June Jordan and the new black intellectuals.
Thirty years ago Harold Cruse, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, argued that the role of the black intellectual is necessarily dual in nature: "The Negro intellectual must deal intimately with the white power structure and cultural apparatus, and the inner realities of the black world at one and the same time" (451). Cruse's call for a synthesis of the intellectual relationship with and responsibility to both a black and a white audience, like West's race-transcending prophet, echoes the turn-of-the-century argument and rhetorical project of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois famously defined the African American as possessing a double-consciousness, as being split between an essential sense of self and an identity reflected back through the power of the white gaze. Du Bois's difficult task, and the task of all African-American intellectuals that follow him, is to address both aspects of this definition. As Du Bois wrote in his critique of Booker T. Washington, racial inequality is not a problem that can be located within and solved by a single race, "when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs" (94). Du Bois's worry was that Washington was focusing too much on what blacks could do to address their situation, thus letting the white power structure ignore its responsibility for the "Negro Problem." Today, critics like Reed and Wilentz wonder if the new black intellectuals are gaining their national reputations at the expense of losing sight of the inner realities of the black world.
For me, the location of the ideas of the new black intellectuals cannot easily be graphed within this old binary, because their ideas are too diverse and too much in flux. Instead, as a way of raising some questions that this debate has ignored, I want to call attention to something, or more specifically someone, who has been left out of this debate about the shape and meaning of the new black intellectuals. If the need for a race-transcending prophet that can effectively advocate the ideas and goals of blacks to both black and white audiences were recognized at least as long ago as Du Bois's 1903 the Souls of Black Folk, why then must black intellectuals keep invoking this role as that which has not yet been achieved? Who has come closest to achieving this synthesis, and what models are available for the new crop of intellectuals? What has impeded black intellectuals from taking on this role, and what are the conditions necessary for it to be effected? In this essay, I pursue answers to these questions not in the reported or actual achievements of the new crop of black public intellectuals, but in the career of the artist, activist, and intellectual June Jordan, who has been excluded from the media representation of the new generation of African-American intellectuals, but who is nevertheless effecting a transition in the way that the black intellectual functions in American culture. First, however, I want to establish the models for an African-American intellectual available to Jordan as she embarked on her career.
From Negro Spokesperson to Black Artist
The mid- and late 1960s saw a radical transformation in the African-American Civil Rights Movement and a concomitant change in the expectations for what an African-American intellectual was to do. The 1963 March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1963, and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 were the culmination of the non-violent crusade to guarantee the political rights of African Americans. Once these goals were achieved, some of the younger participants in the Movement, spurred by the realization that legislative and judicial reform did not necessarily lead to changes in the daily lives of African Americans, became more radical in their politics, and began to direct their activism more toward cultural practices than toward the government. William Van Deburg, in New Day in Babylon, his excellent study of Black Power as a cultural and political moment, traces the origins of this shift to the experiences of Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists in Mississippi during the summers of 1964 and 1965. In Mississippi the SNCC workers became aware of the weak sense of community and lack of political and historical knowledge among rural Southern blacks. The young activists' response to this realization was to set up Freedom Schools to increase knowledge about black history and pride in the black community (Van Deburg 49-51). The goals of the SNCC activists, and those of the Black Power Movement that emerged in their wake, were in agreement with those articulated by Malcolm X in his June 1964 speech "Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives of the Organization of Afro-American Unity." Here Malcolm X called for a renewed attention to cultural issues in order to unify and raise the consciousness of African Americans: "We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy. . . . We must launch a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people" (qtd. in Van Deburg 5). With the rise of the Black Power Movement and its focus on black identity and history rather than white responsibility for black victimization, the African-American social movements of the 1960s moved from the integrative political goals and peaceful protest strategies of King and the SCLC, to a cultural nationalism, born of Malcolm X and the experiences of SNCC, that began to adopt the language of revolution and separatism.
