Who was June Jordan?
July 07, 2004
Bisexual poet and essayist June Jordan devoted her life and work to the
struggles of oppressed and disenfranchised people throughout the world. Her
belief that all forms of oppression are connected led writer Alice Walker to
dub her "the universal poet."
Jordan was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in Harlem on July 9, 1936, and
grew up in Brooklyn. Her father, a postal worker, and her mother, a nurse,
worked hard to give their only daughter an excellent education. Jordan
attended the private Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts and later
In 1955 – a time when interracial relationships were socially condemned and
legally prohibited in much of the country – Jordan married Michael Meyer, a
white student who shared her passion for political activism; the couple
remained together for 10 years and had a son.
Jordan also had sexual and romantic relationships with women. One such
liaison helped her grasp the meaning of the movement slogan "Black Is
Beautiful." While working as a reporter for the New York Times, Jordan
dined with a young woman who had recently arrived from Mississippi. "I got a
glimpse of her face under that huge Afro-crown she was wearing and there was
nothing I did not understand," Jordan recalled. "[N]ot only was black
beautiful to me, to a most personally inspiring degree, but also Black Is
Beautiful galvanized my political determinations to make all of Mississippi
a safe and gracious home for black folks."
Jordan's personal experiences helped forge her belief that all forms of
suffering are interconnected, and spurred her evolution "from an observer to
a victim to an activist." This conviction led her to champion the causes of
oppressed people in the American South, South Africa, Nicaragua, Lebanon,
Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia. "[T]he difference between South
Africa and rape and my mother trying to change my face and my father wanting
me to be a boy was not an important difference to me," she said in a 1981
interview. "It all violates self-determination."
While Jordan was lauded for her incisive poems and essays about racial
justice and the status of women, she received less recognition for her work
against heterosexism, which she felt was equally important. "If we even
tolerate any oppression of gay and lesbian Americans, if we join those who
would intrude upon the choices of our hearts," she asked, "then who among us
shall be free?"
Jordan was not afraid to challenge black men about their misogyny, feminists
about their racism, or gay men and lesbians about their prejudice toward
bisexuals. "[T]he keenly positive, politicizing significance of bisexual
affirmation," she wrote, "[is] to insist upon the equal validity of all of
the components of social/sexual complexity."
Jordan published several collections of essays, children's literature, and
the first novel written entirely in black English; she also co-wrote an
opera and penned a regular column in The Progressive magazine. Jordan had
a passion for teaching others to write as well. She worked as a professor
for most of her career and founded the University of California at Berkeley'
s Poetry for the People program.
Despite a 10-year battle with breast cancer, Jordan remained an activist
into her final years. A peace activist since the Vietnam War, she spoke at
an antiwar rally in Berkeley following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
proclaiming "I honor the victims by dedicating myself against all violence."
Jordan died on June 14, 2002, at the age of 65.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
For further reading:
Jordan, June (2000). Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (Basic).
Jordan, June (2002). Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of
June Jordan (Basic/Civitas).
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