June Jordan (b. 1936)

    Contributing Editor:
    Agnes Moreland Jackson

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students of the 1960s and early 1970s (as well as today's college-age youth) thought about and acted on nonfamilial kinships, that is, relationships between individuals having agency; groups, personhood in the community, space or turf--local/national/global; responsibility--private and corporate; power/powerlessness; most of the "-isms" and phobias of historical and contemporary societies worldwide. These are some of the recurring subjects in Jordan's three poems included in The Heath Anthology and throughout her volumes of poetry and essays. She belongs to the world (though it despises and rejects her); and her voice of discovery, pain, rage, and resolution penetrates our minds and emotions. College students, therefore, recognize her concerns while also wondering sometimes whether Jordan's societal and world portrait is "as bad" as her texts declare. Even those as wounded as she describes herself have to think deeply to make the connections, see the intricate patterns, and analyze situations to determine Jordan's accuracy or error about social and human conditions. Because the issues in her poetry reflect our everyday experiences, we can comprehend Jordan's poetry and note correspondences between and among the following: Jordan's observations and protestations; daily news about victims of violence whose lives are affected by political and economic decisions. An invitation to discuss the poems here could prompt students' own sharing of their personal experiences (of physical or emotional assault, acceptance or rejection of opportunity, and reaction to media images, health, and health services).

    Moreover, hearing Jordan is crucial to appreciating and understanding the power of her poetry. Beyond urging my students to read all poetry aloud (and we read aloud in class), I stress the rich orality of poetic expression by many African-Americans (from Dunbar to Hughes and Brown, from Hayden and Walker and Brooks to Evans and Sanchez and Cortez, as well as Lorde, Knight, Reed, Clifton, and Harper), among whom Jordan is outstanding for the "being-spoken-now" qualities of her poems. Two of the "talking passages" (describing aptly the entire 114 lines) in "Poem about My Rights" are its opening and lines 45 to 49. Reading this poem aloud in a class need not be difficult in any college for at least two reasons: its personal, intimate, talking-directly-to-you quality and the generally acknowledged present-day awareness of the twenty-five percent probability that rape might become real to any woman in the U.S. Single voices (including those of male students) reading the poem in sequence diminish possible embarrassment over the sustained and repeated use of the words "rape," "penetrate," and "ejaculate" as reality and as metaphor. The poem's insistence upon the equal status of all oppressions stimulates serious discussion that includes not only homo- and bisexuality; instead, interest remains for persistent philosophical quests to engage and understand freedom and responsibility, law and justice, power and respect, and so on. Students usually agree with the linking of all oppressions, not withstanding the risk of having to reveal their own characteristics and/or prejudices. Anglo males, especially, need time and much reassurance that female peers understand the socially constructed bases of male behavior deemed to be oppressive, for Jordan denounces hurtful action, not its causes-- including females complicit in maintaining patriarchal privilege to oppress.

    "To Free Nelson Mandela" has the oral qualities of a ritual chant. Its repetitions enhance (1) recognition of the many years of Mandela's imprisonment and--hence--(2) the near miracle of his survival which invokes urgent and continually growing cosmic demands that he be freed, and (3) the power and rightness of a wife's loyalty and work --instead of withdrawal into seclusion (hence, no Penelope is she but a warrior who has taken up the battle). However protracted, however gross, atrocities do not dehumanize their victims, nor can horror outlast living "waters of the world" as they "turn to the softly burning/light of the moon." Ironically, almost mystically, atrocities eventually cause oppressed people, however despised, to come together in reaffirmation and in ritual, including the ceremonies of life to be lived fully before dying. (Cf. African slaves in the Western world, their understanding of self-worth, i.e., somebodiness conferred by a believed-in God--despite the ineffable horrors of bondage.)

