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Book Review

As a Child, She Was Her Father's Son

SOLDIER: A Poet's Childhood; by June Jordan; Basic Civitas Books; $20, 262 pages

May 15, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the indelible memories summoned up by poet June Jordan in her memoir, "Soldier: A Poet's Childhood," is of being awakened in the middle of the night by a fist smashing into the side of her head. "Daddy!" she screams. "What did I do?" No answer is forthcoming, only more fierce blows and the words, "You damn black devil child!"

One cannot imagine any self-respecting social worker nowadays who would not want to rescue a child from so abusive a parent. Yet, as we also learn from Jordan's spare yet lyrical account of her New York City childhood, the tired, frustrated West Indian immigrant who took out his anger on his child was also, in other ways, what many would call a good father. Impressed by his girl's quick mind and venturesome spirit, he treated her like a son, training her to be a "soldier" in the battle for a better life. He quizzed her on books she read, enrolled her in special programs, sent her to summer camp, taught her to use tools, took her to museums and concerts, and out deep-sea fishing.

While her father wanted her to be fearless and exceptional, her mother, also West Indian, was a gentle, religious woman who hoped her daughter would always have fellow-feeling for others of her race. Jordan recalls them arguing, her father riding roughshod over her mother's objections. Fearing her daughter would become distanced from her roots, Mrs. Jordan accused her husband of trying to pretend a black girl could become a white man. "This child him my son," the father insisted: "What you mean by Black? You want that she stay in the pits where they t'row us down here?" June pleased her father by memorizing Kipling's "If." For her mother, she intoned the words of the Bible: "Blessed are the meek."

Although Jordan provides some sense of the perspective she would attain with later years, this is primarily a book about childhood as a child would experience it, with a child's highly charged sense of reality. The limpidity of the language, the immediacy of the scenes and the intensity of the emotions make us feel we are seeing through the little girl's eyes.

Jordan brings to life people, places, things and books that nourished her mind and character: her wise, serene grandmother; her clever, fun-loving Uncle Teddy, a dark-skinned "American Negro" whom her father scorned but whom she adored; the solemnly beautiful liturgy of the Episcopal church; the drama of thunderstorms; the music of poems by Shakespeare, Poe and Paul Laurence Dunbar. One of her earliest favorites was Zane Grey, who "got me out on the desert . . . blowing on boiling-hot black coffee in a tin cup hard to hold, and galloping mile after mile. . . . I adored the West. I had no idea where that might be, but I was pretty sure I'd have to skip out of my neighborhood for several days running before I'd be able to find it." A couple of years later, summer camp proved a breeze for this aspiring cowgirl with paramilitary training.

An interesting sidelight: Jordan notes that her father's unprovoked attacks on her began only after the family had left a safe, comfortable public housing project in Harlem to buy a home in Brooklyn. Although the current wisdom maintains that home ownership is the true path to pride, responsibility and domestic bliss, Jordan's experience was quite the reverse. Her father's temper grew shorter under the strain of a second job and the financial burden he had shouldered. The Brooklyn place was a dilapidated fixer-upper, far less comfortable than the rented public housing. Having made what he saw as a sacrifice for the sake of giving his family a home of its own, Jordan's father came to resent the family.

The story ends with 12-year-old June Jordan poised to go off to a prestigious boarding school. Not surprisingly, she is looking forward to the challenge. Already she has learned that "being cool was a matter of style. But being brave was a matter of virtue." Already she knows that her goal is "being brave."

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