June Jordan: Reflections on her Life and Activism

June Jordan, a major writer shaped by the black arts and the feminist movements of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, refused to let her art, her sexuality, or her politics be put in a box. At a recent MEC forum on Jordan held at the Brooklyn Library, scholars agreed that Jordan’s work needs to be introduced to a new generation and that her voice is sorely needed during this time of political tumult.

The program on Thursday, April 20, was presented by MEC’s Center for Black Literature and the College’s Center for Law and Social Justice. It was a poetry month partnership with the Brooklyn library.

“June Jordan: Reflections on her Life and Activism,” featured readings and a conversation about Jordan, who died in 2002 at age 65.

She was a poet, essayist, playwright, activist, educator and the author of more than 25 books. As a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Jordan started the Poetry for the People project, which included a program to introduce poetry to local high school students.

The scope of her work was wide. Toni Morrison viewed Jordan “as responsive to slaughter in Baghdad as she is to rape in the kitchen, as outraged by state lies as she is made delirious by love.” In her obituary, the New York Times said that Jordan’s poetry “was imbued with advocacy for the poor, for women, and the disenfranchised.”

“June Jordan was a powerful contributor to who we are as a people,” said Lurie Daniel Favors, general counsel for the Center for Law and Social Justice. Favors noted, though, that too many young people are unfamiliar with Jordan’s work. Later in the evening, scholars said that Jordan needs to be more widely taught and studied.

Dr. Brenda Greene, executive director of the Center for Black Literature and chair of MEC’s Department of English, led a conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller and Valerie Kinloch, with Joan P. Gibbs as a respondent. Miller, a writer and literary activist, was a close friend of Jordan. Kinloch, a Professor of Literary Studies at Ohio State University, is a Jordan biographer. Gibbs, a longtime activist, writer and attorney, retired from MEC’s Center for Law and Social Justice.

“Her poetry is a constant reminder that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” said Miller, who read some of his poems to Jordan as well as her poems to him. The phrase “we are the ones we have been waiting for,” was used by Jordan in a poem about protest against apartheid.

Kinloch, the author of “June Jordan: Her Life and Letters,” said she learned about Jordan on her own when was in college. She insisted to her professors that black women writers needed to be taught. Kinloch recalled the joy of Jordan poems like “Calling on All Silent Minorities.”

“She talked about how we actually have to stand for something,” Kinloch said.