Who was June Jordan?

July 07, 2004

June Jordan
Bisexual poet and essayist June Jordan devoted her life and work to the struggles of oppressed and disenfranchised people throughout the world. Her belief that all forms of oppression are connected led writer Alice Walker to dub her "the universal poet."

Jordan was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in Harlem on July 9, 1936, and grew up in Brooklyn. Her father, a postal worker, and her mother, a nurse, worked hard to give their only daughter an excellent education. Jordan attended the private Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts and later Barnard College.

In 1955 – a time when interracial relationships were socially condemned and legally prohibited in much of the country – Jordan married Michael Meyer, a white student who shared her passion for political activism; the couple remained together for 10 years and had a son.

Jordan also had sexual and romantic relationships with women. One such liaison helped her grasp the meaning of the movement slogan "Black Is Beautiful." While working as a reporter for the New York Times, Jordan dined with a young woman who had recently arrived from Mississippi. "I got a glimpse of her face under that huge Afro-crown she was wearing and there was nothing I did not understand," Jordan recalled. "[N]ot only was black beautiful to me, to a most personally inspiring degree, but also Black Is Beautiful galvanized my political determinations to make all of Mississippi a safe and gracious home for black folks."

Jordan's personal experiences helped forge her belief that all forms of suffering are interconnected, and spurred her evolution "from an observer to a victim to an activist." This conviction led her to champion the causes of oppressed people in the American South, South Africa, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Bosnia. "[T]he difference between South Africa and rape and my mother trying to change my face and my father wanting me to be a boy was not an important difference to me," she said in a 1981 interview. "It all violates self-determination."

While Jordan was lauded for her incisive poems and essays about racial justice and the status of women, she received less recognition for her work against heterosexism, which she felt was equally important. "If we even tolerate any oppression of gay and lesbian Americans, if we join those who would intrude upon the choices of our hearts," she asked, "then who among us shall be free?"

Jordan was not afraid to challenge black men about their misogyny, feminists about their racism, or gay men and lesbians about their prejudice toward bisexuals. "[T]he keenly positive, politicizing significance of bisexual affirmation," she wrote, "[is] to insist upon the equal validity of all of the components of social/sexual complexity."

Jordan published several collections of essays, children's literature, and the first novel written entirely in black English; she also co-wrote an opera and penned a regular column in The Progressive magazine. Jordan had a passion for teaching others to write as well. She worked as a professor for most of her career and founded the University of California at Berkeley' s Poetry for the People program.

Despite a 10-year battle with breast cancer, Jordan remained an activist into her final years. A peace activist since the Vietnam War, she spoke at an antiwar rally in Berkeley following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, proclaiming "I honor the victims by dedicating myself against all violence." Jordan died on June 14, 2002, at the age of 65.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

For further reading:

  • Jordan, June (2000). Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (Basic).
  • Jordan, June (2002). Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan (Basic/Civitas). `

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