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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Student Life at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Women and soldiers dancing in the Boathouse Canteen, circa 1918. Photograph by Paul Thompson, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

The Barnard College Archives would like to announce the launch of its new exhibit entitled “Student Life at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” It is on display in the Barnard College Library front lobby just in time for New Student Orientation Program (NSOP). The Archives is showcasing college life for Barnard students who matriculated before 1920. These photos capture a time when young women were preparing themselves for changes in both academia and the world at large.

Barnard women of the past shared many similarities with the current student body. They were repeatedly told not poster the campus and that fliers would be torn down. They were reminded to visit the Registrar and Bursar and meet with their advisors. They were warned it was their responsibility to check the bulletin board for notices and changes in policy and that ignorance would be an insufficient excuse. While webmail and Ebear have replaced these bulletin boards, the reminders remain a constant. Students also performed in plays, voiced their opinions in newspapers and literary magazines, and excelled academically. They held internships, volunteered and navigated the streets of the city to find their callings.

However, some things have changed. Students no longer have a curfew that correlates to class year. The earlier classes of Barnard were required to take entrance examinations and pass courses with a C or better in which they were deemed deficient. Students were previously admitted to incoming first-year class either with or without conditions depending on their scores. Now the requirements are specified as the Nine Ways of Knowing but also require a C or better. The 1900 application to Barnard College required verification by a reference of an applicant’s good moral character. Students with conditions had to show proficiency in specific subjects in order to maintain their student status and obtain a diploma. Lists of students with excessive absences were posted on the bulletin board, and some lost credit or were banned from taking final examinations due to the amount of work they missed. Wigs and Cues had women-only performances. While the high expectations haven’t been altered by time, Barnard women now have greater freedom in areas ranging from course selection to access to resources to general autonomy.

Past traditions that no longer exist can be found in the pages of these scrapbooks. The Greek Games were highlighted as a main event each year, and the Dean officially would cancel classes on the Saturday morning of the Games so all students could attend. At certain events such as chapel services at which important members of the Columbia community such as President Butler addressed the university, students were asked to don their academic gowns. Wednesday afternoons were for a gathering of faculty and students over tea. The sophomores took it upon themselves to initiate the first years with a series of events known as “The Mysteries.” Veiled in secrecy, this ritual is revealed through a scrapbook passed down through the years and by alumnae whose scrapbooks document the night. Though the Mysteries discontinued after being deemed hazing, it brought new students closer to the community and became cyclical. These experiences bonded the community and promoted a sense of school spirit and warm ties to the school.

As the number of matriculates rose, so did the demand for more space. In need of more room for the overcrowded faculty, staff, and students, the Board of Trustees and the Dean asked both alumnae and the city of New York to help fund the expansion. Their plea was answered, and in 1906 there were invitations to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of Brooks Hall. Later additions include Hewitt Hall and Barnard Hall (referred to as Student Hall in 1917 and renamed in l926).

Please stop by the Barnard College Library to view “Students at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Dozens of scrapbooks and photographs can be found right downstairs in the Archives, located at Lehman 23.

New Students, Meet Barnard

For several decades, Barnard has distributed an orientation brochure to new students when they arrive on campus. The content has changed greatly over the years, but the purpose of the publication was always to give first-years and transfer students a broad overview of academic and campus life at Barnard.

Each year’s book has a theme—such as “Happiness is a Honey Bear,” “The Barnard Alice,” “CU on the Road: Do You Have the Drive?” and “The Game of Life”—through which the information is presented. For instance, in “The Barnard Alice” (1966), freshmen were told about program planning, extracurricular activities, campus geography, and local restaurants through a modified Alice in Wonderland story.

1966 orientation booklet

From 1949 to 1967, the books included class rosters, a glossary of campus terms, and information about academics, extracurriculars, and student life. In 1970 and 1971, the “Barnard Action Coalition” published a comprehensive guide to Barnard for first-years and upperclassmen alike. These “Reorientation” books covered academic and student life, the Barnard bureaucracy, the political scene in the wake of 1960s campus activism, and the neighborhood and city.

Beginning in 1971, the books became more minimal; this coincided with the transition from a Barnard-exclusive publication to a University-wide “NSOP” (New Student Orientation Program) book. They were just a few pages long and contained only a schedule of orientation week activities and a map of campus. In 1987, they

1970 "Reorientation" booklet

1970 "Reorientation" booklet

began to include several pages of advertisements at the end, primarily from restaurants and retailers near campus. Some years they also included a list of religious services in the neighborhood and a list of important phone numbers. In 1992, the

University began to publish separate books for first-years and for transfer students, though both had largely the same content.

Copies of most orientation books from 1949 to 2007 are available to view in the Barnard Archives.

Written by Maggie Astor ’11

For more images of Barnard orientation booklets, please visit our Gallery.

First Published Asian-American Novelist, and Poet: Diana Chang

Meet the face of our newest alumnae pin, Diana Chang ’49. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!

Rediscovering the Self

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Diana Chang beside a Marc Chagall lithograph she purchased in Paris.
From the Barnard Alumnae Monthly, October/November 1951, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Diana Chang was born in New York City to a Chinese father and a mother of Chinese and Irish descent. Soon after, her family moved to China, where Chang spent the majority of her childhood and adolescence. She lived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II and attended the Shanghai American School before matriculating at St. John’s University, Shanghai in 1941. After one year, she left St. John’s to take a position as an editorial and feature writer at the English-language Shanghai Evening Post in 1943, on the recommendation of a friend who knew she was interested in writing. Chang later described her weekly piece in the paper as “chatty, personal, and feminine.” She resigned from the paper after eight months for “political reasons,” which she explained as follows in a letter to the author: “I resigned my ‘position’ … because of the Japanese supervision. No Japanese were in the office, so at first—in my naïveté (I was 17 or 18 at the time)—I thought the paper was run by the three or four men I took to be white Protestants engaged in putting out the newspaper.” Her family later returned to New York City, where she entered Barnard College in the fall of 1946 as a transfer to the class of 1949.

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