JUNE JORDAN was born July 9, 1936 to Granville Ivanhoe Jordan and Mildred Jordan, who had both immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. She grew up in Harlem and in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and started to compose poetry at the age of seven. In her memoir Soldier, she recounts her parents’ influence on her early education, including her father’s sometimes violent “schedule of forced enlightenment,” which meant the study and recitation of poems and various other drills, and his wish that she had been a boy— something that Jordan would push back against in her poetry. Because she excelled in school, her father was able to enroll her at the age of twelve, first at Midwood High School, where she was the only Black student in the school, and then at the Northfield School, an all-girls private school in Massachusetts. She would go on to study at Barnard College, commuting from her family’s home in Brooklyn and hoping “to find… the connection between the apparently unrelated worlds of white,” the worlds of Northfield and Barnard, “and Black,” the Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant where she “began [her] life.”
After a couple of years at Barnard, where her interests in architecture and sociology were ignited, and she completed writing assignments prompting her to synthesize seemingly disconnected texts, Jordan left the school, finding that Barnard did not teach her “necessity” or “galvanize my heart around the critical nature of conflicts between the powerful and the powerless.” She would learn about these things in “life-after-school.” Indeed, during the next decade, Jordan would continue to hone her powers of observation, research, and writing while working in very different contexts, from community activism to journalism. She documented, for example, the July 1964 Harlem riots firsthand from the street-level perspective of its Black and Brown residents, who dodged police bullets and set up makeshift care stations after police killed the unarmed 15-year-old Black boy, James Powell, and then occupied the neighborhood, mere days after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. While at Barnard, Jordan met Michael Meyer, a white Columbia University student and activist against Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch-hunts; they married in 1955.
Jordan’s early writings show an engagement with the themes of housing, urban conditions, and youth that served as prisms of social inequities in much Black and Puerto Rican literature of the post- war period. In her early college teaching, beginning at City College, CUNY, in the late 1960s, Jordan encouraged students in their investigations of similar issues. By this time, she ended her marriage with Michael Meyer and was raising her son as a single parent.
Prior to City College, Jordan had taught poetry to students in New York City public schools and in a Saturday program called “The Voice of the Children.” Jordan would also teach poetry at City College to graduate students. During and after her time there, she taught courses in creative writing, children’s literature, Black Studies, and Women’s Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, where she spoke to students during the 1970 National Student Strike about the interrelated nature of American racism and the war in Vietnam; Yale, where she created a course in African American Literature, and with a number of students co-founded the Yale Attica Defense League; Connecticut College; and SUNY Stony Brook, where she became director of The Poetry Center. Among the courses she taught at SUNY Stony Brook was a seminar in “The Art of Black English.” Throughout her life, Jordan was an advocate for the recognition of Black English as person-centered language marked by its clarity, the immediacy of communication it enables, and its status as a language of survival and art. Jordan called attention to so-called standardized English as “white English,” and marked the dangers permitted by the use of the passive voice that it allows, detaching responsibility from persons. She composed her own 1971 young-adult novel His Own Where in Black English, a book recognized as a New York Times Most Outstanding Book and nominated for a National Book Award.
After leaving the east coast in the late-1980s, Jordan taught as Professor of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where she initiated a “Poetry for the People” program, in which students shared their own poetry, listened to poetry lectures, studied poetry of different traditions, conducted workshops of their own material, organized public readings and, quite significantly, worked as student-teacher poets in their own neighborhoods. It is a program that continues to this day, operated out of the Department of African American Studies, and it has influenced countless young writers and their communities.
During her many years of teaching, Jordan remained a prolific writer, authoring over twenty books of poetry, essays, novels, and plays, along with countless articles and several edited poetry anthologies. In addition to writing a regular column for The Progressive, Jordan published essays and poems in periodicals including The Nation, The New York Times, Mademoiselle, Partisan Review, and Essence, to name only a few.
Nevertheless, in 1985, when she had already written sixteen books, she remarked that her publication of the essay collection On Call, included several previously unpublished essays that, as she had been unable to publish them elsewhere, had taught her “first hand, about American censorship.” Jordan noted that “If political writing by a Black woman did not strike so many editors as presumptuous or simply bizarre then, perhaps, this book would not be needed,” and she attested to a new resistance to her work on account of her positions on Nicaragua and the Middle East, in particular support for Palestine.
The internationalist concerns that mark Jordan’s work from the
1980s forward are evident in her poetry and her prose, which garnered attention from US congressmen and international diplomats. Jordan herself remarked on the “coherent worldview” she formed in writing her 1980 poetry collection Passion, noting “The tested sphere of my concerns simply continues to expand.” Jordan also wrote in her poetry and prose about sex and sexuality, both from her own experience as a bisexual woman and as a response to what she identified as often- limited theoretical and public discussion of sexuality.
The expansive sphere of Jordan’s concerns is reflected in her professional affiliations, which included not only literary organizations like Poets and Writers, but also the Center for Constitutional Rights. They are also reflected in the many honors she received throughout her life, including a Rockefeller Grant in Creative Writing, the Prix de Rome in Environmental Design, a Lambda Literary Award, and a Special United States Congressional Recognition for “outstanding contributions to literature, the civil rights movement, and in recognition of outstanding and invaluable service to the community.” They are evident too in the wide network of writers, artists, activists, and scholars—including Fannie Lou Hamer, Alice Walker, Frances Fox Piven, Toni Morrison (Jordan’s editor at Random House), E. Ethelbert Miller, Sara Miles, Adrienne Torf, and former students Sekou Sundiata and Victor Hernández Cruz—with whom Jordan interacted as she rallied for the creation of “Life Studies.”
June Jordan died of breast cancer on June 14, 2002, at the age of 65. A year later, her voluminous papers were brought to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at Harvard University. In 2005, Copper Canyon Press published Jordan’s collected poems, Directed by Desire. In 2012, many of Jordan’s papers were opened up to public view. In 2017, Christoph Keller and Jan Heller Levi co-edited the award winning, We’re On: A June Jordan Reader. Jordan’s work continues to inspire poetry, scholarship, and activism.
CONOR TOMÁS REED is an archivist, doctoral student, educator, and organizer at the City University of New York, a contributing editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative and a co-founding participant in the Free University of New York City. Conor’s dissertation in-progress is entitled CUNY will be Free: Black, Puerto Rican, and Feminist Compositions, Literatures, and Studies in the City College of New York and New York City, 1960-1980.
TALIA SHALEV is a poet and PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY, a writing associate at The Cooper Union, and teaches at Brooklyn College. She is a member of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.