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    These three poems reveal the speakers' firm understanding that their respective experiences (or those witnessed and reported on in "To Free Nelson Mandela") validate the deduction by the speaker in "Poem about My Rights" that she and all other oppressed persons, nations, and peoples are victims because they are viewed by their torturers to be wrong. Therefore, wrong are the victims enumerated in lines 7 through 12 in "To Free Nelson Mandela": the "twelve-year-old girl," "the poet," "the students," "the children." "[M]urdered Victoria Mxenge" (1.17) was wrong to have been a lawyer who "defended [B]lacks charged with political crimes" (The Hollywood Reporter, July 19, 1991), writes the reviewer of the hit musical "Sarafina," based on the horrors of and spiritual triumphs over South African apartheid. Martyred in 1985 in the midst of her daring and skillful work, "Durban human rights lawyer" (Agence France Presse, June 22, 1993) Mxenge was killed (by the official police, think most in the world) "the day before she was scheduled to defend 17 . . . [Black activists] on charges of treason" (Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1991). Her ANC-supporter spouse, Griffiths Mxenge, also a lawyer, had been murdered in 1981.

    These data, only the tip of the iceberg, demonstrate again Jordan's total immersion in the lives of oppressed people of color wherever they suffer in the world. Revelations in the 1990s--most carried in newspapers around the globe--about allegedly police-perpetrated murders in South Africa during the mid-1980s were not news to Jordan, who in 1989 had published the Mandela poem among other "new" poems composed between 1985 and 1989. From line 36 through line 57 of "To Free Nelson Mandela," Jordan commemorates the beginning-to-heal black township community of Lingelihle (outside Cradock), where in 1985 (as reported in The Guardian of August 11, 1992) "[f]rom all over South Africa, tens of thousands of mourners converged on . . . [the town- ship] . . . for the funeral of . . . [four Black activists]" including Matthew Goniwe, an "immensely popular leader" in a " 'backveld revolution' [that had swept] South Africa" in 1983. Less poetic than Jordan's rendering of Goniwe's transformational impact on his comrades in suffering is the following very helpful newspaper explanation of why his death was felt so deeply by so many:

    Son of a domestic servant and a seller of firewood, he had inspired the community to form a residents' association which demanded urgent reforms in the dusty, poverty-stricken township. Studious, quiet, small and bespectacled, Goniwe had raised educational standards, given self-respect to unemployed young [B]lacks and stopped much of the drinking and pot smoking. Repeatedly detained and accused of agitating, he remarked, "[Agitation] is not required when you have apartheid-- the greatest agitator of all."

    (The Guardian, 8/11/92)

    The journalistic furor in 1992 about events in 1985 was sparked by the publication in June 1992 of an official, top-secret message "dated June 7, 1985" that revealed senior officers in South Africa's security forces to have plotted the murders of Goniwe and three others. On March 9, 1991, the Chicago Tribune had carried a report of Amnesty International's having cited the death of Victoria Mxenge among other crimes against human rights.

    In her 1976 essay "Declaration of an Independence I Would Just as Soon Not Have" (in the 1981 collection of essays Civil Wars published by Beacon Press), in which she remarks on the practical necessity of folk's uniting and working together to effect changes toward justice, Jordan writes of the "hunger and . . . famine afflicting some 800 million lives on earth" as "a fact that leaves . . . [one] nauseous, jumpy, and chronically enraged." She says also that "with all . . . [her] heart and mind . . . [she] would strive in any way . . . to eradicate the origins of . . . [the] colossal exploitation and abuse" experienced by "[t]he multimillion-fold majority of the peoples on earth [who] are neither white, nor powerful, nor exempt from terrifying syndromes of disease, hunger, poverty that defies description, and prospects for worse privation or demeaning subsistence" (115-16; 117). Jordan's rage at injustices and violations of personhood, as well as her compassion and empathy, are large and constant, as can be recognized by even a quick reading of her poetry and essays.

    Although not among her most recent poems, "Moving Towards Home" is as significant as any to be related to Jordan's personal life, a life informed by her love of black people, a love that anchors her love for, and work and yearning for, freedom and justice for all oppressed people. She can relate to, can feel as, can be a Palestinian because the space, the room for living has become smaller and smaller geographically and in all other ways that destruction, death, bigotry, and hatred have crowded out life. "[T]o make our way home" would be to reclaim life, to reclaim "room" for "living" for ourselves and oppressed others. (In September, 1993 the Israelis and the Palestinians took their first steps toward that "way home" for both peoples.)

