Award-winning Writer, Professor, and Activist: June Jordan

Meet the face of our newest pin, alum June Jordan. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

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Jordan’s Beginnings

June Millicent Jordan (1936-2002) was born in Harlem to Granville Ivanhoe Jordan and Mildred Maud Jordan, two West Indian immigrants. The Jordan family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn when June was five. As we learn in Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, Jordan had a complicated family life growing up, in which her father encouraged her to embrace literature and to be strong, but also subjected her to physical abuse. Jordan started writing poetry as young as age seven. Throughout her educational experiences, she had to face overwhelmingly white institutions. Jordan was the only black student at Midwood High School in Brooklyn before she transferred, having received a scholarship to Northfield School For Girls. Northfield (now co-ed and called Northfield-Mount Hermon School), was a predominantly white prep school in Massachusetts. Jordan went on to study English at Barnard as a commuter student. While at Barnard, Jordan was featured in Focus, the college’s literary magazine. She was one of four black students during her time at Barnard (1953-1957), and was frustrated with the curriculum and competitive environment at the school. In her essay, “Notes of a Barnard Dropout,” which Jordan delivered as a talk at the BCRW‘s (then the Women’s Center) first Reid Lecture in 1975 (alongside Alice Walker), and which was later published in her 1981 book Civil Wars, Jordan states:

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.

Because of her disappointment at the college, Jordan left and returned to Barnard a couple of times. One of the reasons she left was to marry Michael Meyer, who was a white student at Columbia University. After they married in 1955, she attended the University of Chicago for a year and studied anthropology before returning to Barnard again. Jordan ultimately left Barnard for good in 1957. Facing difficulties as an interracial couple, Meyer and Jordan divorced in 1966, and Jordan took care of their son Christopher Meyer.

Career and Activism

Jordan’s early career was largely influenced by the political climate of the 1960’s, as she wrote about the 1964 Harlem Riots and was concerned and involved with both the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. She worked in film, as a journalist, as a researcher and writer for Mobilization for Youth in New York, and also collaborated with the architect Buckminster Fuller on aesthetic housing for low-income members of the Harlem community. She was deeply concerned with racial, spatial, economic, gender, and sexuality justice. She also had a strong focus on children. Her first book, Who Look At Me was intended for young readers, and she taught many workshops for students of color.

Jordan soon became a college professor, first teaching English and literature at City College in 1967, and going on to work at Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale, and SUNY Stony Brook. She became a full professor at Stony Brook in 1982, directing the poetry center and creative writing program during her time there. In 1989 Jordan started at the University of California, Berkeley in the African-American Studies department. At Berkeley, she also started Poetry for the People, a group that brought poetry to community groups in the surrounding area as a tool for political empowerment.

Writing

Over the course of her life, Jordan wrote or edited 28 books, essays, and children’s novels, as well as the libretto for “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.” Some of Jordan’s works of poetry include Some Changes (1971), Living Room (1985) and Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997 (1997). She incorporates themes such as bisexuality, blackness, and family to make her poetry personal and political. She often wrote in and advocated for the use of Black English. In addition to poetry, Jordan is well-known for her political writing. She was a columnist for the Progressive, and also wrote essays on topics ranging from education, to sexism, to terrorism. Adrienne Rich, in the foreward to Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, writes of Jordan: “In a sense unusual among twentieth-century poets of the United States, she believed in and lived the urgency of the word—along with action—to resist abuses of power and violations of dignity in—and beyond—her country.” Thus, for Jordan, writing was a tool of political expression and action, as well as an autobiographical and personal outlet.

In an interview with Alternative Radio, Jordan states that the role of the poet in society:

is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words… Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks…I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that it’s a spirit task.

Jordan was honored for this task, as she earned many awards for her writing. She won the 1991 PEN Center USA West Freedom to Write Award, the 1994 Ground Breakers-Dream Makers Award from The Woman’s Foundation, and the 1995-1998 Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers Award. She also received a 1969-1970 Rockefeller grant for creative writing, a 1979 Yaddo residency, a 1982 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and 1984 Achievement Award for International Reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lectureship from the University of California at Berkeley, and a congressional citation for her writing and activism.

-Sarah Barlow-Ochshorn ’20

Sources

“About June.” Accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.junejordan.net/about-june.html.

“Bio.” Accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.junejordan.net/bio.html.

Halasz, Piri. “‘Focus’ Keeps High Quality But Falls Short In Execution.” Barnard Bulletin (New York), March 24, 1955. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/bc:bulletin-19550324-2.

“Jordan, June 1936-2002.” Contemporary Black Biography, Encyclopedia.com, accessed June 28, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/june-jordan.

Jordan, June. Civil Wars. Beacon Press, 1981.

Poetry Foundation. “June Jordan.” Accessed June 28, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/june-jordan.

Rosser, Felice. “June Jordan: Black, Woman, Poet.” Barnard Bulletin (New York), March 22, 1976. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/bc:bulletin-19760322-11.

Smith, Dinita. “June Jordan, 65, Poet and Political Activist.” The New York Times, June 18, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/18/arts/june-jordan-65-poet-and-political-activist.html.

 

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