One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was known for her fierce commitment to human rights and political activism. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: for civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. A prolific writer across genres, Jordan’s poetry is known for its immediacy and accessibility as well as its interest in identity and the representation of personal, lived experience—her poetry is often deeply autobiographical. Jordan’s work also frequently imagines a radical, globalized notion of solidarity amongst the world’s marginalized and oppressed.
Born July 9, 1936, in Harlem, New York, Jordan had a difficult childhood and an especially fraught relationship with her father. Her parents were both Jamaican immigrants and, she recalled in Civil Wars: Selected Essays, 1963-80(1981), “for a long while during childhood I was relatively small, short, and, in some other ways, a target for bully abuse. In fact, my father was the first regular bully in my life.” But Jordan also has positive memories of her childhood and it was during her early years that she began to write. Though becoming a poet “did not compute” for her parents, they did send the teen-aged Jordan to prep schools where she was the only Black student.
In an interview with Alternative Radio before her death, Jordan was asked about the role of the poet in society. Jordan replied: “The role of the poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words.” She continued: “Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks…I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that it’s a spirit task.”
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clearmy head about this poem about why I can’tgo out without changing my clothes my shoesmy body posture my gender identity my agemy status as a woman alone in the evening/alone on the streets/alone not being the point/the point being that I can’t do what I wantto do with my own body because I am the wrongsex the wrong age the wrong skin andsuppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/or far into the woods and I wanted to gothere by myself thinking about God/or thinkingabout children or thinking about the world/all of itdisclosed by the stars and the silence:I could not go and I could not think and I could notstay therealoneas I need to bealone because I can’t do what I want to do with my ownbody andwho in the hell set things uplike thisand in France they say if the guy penetratesbut does not ejaculate then he did not rape meand if after stabbing him if after screams ifafter begging the bastard and if even after smashinga hammer to his head if even after that if heand his buddies fuck me after thatthen I consented and there wasno rape because finally you understand finallythey fucked me over because I was wrong I waswrong again to be me being me where I was/wrongto be who I amwhich is exactly like South Africapenetrating into Namibia penetrating intoAngola and does that mean I mean how do you know ifPretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like theproof of the monster jackboot ejaculation on Blacklandand ifafter Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabweand if after all of my kinsmen and women resist even toself-immolation of the villages and if after thatwe lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will theyclaim my consent:Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people ofthe wrong skin on the wrong continent and whatin the hell is everybody being reasonable aboutand according to the Times this weekback in 1966 the C.I.A. decided that they had this problemand the problem was a man named Nkrumah so theykilled him and before that it was Patrice Lumumbaand before that it was my father on the campusof my Ivy League school and my father afraidto walk into the cafeteria because he said hewas wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wronggender identity and he was paying my tuition andbefore thatit was my father saying I was wrong saying thatI should have been a boy because he wanted one/aboy and that I should have been lighter skinned andthat I should have had straighter hair and thatI should not be so boy crazy but instead I shouldjust be one/a boy and before thatit was my mother pleading plastic surgery formy nose and braces for my teeth and telling meto let the books loose to let them loose in otherwordsI am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.and the problems of South Africa and the problemsof Exxon Corporation and the problems of whiteAmerica in general and the problems of the teachersand the preachers and the F.B.I. and the socialworkers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am veryfamiliar with the problems because the problemsturn out to bemeI am the history of rapeI am the history of the rejection of who I amI am the history of the terrorized incarceration ofmyselfI am the history of battery assault and limitlessarmies against whatever I want to do with my mindand my body and my soul andwhether it’s about walking out at nightor whether it’s about the love that I feel orwhether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina orthe sanctity of my national boundariesor the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctityof each and every desirethat I know from my personal and idiosyncraticand indisputably single and singular heartI have been rapedbe-cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong agethe wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair thewrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographicthe wrong sartorial II have been the meaning of rapeI have been the problem everyone seeks toeliminate by forcedpenetration with or without the evidence of slime and/but let this be unmistakable this poemis not consent I do not consentto my mother to my father to the teachers tothe F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuyto Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardonidlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps incarsI am not wrong: Wrong is not my nameMy name is my own my own my ownand I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like thisbut I can tell you that from now on my resistancemy simple and daily and nightly self-determinationmay very well cost you your life