THE MATERIALS WE have collected in these pages testify to June Jordan’s efforts as a teacher and activist to proliferate what she called “Life Studies.” We gathered our selections over the course of two visits to Jordan’s vast collection of papers at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, part of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. We set out to explore materials related to her involvement in the great pedagogical transformation of the 1960s and 1970s that swept through the City University of New York (CUNY)—the largest public urban university in the country, and our current institutional base as teachers and graduate students. The swirling energies of these decades had already begun to animate us while working on a collaborative 2013 Lost & Found project centering on Adrienne Rich, who had taught alongside Jordan at the City College of New York.
Moved by our own commitments to the possibility of a free university, fair housing, and transformative poetry, as well as learning from our research with other Lost & Found collaborators into the archives of Jordan’s fellow City College teachers Toni Cade Bambara and Audre Lorde, we recognized that to study Jordan’s life as an educator also meant to look beyond the college classroom. Thus, we have drawn a wide arc of Jordan’s range of activities over a ten-year period, from 1966 to 1976, placing one of her earliest formal writings as an advocate for fair housing alongside speeches to librarians, educators, students, school administrators and poets. We place these alongside documentation of Black and Puerto Rican student life at City College, where Jordan supported student activists as they advocated for Open Admissions and course offerings relevant to their lives. In this assembly of materials, we trace her movement from a more deterministic outlook, as reflected in the earlier work on housing, to her realization while working with children, that poetry can provide a route to a radical reconfiguration of consciousness as she advocates for practices of description, research, and imagination that make “Life Studies” possible.
Early in the 1960s, Jordan initiated a weekly pilgrimage to the Donnell Library in midtown Manhattan, where she immersed herself in learning about architecture, “hooked on that way of looking at things.”1 A meeting with Buckminster Fuller and deep engagement with his writings propelled her to bring this lens to a racially polarized American landscape, especially as she collaborated with Fuller on a plan to redesign Harlem, which was published in Esquire in April 1965. She undertook this work simultaneously with her other commitments; raising her young son in an interracial marriage while living in public housing in Queens, writing poetry in the hours after her husband and son had gone to bed. By day she traversed Harlem to research and work as a freelance journalist—meeting significant cultural figures including Louis Lomax, Malcolm X, reporters with Amsterdam News, and members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), a pivotal civil rights organization.
In 1966, as debates mounted over the continued racial-economic segregation of New York City’s public schools and neighborhoods, Jordan joined Mobilization for Youth, a community-action program, as a central analyst and ghostwriter. Her reports focused on the structural and quotidian aspects of multi-ethnic life inside housing projects and perpetually underdeveloped neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, as well as possibilities for improving their social conditions. Looking at these policy papers alongside the teaching materials that Jordan would generate just a year later, we can see that her environmental analyses turn into pedagogical insights. Reports including “The Determining Slum” depict how landlords and city officials intentionally create squalid and cramped living quarters to disempower generations of European immigrant, Black, and
1 June Jordan, “One Way of Beginning This Book,” Civil Wars, (Beacon, 1981), p. xvi.
Puerto Rican residents. In this context, Jordan describes how after the cramped home becomes unbearable for the student, the street can expand the field where learning and resistance are cultivated: “Liberation from crowded living quarters usually implies the street. The street functions as cradle, school, and the opportunity for an ‘extended kinship system’ which weakens the sense of family and also weakens any compulsion to improve the family’s status.”
The polemical essay’s conclusions about the inevitable stasis of the poor measures Jordan’s own doubts on the collective capacity for people to improve their lives, lacking reference to the historical grassroots organizing, rent strikes, and other housing actions undertaken by immigrants—primarily women—that she portrays with greater nuance in her other Mobilization for Youth writing on more contemporary situations. In the years that followed, as Jordan embarked on a teaching career that would carry through the next few decades, she began to articulate a resistance to such deterministic conclusions in her poetry and in the many essays and speeches where she invoked her work teaching poetry to children. While never shying away from an accurate description of the living conditions that constrain people’s lives, she points to student writers, whose language generates power and leads to action, countering the notion that some people “are unable to do anything that will change their lives.”
Progressive educator Herb Kohl recruited Jordan to the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a writers-in-the-schools initiative run through Columbia University, after reading her profile in The Urban Review of four young people in New York City—two high school graduates, and two young men who had dropped out of high school to pursue their ambitions, one as a poet and the other as a founder of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican activist organization with origins in Chicago. Beginning in autumn 1967, through their Teachers & Writers-sponsored program “The Voice of the Children,” Jordan and her white collaborator Terri Bush gathered over a dozen Black and Puerto Rican teenagers each weekend in East Harlem, and then in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to read and write poems and newsletters, listen to music, and take field trips.
