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Black Poet Sees Politics as the Duty of an Artist : Education, Children, Language Are Her 3 'Constants' in Work

September 03, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET

. . . We (blacks) are frequently dismissed as "political" or "topical" or "sloganeering" and "crude" and "insignificant" because . . . we have persisted for freedom. We will write against South Africa and we will seldom pen a poem about wild geese flying over Prague, or grizzlies at the rain barrel under the dwarf willow trees . . .

--June Jordan, from "The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America," 1985

The sound of traffic on Coast Highway in Laguna Beach mingled with the chanting and tambourine-shaking of Hare Krishna devotees marching up the sidewalk. Inside Fahrenheit 451 Books, where a few people browsed, the outside noises were muffled by a classical music recording.

June Jordan, visiting Fahrenheit last Sunday afternoon to sign some of her 16 published books, was the only black person present. The Brooklyn-based writer was quite aware of this, just as at breakfast she had noticed the monochrome skins in a local restaurant. "There's a homogeneity here that's really stunning, and what follows from it is really deadly," she said then, looking around. "It gives you an inability to deal with anybody different from yourself."

Now, sitting in Fahrenheit 451 for two hours, Jordan was gracious and reserved with admiring strangers who had heard her read the night before, at the Laguna Poets' 14th annual poetry festival. Then a former student from the State University of New York at Stonybrook, where the author teaches creative writing, turned up. The young black woman had brought her fiancee, a white man.

Gently, Jordan coaxed forth details about the couple's plans, their dispute about whether to stay in California or return to New York, their ideas about child-rearing and integrated communities. When the ex-student departed, Jordan was quiet. Prodded for her thoughts, she said, "They're obviously very much in love. . . . I think they're brave, and naive--but not as naive as I was," referring to the day 31 years ago, when she, too, married a white man. (That marriage ended after 10 years, and Jordan raised her son, Christopher David Meyer--who's now 28--alone.)

At 50, Jordan is a slim, elegant woman whose short Afro is liberally dusted with gray. She answered questions with thoughtful intensity, frequently punctuating her statements with "you know?" and "don't you think?" as if to make sure she had been understood.

Former Urban Planner

An essayist, poet, novelist, political activist and former urban planner, Jordan has taught writing at SUNY for eight years. For the last year, she's been on sabbatical, giving readings around the country, filling a monthlong lectureship at UC Berkeley and writing the lyrics and dialogue for a musical play, "Bang Bang Uber Alles," that debuted in Atlanta in June. The play, which is about "young black and Jewish performing artists in confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan," will be given a staged reading in Brooklyn next month.

The musical is a collaboration with composer Adrienne Torf that "really presents my politics," Jordan said. The cast is "indivisibly and imperturbably multiracial, which is my concept of our country," and the "dramatic challenge" to the play's characters is "to find a way to jointly confront the evil" of intolerance. Her characters "are triumphant in the sense that they do find a way to come together . . . but whether they win or not is not determined" at the play's end, she said.

She wants to collaborate with Torf on another musical soon, she said. "I love working with other people . . . working in the theater realizes a lot of democratic daydreams, you know? I feel like I'm being rescued. Poetry--my God!--it's a solitary torment, even at the most lyrical moments of engagement with the material." Playwriting also requires solitary work, she said, "but I know that always, soon enough, I engage in a social act" by working with Torf, or having actors "make those words live."

Social acts are important to Jordan, who said that "education, children and language are the three constants in my work." She's often written about these subjects, in poetry as well as in the political essays collected in "Civil Wars" (1981) and "On Call."

Interest in Black English

One topic of particular interest to her is "black English," which she calls "the language that most black children in the United States learn at home . . . a verbal communication with consistent grammatical rules regardless of region or class." Jordan supports the idea of bilingual education in general and said black children should be taught to read and write black English before they're taught to read and write standard English. Such training will not impede minority children's struggles to get ahead, Jordan added. "They aren't getting ahead now, (so) what's to lose?"

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