June Jordan was born in Harlem in 1936, the daughter of West Indian immigrant parents. As she recounts in her 1999 memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, she passed her childhood years amid violence of many kinds. She began writing poetry very young, left home to attend a girls’ school in New England, attended Barnard College, was briefly married to a white man, had one son and a long and illustrious university teaching career. She died of breast cancer in Berkeley, California in 2002.
Jordan as Poet:
Jordan’s poems are direct, often angry but always eloquent and literary, crafted at the intersection of personal detail and political struggle. She often said that writing poetry was inevitably a political act, and many of her poems explicitly embody struggles against racism and sexism and towards liberation, evidenced in titles like Song for Soweto, Freedom Now Suite, and Poem To Take Back the Night.
Jordan as Political Activist:
In an interview on KQED public television, Jordan attributed her political passion snd feistiness to her father’s having taught her to fight as a young girl: Well, my father taught me how to box, and I think that was maybe the most important thing I ever learned. I try to affect the way people think about things.... And I also try to get people mad, you know, basically punch people in the nose sort of thing, and or pull ’em along as much as I can politically.
Jordan as Teacher:
June Jordan began her teaching career at City College of New York and held teaching positions at Yale, Sarah Lawrence and SUNY Stonybrook before she moved to California in 1989 to take a position at UC Berkeley. There she re-energized the teaching of poetry in founding Poetry for the People, a program intended to bring poetry reading and writing to life for students from all cultures and disciplines, to foster students’ passion for poetry and so inspire and empower them to go out and teach others.
Books by June Jordan:
- Some of Us Did Not Die: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 2002)
- Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood (Basic Books, 2000)
- Affirmative Acts: Political Essays (Doubleday, 1998)
- Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991-1996 (Doubleday, 1997)
- June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint (Routledge, 1995)
- Haruko/Love Poems (High Risk Books, 1994)
- Naming Our Destiny: New & Selected Poems (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989)