A note to “Visitors and Adult Friends of the Children” dated 1969-1970, shows the deep respect for children’s autonomy that Jordan and Bush cultivated, as the memo directs adults to give them space as they work and refrain from passing judgment on their writing.
When she began teaching children, Jordan was recently divorced and, as the primary caretaker for her son, actively reading and cultivating theories of child development. In “Children and the Hungering For,” a speech she delivered at a poetry festival in 1969, she ties these theories to poetry writing, linking the composition of poetry and self. In this speech and in “Our Eyes Have Grown,” delivered in 1970 to school librarians at Donnell Library, she defines poetry as an emphatically first-person, communication-oriented mode of writing. Poetry is “how we name what happens to us;” it plays a vital role in “our affirmation of the individual, individual orientation.” For Jordan, such affirmation does not promote individualism or self- commodification, but initiates a “multiplication of relationships that start from me and mine and I.”
These speeches are standout examples of how Jordan repeatedly mobilized her experience with “The Voice of the Children” to urge educators, administrators, poetry lovers, and young people themselves to use poetry in rethinking how and where learning happens. Jordan and Bush had designed their Saturday workshops with a certain looseness, as Jordan explains in “Children and the Hungering For,” in “a deliberate attempt to emphasize the separation between Saturdays and school, which is a place where children ‘fail.’” When Jordan guides her poetry festival audience to imagine “how Saturdays could take place in the classroom,” she encourages teachers to set up browsing situations to encourage students’ self-direction, and to work collaboratively with students in generating readings and course guidelines. She also presents poetry as a synthetic and reflective mode of analysis that can be used no matter what children are learning: “I wish all periods of study included poetry as the personal summary and evaluation of the hour that has passed,” she writes.
Because of the potential power first-person writing holds, Jordan saw her advocacy for young poets as a counterforce to public schools’ denigration of their lives—especially the lives of the Black and Puerto Rican students she taught in her weekend workshops— and then at City College, where she had joined the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) and English departments in the late 1960s. While the development of Black Studies is often associated with movements in and around colleges and universities, Jordan grounds it in youth literacies and K-12 community control. She emphatically declares this vision in a 1970 graduation speech- poem delivered to middle school students at I.S. 55 in Ocean Hill- Brownsville, Brooklyn—excerpts of which we publish here for the first time. At the site of a fierce struggle for Black community control that would come to define the racial divisions in education, Jordan urged these young students to remember “the truth of your absolute value as a human life,” and to “insist that your studies shall become Life Studies: Black Studies. Urban Studies. Environmental Studies.” When Jordan insists that Black Studies are a part of “Life Studies,” her words resonate in this immediate context. “For, what is the purpose of a school,” she asks students and their families, “If it will not prepare you to live your own life of your own choosing in the community of your choice?”
Just as Jordan intervened in public arenas on Black community control of education in which poetics and youth literacies were central components, she also helped form new directions in Black Studies and Women’s Studies through her teaching and activism at City College from 1967 to 1978. Alongside such teachers as Aijaz Ahmad, Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, Addison Gayle, David Henderson, Audre Lorde, Raymond Patterson, Adrienne Rich, and Mina Shaughnessy, Jordan brought to the bustling campus milieu an understanding of social aid programs and urban unrest in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Lower East Side.
This period of dramatic change was punctuated by the April 1969 City College strike, in which Black and Puerto Rican students occupied several campus buildings and created “Harlem University” to demand changes in admissions, curricula, and teacher hiring and training. In solidarity with their classmates, a group of white students also occupied a building. Of this time, Jordan writes, “In every sense, from faculty petitions to student manifestoes, to the atmosphere in the cafeteria and the bathrooms, City College signified a revolution in progress. Nobody was eating, sleeping, thinking, or moving around anything except the issues at stake.”2
In the immediate aftermath of the strike, Jordan wrote an important essay that we publish here for the first time— “The City and The City College: An off-campus, off-camera perspective.” This text offers a unique entry into themes that would later appear in her landmark work “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.” Published in the October 1969 issue of Evergreen Review, this first major document on Black Studies by a Black woman educator at the time circulated lessons from the City College rebellion to a broad counter-cultural audience. Read alongside the work of her colleagues, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde and others, the essays highlight how these Black feminist teachers shaped explosive institutional and interpersonal changes at the same time as the Black Power movement erupted across campuses.
