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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

June Jordan
(b. 1936)

Like many of the finest writers in the African American literary tradition, June Jordan has proven her skill in several genres. Poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and composer, she is also a seasoned political activist and teacher. Currently a professor of African American studies and women’s studies at the University of California at Berkeley, she has also taught at City College of New York, Sarah Lawrence College, and Yale University. Born July 9, 1936, in Harlem, Jordan began writing poetry at the age of seven after her family had moved into a brownstone in Brooklyn’s now well-known Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Although her parents, particularly her father, introduced her to the poetry of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and although the writing of T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson is also reflected in her work, she later studied the poetry of Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Robert Hayden. Jordan’s poetry is unique. Because of the diversity of these early influences and because of the ingenious way in which she weaves her political activism and her personal experiences as a black bisexual woman into the fabric of her art, her poetry defines its own place in African-American literary history, despite the commonalities she shares with Audre Lorde and Alexis Deveaux.

Jordan’s work is heavily influenced by important and sometimes devastating events from her life: her father’s disappointment that she was not a boy, his extreme discipline while she was growing up, her mother’s suicide, an early marriage that failed, and her having been raped. Jordan’s essays and poetry chart the connections she finds among the personal, the literary, the political, and the global. In a 1981 Essence interview with Alexis Deveaux, Jordan said of “Poem about My Rights,” which she wrote in response to having been raped, “I tried to show as clearly as I could that the 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. It all violates self-determination.

This relationship that Jordan addresses between her personal experiences and those of others throughout the world, particularly those in oppressed cultures, defines the depth and range of her art. The titles of her essay collections—Civil Wars (1981), On Call: Political Essays (1985), Moving Towards Home: Political Essays (1989), and Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union (1992)—suggest the connection she makes between the personal, the global, and the political. Her essays as well as her poetry are rooted in her blackness, her bisexuality, and in the honest, fearless way in which she attacks racism and all its related illnesses.

Her travels to Nicaragua, her teaching experience (including children’s writing workshops), her work as a freelance journalist, as a research associate and writer for Mobilization for Youth, and her studying architecture at the Donnell Library in Manhattan are all manifest in her poems. In 1969 Jordan won the Prix de Rome in Environmental Design for the way in which she transformed architectural design into fiction in her novel for adolescents His Own Where, later published in 1971. She has also written three other books primarily for children.

Although Jordan published three early collections of poetry—Who Look at Me (1969), Some Changes (1971), and New Days: Poems of Exile and Return (1974)—the 1977 Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry contains most of this early work. Prefaced by the poem, “These poems they are things that I do in the dark,” this rich collection addresses everything and everybody from her son Christopher to her father Granville Ivanhoe Jordan, her mother, marriage, former President Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X, bisexuality, and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Both Living Room: New Poems (1985) and Naming Our Own Destiny (1989), Jordan’s recent collections, show her skill at using titles to illuminate her purpose. The poems in both books address the physical/emotional/spiritual space the oppressed in the United States, Lebanon, Nicaragua, and South Africa need in order to become self-determining. “Moving Towards Home,” the last poem in Living Room, captures the essence of Jordan’s irony and repetition; her ability to use a word seemingly out of context, such as her use of redeem near the end of this poem. Translated into Arabic, Spanish, French, Swedish, German, and Japanese, “Moving Towards Home” affirms the international status of Jordan’s poetry. Yet all too little is known of her work as a dramatist. She is the author of at least three full-length plays, including the autobiographical All These Blessings, completed in 1988. Her work as a dramatist remains virtually unexplored.

Joyce Ann Joyce
Chicago State University

In the Heath Anthology
Moving Towards Home (1985)
Poem about My Rights (1989)
To Free Nelson Mandela (1989)

Other Works
Who Look at Me (1969)
Some Changes (1971)
New Days: Poems of Exile and Return (1974)
Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poetry (1977)
Passion: New Poems 1977-1980 (1980)
Civil Wars (1981)
Living Room: New Poems (1985)
On Call: Political Essays (1985)
Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems (1989)
Moving Towards Home: Political Essays (1989)
Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems (1989)
Technical Difficulties: African-American Notes on the State of the Union (1992)

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Poem about Process and Progress
Text provided by the Contemporary Readings in Poetry site.

The Invisible People
An article by Jordan from The Progressive.

June Jordan
A biography.

The Academy of American Poets
Presents a biography and the text of The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # one.

Voices from the Gaps
Offers a biography, criticism, list of works, and a couple of links.

Secondary Sources