University, and Sarah Lawrence College, is perhaps best known for founding and directing Poetry for the People, a program at UC Berkeley that trains students to use poetry as a political-empowerment and community-organizing tool. Jordan’s first book of poetry in 1969, Who Look at Me (Ty Crowell), dealt with the texture of African-American life. Her first novel, His Own Where (Ty Crowell) was nominated for the National Book Award two years later. Jordan’s most recent book, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, was published in 2000 by Basic Books.

She was in Boston as recently as April 14, 2001, when she was guest performer at the Boston Women’s Fund’s annual "Take a Stand" event. Reading her poetry aloud, some of which was set to music, Jordan was enthusiastically received by the crowd, said representatives of the Fund, a grant-making organization that supports women and girls working for social change at the grassroots level.

In her poem "A Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades," included in the collection Passion (Beacon, 1980), Jordan addressed the issue of political and social conformity using her own iconoclastic, sometimes abrasive persona — one that never lent itself to easy definition.

First they said I was too light

Then they said I was too dark

Then they said I was too different

Then they said I was too much the same

Then they said I was too young

Then they said I was too old

Then they said I was too interracial

Then they said I was too much a nationalist

Then they said I was too silly

Then they said I was too angry

Then they said I was too idealistic

Then they said I was too confusing altogether:

Make up your mind!

They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?

Are you vegetarian or meat?

Are you straight? Or are you gay?

And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

Jordan just as frequently turned to prose to call Americans to task. In a recent essay for the Progressive, "The Invisible People: An Unsolicited Report on Black Rage," Jordan wrote: "Where is there a record of any major national newspaper or TV channel attempting — before, during, and after The Stolen Election of 2000 — to find out what black people were thinking, and why? How is it acceptable to what’s termed the American Left, that, until January 25, 2001, nobody asked our Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, for instance, for her thoughts, and her feeling, about our national crisis? And, certainly, nobody asked me to write this report!"

Her words, and her rage, will be missed.

Issue Date: June 20 - 27, 2002
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