The City College strike demands emerged from the mission and
2 June Jordan, “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person,” Civil Wars, (Simon and Schuster, 1995), 46.
practices of the basic writing program for the students Jordan taught. She directly addresses their demands for the creation of a school of Third World Studies, and for incoming students to proportionally reflect the city’s Black, Puerto Rican, and Asian high school student population. While Jordan proposes study alliances between poor people of all colors, this demand for Black Studies by and for Black people (and by extension, Puerto Rican and Third World Studies) builds upon the community control paradigm that had heightened over the last several years in New York City. As Jordan wrote, “Beyond Black or White, there is the search for Life Studies, and therefore, there is this question Universities will have to answer, through radical change, or else perish: How do you provide for the Study of Human Life?”3
The struggle to maintain Open Admissions and establish a form of community control that could account for Jordan’s sense of “Life Studies” intensified and continued. From 1970 onwards, reactionary CUNY faculty and mainstream media constructed a racist elitist discourse on “The Death of the University” in which Open Admissions allegedly only benefited poor Black and Puerto Rican students, and thus CUNY’s standards were in a downfall. This detracted attention away from the deep retrenchment of fewer resources for larger classes. As Jordan understood from her housing advocacy days, the long- practiced urban policy of maintaining overcrowded and under- resourced slums in the Bronx, Harlem, Lower East Side, and other impoverished areas became a model for forcibly overcrowding and underfunding CUNY after Open Admissions.
On a daily interpersonal level, the impact of these policies exhausted teachers, students, and staff at City College, as they
3 June Jordan, “Black Commentary on White Discussion of Black Studies” (reply to Genovese), June Jordan Papers, Series XI; Box 75; Folder 9. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
became nationally recognized as a site of transformative admissions and innovative writing pedagogies. Fellow SEEK educator Adrienne Rich laments of this disorienting time “an overcrowded campus where in winter there is often no place to sit between classes… with the incessant pressure of time and money driving at [students] to rush, to get through, to amass the needed credits somehow, to drop out, to stay on with gritted teeth.”4 Nevertheless, these colleagues tenderly looked after each other and their own creative projects, as revealed in a November 1973 letter from Jordan to Audre Lorde.5
I have to report that I am spending these days... in the cleaning of my house, and myself, I guess; trying to get ready for winter—a rotten winter like the one last year, when I ran out of everything—food, health—but this time I figure I’d better get the novel written—hell or high water, and then move on. So I am mostly calm, during the day. And gesturing closer and closer to my real work. Maybe god has intervened—to stop all this ‘teaching’ stuff and ‘travelling’ stuff so I can/must concentrate on the dream unwritten still, and still a longing for the people of my heart. You keep well, please, and keep in touch, and keep the poem alive.
After a few years of teaching stints at Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Yale University, Jordan returned to City College in 1975. University austerity measures had become a national issue by the end of the war in Vietnam and the imposition of domestic structural readjustment that, in New York City, took on the form
4 Adrienne Rich, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions (1972),” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978, (Norton 1978), 60.
5 Letter from June Jordan to Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde Papers; Spelman College Archives.
of a fiscal crisis demanding an end to free higher education via the imposition of tuition for all CUNY students.
In a May 5, 1976 statement at a CUNY Board of Education public hearing on tuition, Jordan registered outrage as a Black woman faculty member on behalf of the City College English Department. Applying her arguments from a decade earlier in “Brief History of the Lower East Side” and “The Determining Slum,” she lauds CUNY’s historic access to poor European immigrant students, but notes that once Black and Puerto Rican students began to enter the university in larger numbers, free education was suddenly imperiled. Jordan frames the imposition of tuition in the terms of survival, in which, implicitly, “Life Studies” is endangered. She warns that ending free tuition and, therefore, truly Open Admissions, would bear grave consequences for the city.
The Fall 1976 imposition of tuition occurred with massive layoffs of many of the faculty who had helped usher in Open Admissions. Jordan herself would be laid off from City College for one semester, and then return for a final year to mentor and teach poetry to future luminous writers, including Sekou Sundiata. These aggressive economic policies would pave the way for a significant reversal of 1960s-1970s social movements’ aspirations, as CUNY and New York City suffered economic shock therapy that would soon bend the nation’s cities and colleges towards privatization and sharpened inequalities. That Jordan struggled uphill to enact lasting changes in New York, and in its City University, against the pressures of racism, sexism, and elitism—during a time of intensified economic austerity that mirrors our own—indicates that her legacy is still unfinished.
The documents in this collection, centering on housing justice, creative youth literacies, and college access and curriculum demands as tributaries for “Life Studies,” provide a means to navigate the local, national, and international contexts in which Jordan found herself
called to action. The recent revival of research and conferences on her legacy, along with the circulation of her poetry for #BlackLivesMatter and International Women’s Strike events, marks a turning point in which her voluminous archive can help us clarify and intervene in our own contexts now. From Jordan’s library archives into these pages you hold—a portable vision for “Life Studies”—we invite readers to reconstruct these practices of shared dignity, creative expressions, and justice.
—Conor Tomás Reed and Talia Shalev