June Jordan and the Language of Your Life

— Ellen S. Jaffe

WHEN I PUBLISHED Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal, in 2001, I dedicated it to my parents and my son, and to “The Children, now Adults, in the writing group `The Voice of the Children,' led by poet June Jordan and teacher Terri Bush: working with this group helped me see how writing can change the world.”

As I write this tribute to June Jordan, who died on June 14, 2002, I am more convinced than ever of the truth of those words -- and filled with grief that June Jordan, herself, is no longer in this world. She does leave us, however, her writings -- poetry and prose -- and for those who knew her (even slightly) our memories and our enrichment from the encounter.

June was able to help people find the poetry in themselves, to take “control of the language of your life.” (Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, 1995)

One of her early poems (1966) was titled “In My Own Quietly Explosive Here” (in Things That I Do in the Dark: Selected Poems, 1977), and these words, I think, describe her well.

Julius Lester said of her, “. . . she's quiet, but the intensity is frightening. Her poetry is highly disciplined, highly controlled. It's tight, like the Muddy Waters Blues Band is tight.” (Introduction to Some Changes, 1971).

For June Jordan, the personal is political is personal, like the Moebius strip of folded paper where one side is always becoming the other.

The essay “A Powerful Hatred” (in Affirmative Acts: Political Essays, 1998) begins with the words “What a sunny day!” June describes some delights of the world, but then says:

“There is a powerful hatred loose in the world. And everything and everyone we cherish is endangered. And so I would have to be some kind of really nearsighted fool to wallow in what's left of the world that's gorgeous and freely given and natural and sweet and hot and unpredictable and delicate for growing things.
I'd be a wallowing fool unless I also tried to eliminate, or reduce, that hatred than can take all that we have away from us.

June fought the “good fight” against this hatred; she did not succumb to it, or lose sight of the sweetness and passion in the world and between people. Joy Harjo's words about poetry are relevant to June Jordan's work: “Ultimately, a poem has an electrical force-field, which is love.”

Memories: Voice of the Children

My memories of her go back a long way.

New York, April 1968 -- shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King on Good Friday. My first meeting with June Jordan. I had returned to my native New York after university, and was working at WBAI-FM, part of the Pacifica network. (June later worked with their sister-station, KPFA, in San Francisco.)

I read in The Village Voice about a children's writing group that June Jordan, together with teacher Terri Bush, was leading in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and I invited the group to read and talk about their work on the radio.

Once meeting them, I was hooked. Drawn in by their heartfelt poems, by June's dynamic presence and Terri's quiet assurance, I found myself working with the group every Saturday, at the Church of the Open Door in Brooklyn.

June and Terri worked well together, despite -- or because of -- their different backgrounds. June Jordan was born in Harlem and grew up in Brooklyn; her love of language, both reading and writing, began in early childhood.

Terri Bush was white, born in Mississippi; her husband, Dr. Jim Bush, was the doctor who tried to save the four little girls who were victims of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

Their writing group, “The Voice of the Children,” was founded under the auspices of the Teachers' and Writers' Collaborative, then located at Teachers College, Columbia University. Instead of going into school classrooms (as many writers did), June and Terri worked with the Black and Hispanic kids outside of school on Saturday mornings, first in Harlem, then in Fort Greene.

Later, as a Professor of African-American Studies at U.C. Berkeley, June developed her widely known continuing workshop, “Poetry for the People.” The Voice of the Children, I am sure, was one of the seeds of that group: a place where young people could find their voice -- their many voices, their own truths -- as well as discover the works of a variety of other writers.

Other volunteers came to help with the group: Anna Winnand, a photographer; Millen Brand, a gentle older man and well-known writer and editor. June came with her son Christopher Meyer, then about 7 or 8.

The children (usually ranging in age from 9-14 or 15) went on outings in the city, and that first summer, we went to camp in Toronto, Ohio, using a campsite owned by an elderly Black teacher who used it as a camp for the “retarded” children she taught (we didn't have other euphemisms at that time, maybe especially for ghetto children).

Our group integrated the town swimming pool, creating shock-waves in the small community, and upsetting our landlady herself. What impressed me most was the energy of the group, their vitality and fierce passions, and their acceptance of these strange white, middle-class adults who wanted to be with them.

I can still clearly see that wide open basement room, the kids' laughter and singing and sometimes tears. In a short essay about the group (“The Voice of the Children,” in Moving Toward Home: Political Essays, 1989), June wrote, “I am not sure, any longer, that there is a difference between writing and living. And I thought, maybe I will say that to the kids, and maybe that is how we will begin writing together, this morning.”

Triumph and Tragedy

The group published mimeographed poetry newsletters, and in 1970 published a book of their writings (The Voice of the Children). One or two of the individual young people also published their own books.

Sometimes June wrote with the kids: one of these poems, written with a boy named Michael Goode, contains her line, “Me and Michael stammering around a search for poem.”

I was struck by the difference between the children's dismissal of school as irrelevant at best, and their enthusiasm in the group, so I went to teachers' college, hoping to find a way to make school itself speak to their lives.

Later, I went to England to observe education and then to study child psychotherapy. I kept in touch with the group and thus learned how tragedy struck in 1973: Michael Angelo Thompson, younger brother of Glen, was badly injured in a street accident, and was refused treatment by a city hospital although bleeding from the head.

He died en route to a second hospital. June wrote a poem, which begins:

FOR MICHAEL ANGELO THOMPSON
(October 25, 1959-March 23, 1973)

So Brooklyn has become a holy place
the streets have turned to meadowland
where
wild
free
ponies
eat among the wild
free
flowers
growing there
Please do not forget.
A tiger does not fall or stumble
broken by an accident.
A tiger does not lose his stride or
clumsy
slip and slide to tragedy
that buzzards feast upon.
Do not forget.
The Black prince Michael Black boy
our young brother
has not “died”
he
has not “passed away”
the Black prince Michael Black boy
our young brother
He was killed.
He did not die . . .
(1973, in Things That I Do in the Dark).

During this time, June received a Rockefeller Foundation award for creative writing, and the Prix de Rome in Environmental Design from the American Academy in Rome.

In addition to poetry and essays, she wrote her ground-breaking book for young people, His Own Where. She eventually moved to Berkeley, and, in the midst of writing and teaching, had to deal with the fact of her own breast cancer and the fears and courage with which she faced that fact.

Politics and Communities of Trust

She wrote about political situations, including the Gulf War and the Palestinians, and about the role of women, and women loving women.

Our actual paths did not cross again, after I came to live in Canada in 1979. However, as I have gone on writing and teaching writing to adults and to children (in schools from rural Ontario to inner city, multicultural Toronto to the Six Nations reserve), I have maintained and tried to impart June's belief in the importance of creating “a community of trust,” where people can find their
voice: the right to speak in their own language, to expose injustice, to tell their love; above all the right to tell the truth about their lives, their observations, their feelings, and their imaginings.

I also learned from her to recognize and honor the interdependence of the individual and the community. June wrote:

I ain't going nowhere unless you come with me
I say I ain't goin nowhere lessen you come with me
I ain't about to be some leaf that lose its tree
So take my hand see how I'm reachin out for you
Hey here's my hand see now I'm reachin out for you
We got a whole lot more than only one of us can do.
(Coda, Poetry for the People)

Ultimately, June Jordan takes us to a place where we meet, encounter, and embrace the humanity of the other who is ourself:

His name is not our name
we
who survive the death
of men and women
whose beloved
breath
becomes (at last)
our own.
(Excerpt from “Kissing God Goodbye: Poem in the Face of Operation Rescue,” in Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997.)

ATC 100, September-October 2002