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Like many contemporary black and other poets of the U.S., Jordan uses language boldly and fully, not shying away from stereotypically or conventionally "ugly" words or ideas. Thus, she writes about what is real and what should not be: all manner of injustice, repression, oppression; diverse kinds of denial of self-and personhood. "Poem about My Rights" captures most completely the unbounded range of Jordan's subjects, as well as the rich juxtaposing and combining of free verse, linearly arranged sentences, parallelism, unpunctuated parenthetical remarks, repetition, freely (but not randomly) used virgules or slashes to hold or pull ideas together. Opening the poem in medias res gives form to Jordan's repeated thesis that self-determination is precluded by all oppressions and any oppression--occurring in any order at any age anywhere on the earth, and perpetrated by nominal friends (e.g., parents, members of one's own racial, sexual, occupational, and gender group) or recognized enemies. Jordan makes situational analogies and projections that meld all aspects of her being into one seamless personal: family; politics--local, national, worldwide, as well as racial and sexual; geography--general space, particular places, personified places, urban and rural spaces; history; esthetics; economics; her body and the bodies of others; sexism, racism, classism, ageism.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    As is true for her contemporaries Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, sexuality is a crucial attribute of June Jordan's identity and her premise for self-expression and interaction with others. These distinguished, radically iconoclastic writers demand full recognition of the "difference/s." Lorde emphasizes her blackness, femaleness, lesbianism--in "butch" and "fem" roles (as I read her essays, particularly), her relatedness to all other women needing/seeking autonomy of personhood, and the ultimately fatal possession of her life by cancer. Progressively through her poetry and essays, Lorde becomes a winner, psychologically triumphant over all of these popularly acknowledged detractors from fullness of living. Rich defines herself as female, lesbian, white, southern, and a Jew. Together with emphatically engaging myriad and worldwide economic, cultural, educational, and political oppressions (as Jordan does), both Rich and Lorde, respectively as applicable, recognize and experience (as Jordan does) abuses of power--shaped usually as sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and ageism--and "triggered," presumably, by the women's "differences"--however ageless and normal, immutable, and real. For Jordan add bisexuality, i.e., difference with a difference, and she stands out from the others in the triad. Possessing sexualities, Jordan experiences discrimination among the less complex or more "normal" lesbians. This experience is what seems to have clarified her view that any oppression equals all other oppressions without hierarchical or invidious distinctions. Jordan also refuses to privilege oppressors who are more "like" her than some other oppressors might be. Thus, African-Americans and lesbians who would presume to judge her bisexuality or any attribute or freely chosen, nonthreatening behavior toward others must be called what they are: tyrants ("A New Politics of Sexuality," Technical Difficulties 90; the entire essay is must reading for any who would try to comprehend Jordan fully).

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    The following are suggestions for class enjoyment of reading/thinking aloud about Jordan's "Moving Towards Home": (1) Do students detect any slowing down, possibly an emphasis at lines 35, 37, and in lines where the persona quotes other people's voices? (2) Does it matter that readers might not/probably do not know the actual speakers? That the quoted passages might be/might not be historical? (3) Ask students to consider structure, meaning, and context by noting differences between the quoted passages and lines 47, 48, 49; (4) The importance of reading aloud and carefully can be stressed by discussing the difference between ". . . those who dare" in lines 35, 39, 41 and "those who dare" in line 46; (5) Visual interest enhances that of sound as readers notice that "speak about" in the poem's first thirty-one lines all line up/stack up, one above the next succeeding instance, that "about unspeakable events" breaks this pattern spatially as well as linguistically in the reversed order of the main words, and in the negativizing of "speak" by use of the prefix un. All events that the persona does "not wish to speak about" are spoken with chilling effect; about from line 53 to the end precedes home & living room; home envelopes living room.


    Arnold Adoff's 1973 anthology The Poetry of Black America includes four outstanding Jordan poems, while Erlene Stetson in Black Sister (1981) contains only one by Jordan (a must, however, about Native Americans) but six by Lorde, seven by Jayne Cortez, and three by Sanchez.