June Jordan was an accomplished poet, writer, academic, and fierce fighter for civil
rights. Her written work, including 27 books and countless other essays and poems,
dealt with complex discussions of race, gender, discrimination, and sexuality. During her
lifetime, she taught at seven universities and colleges, advocated for the educational
encouragement of Black, indigenous and immigrant children, and remained steadfast in
defense of her and others' queer identities.
Jordan did not have the easiest start in life. She was born in Harlem, New York, in 1936 to Jamaican parents who had high expectations of their daughter. Her father lamented his disappointment in not having a son, something he would take out on both Jordan and her mother. Her relationship with both parents was strained, though especially so with her father: recalling "my father was the first regular bully in my life." In her book His Own Where, Jordan details the turbulence of the relationship she had with her father, who greatly encouraged her reading of classical texts and taught her how to box, yet would frequently beat her and call her "devil child."
Her mother, a deeply unhappy figure throughout all of Jordan’s life, died by suicide when Jordan was 30 years old. Speaking of her mother’s death fifteen years later, Jordan regretted her lack of understanding:
I thought about the idea of my mother as a good woman and I rejected that because I don't see why it's a good thing when you give up [...]
I am working for the courage to admit the truth that Bertolt Brecht has written; he says, "It takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak"...
I came too late to help my mother to her feet [...]
I am working never to be late again.
These familial experiences had a profound impact on Jordan, and she spent much of her later life campaigning for children’s voices, particularly those from immigrant backgrounds.
It was during early childhood that Jordan began to write. Wishing for her to succeed in a wider, white-dominated society, Jordan’s parents sent her to prep schools where she was the only Black student in a "sea of white." After graduating high school with flying colors, Jordan studied at Barnard College in New York City, then at the University of Chicago. During her time at college, Jordan was disappointed and angered by the lack of Black scholars and poets her tutors could provide for her. Whilst they were encouraging of Jordan and her writing, they failed to provide the role models she so desperately desired. She would later write that these experiences of institutional racism were what put her firmly on the path to social activism.
In 1955, Jordan married a white scholar, Michael Meyer. Interracial marriages were considered taboo in society at the time, and surmounting social pressures (including Jordan’s involvement in the developing civil rights movement) led to the couple divorcing after 10 years, leaving Jordan the sole supporter of their son, Christopher.
Now a Black, divorced, single mother, Jordan faced social scorn in every aspect of her day-to-day life. However, it was around this time that her career really took off. The years she spent as a single mother were formative for her as a writer, truly cementing her passion for the civil rights movement and providing vital writing material.
Whilst still raising her son, Jordan began teaching in 1967 at the City College of New York, though she would soon move on to the University of California to found the Poetry of the People class. Across several institutions, she lectured in poetry, women’s studies, and African-American studies. Her first published work, Who Look at Me, a collection of poetry for children, was printed in 1969. Over the coming years, Jordan would receive many awards and honors for her written work, including a Yaddo Fellowship in 1979, the Award for International Reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1984, and the Ground Breakers-Dream Makers award from The Women's Foundation in 1994.
Jordan was one of the first academics to acknowledge and integrate intersectionality into her politics. She realized that although she faced oppression for being a woman, for being Black, and for being bi, others faced oppression for other reasons, such as for being transgender or disabled, for being from a religious minority within America. Through understanding her identity-based advantages and disadvantages, she was able to be a better ally to those facing oppression and persecution in ways she was not personally. This is best seen through her radical support of Palestinian Muslims in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Throughout her life, Jordan identified as bi, despite the heavy stigma and misunderstandings which surrounded the label. In her final collection of essays, published posthumously, Some of Us Did Not Die, she wrote:
Bisexuality means that I am free and I am as likely to want and to love a woman as I am likely to want and to love a man, and what about that? Isn’t that what freedom implies? If you are free, you are not predictable and you are not controllable. To my mind, that is the keenly positive politicizing significance of bisexual affirmation.
Jordan was also strongly affected by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a disease that was responsible for killing (predominantly) queer men. Many in society considered this a "purge" of homosexuals, celebrating this as a "God-like cleansing" of sexual deviants through their tragic deaths. In support of her community, she wrote the following poem:
Some of Us Did Not Die
We’re Still Here
I Guess It Was Our Destiny To Live
So Let’s get on with it!
It was titled Some of Us Did Not Die and stood for all oppressed persons, queer, Black, woman or otherwise.
In 2002, June Jordan passed away after a short struggle with breast cancer at her family home in Berekely, California. She was only 65. Author Toni Morrison wrote of her death,
In political journalism that cuts like razors in essays that blast the darkness of confusion with relentless light; in poetry that looks as closely into lilac buds as into death's mouth [... Jordan] has comforted, explained, described, wrestled with, taught and made us laugh out loud before we wept [...] I am talking about a span of forty years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art.
Jordan’s legacy lives on in
the poets she has helped to find a voice, and in the defiance that let us gather in the
face of great adversity.