June Jordan: A Poet for the People

Revolutionary Worker #1160, July 28, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

We received this correspondence:

On June 14, the people of the world lost a beautiful voice. June Jordan, writer, teacher, and activist, died after ten years of battling breast cancer.

June Jordan was a compassionate, angry, dedicated poet who inspired thousands of students and readers to use poetry as a weapon and to speak about, in her words, "unspeakable events"--the suffering of the people of the world and the indictment of those who caused it. She was also a beloved teacher. She founded the famous Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, which became a model for groups around the country after she and several of her students published June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint in 1995. Her Poetry for the People class, which was nearly always overenrolled, and her public readings, which were always packed, were based on breaking down the barrier between the artists and the masses. Students taught each other in small groups--and then taught classes in the community and read their poems at political rallies.

She was my professor for two years. There were some views we did not share (like whether the U.S. should have gone into Kosovo or whether elections were the route to liberation for Black people), but she was an inspiration, a model, and a guide to me and many other students.

June Jordan displayed a very internationalist spirit, both in her work and in her teaching. She wrote about the U.S. sending troops into Nicaragua, the Persian Gulf War, the struggle in South Africa, the struggle of the Palestinian people, and the Israeli massacre in Lebanon in 1982.

She also wrote about and fought for women's liberation in poems about rape and sexual abuse. The poem "Owed to Eminem" confronted the artist about his violently anti-woman lyrics. Her essays and poems reflected her experience as a bisexual Black woman.

In Poetry for the People, students learned about the experience and worldviews of different cultures and combined that knowledge with an understanding of the current situation facing those peoples. So students read the Koran, studied Middle Eastern history, and then wrote poems about Palestine. After the Oakland School Board said that Black English should be recognized as a distinct language, she assigned her students to write poems in Black English. After California passed Proposition 227, the racist and xenophobic initiative that forced children to learn in "English only," the class read poetry by Latino poets like Sandra Cisneros and Martín Espada and wrote poetry of protest--in whatever language the students chose. When New York City pigs fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo in February 1999, the incident became a poetry assignment.

The students who taught sections of Poetry for the People were required to take poetry out to the masses. So they taught at Dublin Women's Prison, at Berkeley High, at elementary schools in Oakland, at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, and at bilingual workshops in the Mission District.

June explained that the goal of Poetry for the People was to "make audible the inaudible and visible the invisible." She said, "Poetry has been falsely viewed as a province for privileged folks and for the extremely gifted. [But] poetry derives from an oral tradition throughout the world. It comes from the people and needs to be given back to the people."

June taught her students to write poetry that captured something real and true--so students wrote about violence in their families, the experience of immigrants in this country, the assault on affirmative action, and the Irish struggle for independence from Britain. Students were encouraged to ask, "Who is this poem for? What do you want them to understand?"

In 1996, after the U.S. Poet Laureate told the San Francisco Chronicle that there are "obvious" poets (all of them white) and "representative" poets (none of them white), she wrote the following:

and after twisted kicks
and billy sticks
to knock us down to
knock us down
to ground
our fathers and our mothers
laboring to escape
the leather whip
you label who
or unqualified?

Cancer took June from us at an unprecedented moment in history, as the United States is planning to roll up the world and as the bloody-jawed wolves who run this country are going around the world proclaiming to be the "good guys" while the blood they spilled has not even dried. Her sense of irony and passion for justice would have made some powerful poetry out of the current world situation. Just as we needed her more than ever, we lost the woman who threw herself on the side of the Palestinian struggle and linked up the struggle of Black people in this country with that of an occupied people half a world away.

Jordan was the author or editor of 28 books--poetry, essays, novels, and the libretto for an opera. The New York Times said her career was "forged in the black arts movement of the 60's and 70's" and noted that she was the most widely published African-American writer in the U.S. But the obit by Free Speech TV tells about another aspect of her career which the NYT did not see fit to mention: After she began writing and speaking about Palestine in the early 1980s, her agent dropped her, her publisher refused to keep any of her books in print, and the New York Times declared that it would never publish anything by her again. Jordan refused to back down and continued to write about the lives and the stories of the people around the world, in words that will live on in many of our brains forever.

June Jordan will be sorely missed.

A member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade

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