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An Appreciation

A Writer Intent on Rallying the Spirit of Survival

Poet June Jordan cast a penetrating eye on issues both political and personal

June 20, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let fly that graying mantra--"The personal is political"--and it scares up grainy icons of resistance: pickets, protest songs, afros huge as nimbuses. But for poet, essayist, teacher and activist June Jordan, who came of age as a woman and a writer in a moment when the once-powerless moved mountains, the merger of public and private was more than fashion. It was her foundation.

Jordan, who died Friday at her home in Berkeley after a decade-long battle with breast cancer, spent her life stitching together the personal and political so the seams didn't show.

"She really walked her talk," says award-winning L.A. poet Ruth Forman ("Renaissance," Beacon Press, 1999), who studied with Jordan at Berkeley in the early '90s. "She influenced me more than any other poet. If there was something going on in the world that she thought we should struggle against, she would be the first person to speak at a rally."

Poet Michael Datcher, whom Jordan mentored through his own difficult days at Berkeley, agrees. "Her commitment to truth in her own life was the source from which her poetry came. Her example of pursuing truth and justice is what inspired us to take on the mission in our own lives."

The author of 28 books, Jordan saw the page as a powerful platform. As an African American woman, she was particularly attuned to the struggle of not simply finding a voice but truly being heard. Her lifelong activism addressed issues ranging from racism, education and police brutality to conflicts in the Middle East, Nicaragua and Africa. And involvement in such issues lent a serrated edge to her writing--no matter the form. "She epitomizes a particular kind of strength of American poetry," wrote poet Marilyn Hacker, "that of the politically engaged poet whose commitment is ... joined to her work as it is to her life."

Rough Beginnings

Jordan's early life provided a textured back-story for her work, tough years that would become first a window, then a prism. Born in Harlem in 1936 to Jamaican immigrants, Jordan watched her parents struggle for a foothold. Her mother, a nurse, was quiet, intensely religious. Her father, a postal worker, came to the United States in his late teens and taught himself to read and write. But after the family's move to Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Jordan's father became prone to fits of anger and violence--much of it directed at his daughter. Many years later she would write of the abuse in "Soldier: A Poet's Childhood" (Basic Civitas Books, 2000). She was never quite sure what inspired his rages: "My father had to withstand tremendous humiliation and also fear," she said in a 2000 interview in Z Magazine. "[He] was afraid that he would fail to prevent me from failing." Her father wanted her to be fearless, a soldier, as he prepared her for "life as a black person in this country."

Camping, fishing and mastering tools weren't the only things that Granville Jordan considered survival essentials for a daughter he referred to as "this child him my son." He also made poems and novels part of her arsenal. He brought home Shakespeare, Sinclair Lewis and Zane Grey, broadening the landscape of her imagination. And, instead of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, black writers of the moment, she sank into the familiar worlds and cadences of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poetry celebrated the lilting speech of black folk.

Literature took hold in ways she couldn't have imagined. She memorized English poets and sold verse to neighborhood friends who needed the right words to break off a relationship. "I got connected to people as far as what they were really feeling and jittery about or excited about," she told Z Magazine. "I loved that connection and I was crazy about the fact that other kids trusted me that I wouldn't miscarry what they meant. I'd do my best.... From that I got the idea that poetry could be useful."

Her love affair with language propelled her through her a rigorous course of studies in prep school, then college, but she ultimately graduated into the civil rights and black aesthetic movements of the '60s and '70s, where her heart remained. The electricity of a climate of fast-forward change evinced to her that the impossible could be made possible every day. Her commitment to the struggle for black rights--joining the Freedom Riders, meeting Malcolm X--proved to be pivotal and galvanizing. But it took a personal toll, dissolving a 10-year marriage to Michael Meyer, a white student with whom she had a son, Christopher.

Her life as a working single mother in the mid- to late '60s, recovering from her own mother's suicide, greatly influenced her work and sharpened her focus. She made her mark writing about both social revolution and the close space of relationships with equal urgency and intimacy, refusing to be pigeonholed. That determination was underscored in the refrain of "Poem about My Rights: "I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own."

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