This shift in goals also signaled a shift in the relationship of the African-American intellectual to his audience. More specifically, his audience itself began to change, and as it changed so too did assumptions about the proper role of the African-American artist and intellectual. This shift can most easily be seen in a comparison of the intellectual and rhetorical strategies of James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, writers whose precedents June Jordan negotiates in her work. The issues and questions that Baldwin takes up in his 1951 essay "Many Thousands Gone" constitute many of the typical moves for which he would be criticized in the 1960s:
The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. . . . The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that. He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle. One may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds. (24-25)
Baldwin poses the "Negro Problem" as an American problem; the Negro is not a real person but rather a construct placed upon a group of people by the darkness of the American mind. Thus, for Baldwin, Du Bois's problem of the color line is less a problem of the social practices that divide whites from blacks than of the imaginative divide that threatens the coherence of the American identity. There is much force in Baldwin's argument. Like Du Bois he wants to stress the national responsibility for the Negro problem. By figuring the Negro as an imaginative construct that paradoxically both enables and endangers the successful articulation of an American identity, Baldwin argues that it is in America's best interest to confront the meaning and implications of this imagined Negro. But to simplify Baldwin's argument some, his rhetorical strategy is essentially to claim that the Negro is the product of the dominant, white components of American society, and thus to place the responsibility for solving the "Negro Problem" upon white America. But what of the other half of Du Bois's binary? The Negro corresponds to no real negroes, since his entire being is the product of an American imagination, and this seeming disregard for the agency of negroes in the development of their own identity is what Baldwin would be critiqued for in the 1960s.
Later in the same essay, Baldwin addresses the stereotype of the Uncle Tom: ". . . if we could boast that we understood [Negroes], it was far more to the point and far more true that they understood us" (28). Baldwin himself seems to be slipping into this role of the understanding Uncle Tom here. He becomes the Negro spokesperson, explaining to "us" how "we" have constructed him/the Negro in the process of guaranteeing our own identity; and thus, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Tom, he rests hopes for the resolution to this problem on "us," on the white liberal readership of the Partisan Review.
Of course, how we read the "us" of this essay is not so simple as I have presented it, but this simplified version of Baldwin's thought is what was critiqued in the middle of the 1960s.(2) For instance, Harold Cruse attacked Baldwin and other intellectuals for, "trying to place the onus of their social predicament on white liberals" when the white liberals were "the real patrons and sponsors of their position as Negro intellectuals" and the Negro intellectuals were "unable to even hint at the outlines of another kind of program" beyond the integrationist one they were attacking (200). In other words, Cruse views Baldwin as a figure promoted by, and thus unable to think beyond, white liberal interests. In 1967 Eldridge Cleaver went so far as to claim that Baldwin hated blacks and demonstrated "the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writings of any black American writer" (qtd. in DeMott 157).
At the center of both Cleaver's and Cruse's attacks is a challenge to Baldwin's model for the African-American intellectual. With the advent of the Black Power Movement, and the accompanying Black Arts Movement, many African-American writers began to insist, at least rhetorically, that black artists and intellectuals should address only black issues a,nd only black audiences.(3) Larry Neal's 1968 manifesto "The Black Arts Movement" exemplifies this trend:
The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America . . . the Black American's desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics. (272)
The black artist's community is a singularity here: It is Black America. Where Baldwin spoke of Negroes in order to address their centrality to a national identity and audience, Neal argues that the black artist must speak specifically to blacks. The black artist and the black artwork serve the black audience's need to achieve self-representation: Rather than representing who blacks are, Black Art tells blacks who they should become. The black artist is not a realist, but a prophet. And the audience for this prophecy is a black audience that is expected to shape the goals and the product of black intellectual work by requiring that these goals and products serve the needs and desires of this audience. The black artist and intellectual must serve the audience appointed to them by birthright and shared suffering by reading and responding to the wants of this audience.
