June Jordan was one of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist. Jordan was also known for her commitment to human rights and progressive political agenda.
Jordan was the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents, Granville Ivanhoe and Mildred Maud Jordan, in Harlem, New York. Her father worked as a postal worker for the USPS and her mother as a part-time nurse. When Jordan was five, the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York. While life in the Jordan household was often turbulent, Jordan credits her father with passing on his love of literature, and she began writing her own poetry at the age of seven.
After attending Brooklyn’s Midwood High School for a year, Jordan enrolled in Northfield Mount Hermon School, an elite preparatory school in New England. Throughout her education Jordan became “completely immersed in a white universe” by attending predominantly white schools; however, she was also able to construct and develop her identity as a black American and a writer. In 1953, Jordan graduated from high school and enrolled at Barnard College.
Jordan met Columbia University student Michael Meyer, whom she married in 1955. She subsequently followed her husband to the University of Chicago, where she pursued graduate studies in anthropology. She also enrolled at the university but soon returned to Barnard, where she remained until 1957.
Her teaching career began in 1967 at the City College of New York. Between 1968 and 1978 she taught at Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Connecticut College. She then became the director of The Poetry Center and was an English professor at SUNY at Stony Brook from 1978 to 1989. From 1989 to 2002 she was a full professor in the departments of English, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies at the University of California Berkeley.
Jordan’s first published book, Who Look at Me (1969), was a collection of poems for children. It was followed by 27 more books in her lifetime, and one (Some of Us Did Not Die: Collected and New Essays) of which was in press when she died. June Jordan died of breast cancer at her home in Berkeley, California, aged 65.
1977: Poem For Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer
– Poem by June Jordan
You used to say, “June?
Honey when you come down here you
supposed to stay with me. Where
against the beer the shotguns and the
point of view of whitemen don’
never see Black anybodies without
some violent itch start up.
The ones who
said, “No Nigga’s Votin in This Town . . .
lessen it be feet first to the booth”
Then jailed you
beat you brutal
you blue beyond the feeling
of the terrible
And failed to stop you.
Only God could but He
fortress from self-
Humble as a woman anywhere
I remember finding you inside the laundromat
lion spine relaxed/hell
what’s the point to courage
when you washin clothes?
But that took courage
just to sit there/target
to the killers lookin
for your singin face
perspirey through the rinse
you stood mighty in the door on James Street
“BULLETS OR NO BULLETS!
THE FOOD IS COOKED
AN’ GETTIN COLD!”
A family tremulous but fortified
like the lilies
filled to the very living
one solid gospel
one full Black lily
in a homemade field