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Obituaries

June Jordan, 65; Prolific Essayist, Poet, Professor

June 15, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

June Jordan, a poet, essayist and influential UC Berkeley professor of African American studies, died Friday at her home in Berkeley. She was 65 and died of breast cancer, which she had been battling for much of the last decade.

The woman of diverse talents wrote 28 books of poetry, essays and children's fiction since the late 1960s. She also wrote librettos, including one for the 1995 song-play "I Was Looking at the Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky," directed by Peter Sellars with music by John Adams.

But her major contributions were her collections of essays, notably "Technical Difficulties: New Political Essays" and "Affirmative Acts: New Political Essays," and poetry collections, including "Naming Our Destinies" and "Kissing God Goodbye." Her autobiography, "Soldier: a Poet's Childhood," was released in 1999.

Her work, poet Adrienne Rich said Friday, came from her deep concern for language and her individual style. And though her writing was often political, dealing with feminism, the black experience, children and education, it could also be extremely literary.

"She used language with great elegance and precision and in a very individual way," Rich said. "After reading a work by her, it would be hard to imagine that it could have been done by anyone else."

Born in Harlem in New York City, the only child of West Indian immigrants, Jordan grew up in Brooklyn. Her mother was a nurse and her father a postal worker.

Jordan spoke later of the verbal and physical abuse she faced as a child but also noted that her parents had great aspirations for her intellectually and educationally, and that her father introduced her to poetry.

She was the only black student in a New York City prep school, and later attended the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts, where her interest in writing was encouraged.

In 1953, she entered Barnard College, where she met her future husband, Michael Myer, a white student. They divorced in 1965 after facing years of public intolerance of interracial marriages. They had one child, a son, Christopher.

Interested in urban planning, Jordan studied with R. Buckminster Fuller in the early 1960s and conceived an "architectural redesign [plan] for Harlem," which was published in Esquire magazine in 1965.

In 1967, she began her teaching career at City College of New York, the first of a series of positions that included stops at Yale University and Sarah Lawrence College and finally led to her appointment as a tenured professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She left that campus in 1989 for a post at UC Berkeley.

Her classes at Berkeley were wildly popular. She was also the founder and director of the Poetry for the People program at the university.

In that program, according to Rich, she taught undergraduate students how to teach poetry and they would take it out to the community, offering workshops in secondary schools and prisons and to homeless people throughout the Bay Area.

"She wanted students to write for themselves and develop an independence in style," Rich said. "The ripple effect of her teaching was enormous."

Jordan told a Times reporter some years ago that she viewed writing poetry as devotional work.

"When I sit down to write a poem, it's like listening. I'm listening for a poem. I have to get quiet enough to hear it. Basically, I can't, like, invent stuff. Poetry is not fiction."

A critic in the journal Poetry noted that Jordan's literary "expression is developed out of, or through, a fine irony that manages to control her bitterness, even to dominate her rage against the intolerable, so that she can laugh and cry, be melancholic and scornful, presenting always the familiar faces of human personality, integral personality."

Jordan was not concerned about taking difficult political stances in her writing and commentary on world issues. She believed that no single issue could be separated from the rest.

She offered backing for the Palestinians in the early 1980s and condemned the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. She later said her position cost her work in the journalism community and some ostracism in the feminist press.

In the early 1990s, she organized a teach-in against the arms build-up in the Middle East. Near the end of the Persian Gulf War, she wrote a long poem, "The Bombing of Baghdad," which drew parallels between that war's bombing and the U.S. persecution of American Indians.

Most recently she was a columnist for The Progressive, reflecting on the African American experience to questions of international politics and domestic policies under several administrations.

"She was well-informed and brilliant," Rich said.

Her numerous awards over the years included The Berkeley Citation for distinguished achievement and notable service, presented last year by the University of California; a congressional citation for her outstanding contributions to literature, the progressive movement and the civil rights movement, awarded in 1990; a Prix de Rome in environmental design in 1970; and a Rockefeller grant in creative writing in 1969.

Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

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