June Jordan's True Grit.
These poems, they are things that I do in the dark reaching for you whoever you are and are you ready?
--June Jordan, from Things That I Do in the Dark, [C] 1980
I think you better join with me to agitate and agitate for justice and equality we can eat and pay the rent with NOW.
--June Jordan, from "Jim Crow: The Sequel"
She hits you like an A-Bomb, and like the misunderstood atom, Jordan--slightly built, soft-voiced and with a sweetly infectious laugh--is often underestimated by those against whom she finds herself in opposition. Her new memoir, Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (Basic Civitas Books, May 2000) offers precious documentation of the consummate tough girl. Born in a Harlem heat wave in 1936 and raised first in the newly constructed Harlem projects then in the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Jordan's story is that of a vulnerable girl learning the survival strategies necessary to negotiate the hostile terrain of mid-twentieth century America.
Jordan is the only child of West Indian immigrant parents who had high ambitions for her. Her father was particularly strict, and allowed for nothing that might distract his only child from growing up to become the strong son he'd always wanted. "Regardless of any particulars about me, he was convinced that a `Negro' parent had to produce a child who could become a virtual white man and, therefore, possess dignity and power," recalls Jordan in Soldier, reflecting on the motivations of his pseudo-military method of childrearing. "Probably it seemed easier to change me than to change the meaning and complexion of power. He taught me everything from the perspective of a recruiting warrior. There was a war going on against colored people, against poor people. I had to become a soldier who would rise through the ranks and emerge a commander of men."
She was "that crazy Jordan girl" from a young age, never backing away from a fight with a neighborhood bully, no matter that they were all considerably bigger than she. Jordan began learning the important lessons of standing up for herself as a 4-year-old. "I was clear about one thing: A really excellent way to stop somebody from hitting you is to hit them back."
Soldier is Jordan's twenty-sixth book, marking her as the most frequently published African American writer in history. Yet it is hard to go into a bookstore and find her many volumes lining the shelves. Instead, one finds a conspicuously dismaying absence, perhaps a single copy of one or two titles. Her willingness to tell it like it is without apology keeps her work, no matter how widespread her critical acclaim, out of the mainstream.
Singled out as "our premiere Black woman essayist" by no less than Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Jordan has had a rich literary career spanning over three decades. "When I came out with Civil Wars (reprinted by Simon & Schuster, August 1995), a million years ago," says Jordan, dotting her speech with her trademark conspiratorial laugh, "a lot of black writers that I know started thinking about writing essays. Toni Cade Bambara said she'd never thought about keeping track of what's going on in that way and [she said] maybe she was going to do that too."
We would be remiss, however, to label Jordan merely as a poet, or even an essayist, and leave it at that. Like many African American artists, Jordan uses her unique ability in a variety of forms. Jordan's resume reads like a who's who in literary honoraria from Rockefeller and NEA fellowships, to grants and awards from private and public organizations across the country. She has received the Prix de Rome Environmental Design Award and was recently given the
American Institute of Architecture's Award for Architectural Design (1998) for a joint proposal for the African Burial Ground in New York City. She has even had her face depicted on a Ugandan postage stamp!
As professor in the African American Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley, she established the wildly successful Poetry for the People program in 1991. It began as a two-part series of courses training selected students to become poetry teachers. Student teachers, myself included, tested their skills in a large-scale university course where they taught, under Jordan's direction, the power of poetry from a multicultural world view. Since then she has sent scores of these new trainees out into the world, expanding the program to include churches, high schools and community centers.
It's a warm spring afternoon in New York City as Jordan and I saunter slowly into a trendy new Euro-Asian restaurant. Over a delicately flavorful, remarkably overpriced lunch, we spoke about why someone who had led such a full and interesting life as Jordan would choose to limit her long-awaited memoir to her pre-pubescent years. "Childhood everywhere in the world is a political situation. Politics is about power; and if you are a child, you have no power," states Jordan, her agitation at the often-perilous plight of the least represented majority in the world clearly visible. "The childhood relationship to power is critical--if you're the child it's all about you not having any and the folks around you having it all. `Let's have a relationship,' says this impossibly big man or woman. These are the beginning terms: you're completely dependent on me and I'm going to tell you what to do and you're going to do it."
A close look at her body of work reveals just how in sync with her political concerns and deep affection for children such an intensely personal undertaking actually was. Her earliest publications were the children's books she wrote and edited in the late '60s and early '70s including His Own Where (HarperCollins Childrens's Books, January 1971), the first American novel written wholly in Black English. With Soldier, Jordan returns to the realm of children, whom she classifies as the most universally powerless group of people on earth, and beginning with herself, gives them voice. "Every one of us has a childhood and each of us has to negotiate our place in that," says Jordan.
Soldier confides in her readers, sharing a frightening world for this little-girl-June, of whom we're instantly protective. Yet we are comforted by this marvelously strong child who maneuvers the twists and turns of her journey boldly offering readers an uncompromising gaze at all she finds. "I wanted to get [the story] right," she says, modestly eating her vegetables and reminiscing on the process of honestly telling the delicate story of her harsh upbringing. "So it was a bit scary. I was just fooling around for a while with different beginnings and storylines until finally I got the first sentence of the book, and then it kept pouring out."
What poured out, is uncompromising, poetic prose painted with hard brushes in soft colors. Her story is offered as a promise that we can become whole and carry others into wholeness with us. Readers watch this small young soldier in a poignant ending that is also a new beginning. "That was a very difficult ending to write. didn't know until I wrote it just how hard it was because then I could really see her. I re-wrote that last section because I didn't want people to say `oh, this is terrible.' This is the end of her childhood, and I wanted people to feel positive and hopeful while steadfast in the reality that this is the end--now what? Black Boy, Brown Girl, Brownswnes, Go Tell It On The Mountain, those stories stop closer to childhood. I hope that this will stand beside them, that Soldier will spawn similar efforts among other people who never thought about doing this. It will make possible, if there are more of us doing this, for us to connect with each other in ways that we never seem really able to do. This is our story, much of your story and my story is the same, but we haven't taken the time to tell it yet."
At the end of this remarkably touching narrative there is a real sense of hope. Says Jordan, "I was looking forward definitely, not looking back ... Hafla, to forget, is a sin in Islamic tradition. To remember is to praise God; I don't know how you can remember without some documentation. I hope that what folks will take away from the book is that we've made it, we're here. Here's my proof."
--Samiya A. Bashir, a former teacher-poet with the Poetry for the People program, is the Senior Editor of BIBR.
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|Author:||Bashir, Samiya A.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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