The work of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) offers the preeminent example of an attempt to fulfill the responsibilities of a Black Arts understanding of art. In a 1965 essay he offered a vision of the artist and intellectual that suggests the kinds of artistic and intellectual strategies that would produce a black art that black America "needs":
The Black artist . . . is desperately needed to change the images his people identify with, by asserting Black feeling, Black mind, Black judgment. The black intellectual, in this same context, is needed to change the interpretation of facts towards the Black Man's best interests, instead of merely tagging along reciting white judgments of the world (167).
The black artist does not simply respond to the needs of his audience, he forecasts these needs and asserts who this audience should become. Baraka's position is not so far from Baldwin's as it might at first seem. Baraka redirects, or at least narrows, Baldwin's sense of audience, but he still attempts a unifying representation of the people he speaks for - and now to. Like Baldwin, Baraka has at the core of his project the diagnosis of a "Negro Problem," and Baraka sees himself as the advocate of a community that is not accurately represented in a national discourse, but unlike Baldwin's focus on the Negro as a national, American, problem, Baraka seeks to transform African Americans into their own cultural nation. Baldwin adopts the traditional function of the intellectual as critic, addressing gaps in the national myth he inherits, whereas Baraka is more the prophet, trying to bring a new nation into being. Baraka wants to show African Americans the way out from beneath the defining gaze of an American culture so that they may become free subjects capable of finding their own essential selves.
Baraka's goals as a Black Power/Black Arts Movement intellectual are twofold: He must simultaneously reach and hold the attention of the African American, whose very existence enables a thing called Black Arts; and he must also write and speak in ways that will bring about this audience's transformation to their black selves. Baraka's struggle to find a single rhetoric to effect these dual goals can be seen in the poems he published in his famous 1969 book Black Magic. Take, for instance, the short poem titled "SOS":
Calling black people Calling all black people, man woman child Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling you, calling all black people calling all black people, come in, black people, come on in. (218)
This poem mutually constitutes a black poet and his black audience. At first the poem seems to be a distress call, an "SOS" that calls to black people to respond to the needs of the speaker. But with the addition of on, the position of the speaker shifts from a person in need of a response to the generous host of a party that black people must urgently join. In the essay "Black Art," Baraka writes that "poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step" (219). "SOS" is an attempt to make a poem "do," and not simply "be." It links the black artist and black people, promising blackness to those who enter into the spell of its rhetoric. What makes this poem real, like teeth or trees or lemons, is that it has use value: It teaches black artists and listeners alike the way to find their blackness, and that way is to look to each other.
"SOS" is an invitation and a promise, but what exactly are the black "feeling," "judgment," and "mind" discovered in this Black Arts poetry? In "leroy" the speaker offers himself as source:
When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to black people. May they pick me apart and take the useful parts, the sweet meat of my feel- ings. And leave the bitter bullshit rotten white parts alone. (224)
Like "SOS," this poem looks to the future. It is about origins (the poem begins with a meditation on an old photograph of the poet's mother) and the continuity of cultural identity, but it is primarily a poem of incompleteness. An identity useful to black people is something that must be sifted from what obscures it. A national black identity is less a positive content in Baraka's writing than a future-oriented process.
In his essay "The Legacy of Malcolm X, and the Coming of the Black Nation," Baraka explains that "the Black Artist must demonstrate the sweet life, how it differs from the deathly grip of White Eyes" (167), and "Poem for Half-White College Students" questions if one might be too full of Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. Blackness is what is not white, and Black Art is what names and polices what blackness is not. Baraka's poetry prods its auditors and readers to join the poet in the process of purification, to find the true black heart buried within both poet and audience. As Houston Baker has pointed out, Baraka's Black Arts articulation of blackness does "not point to any tangible referent" (135). The assertion of black feeling, judgment, and mind, the achieving of a black poem and a Black World, must await their disentanglement from the white discourse that has impeded their assertion.(4) Baraka avers this goal in "State/meant/," in which he writes that the black artist must "teach the White Eyes their deaths, and teach the black man how to bring these deaths about" (169-70).
While the ultimate content of Baraka's asserted blackness may be difficult to ascertain except as a process of negation, his assertions in themselves are signs of the redefinition of the African-American intellectual which took place in the 1960s. In response to the calls of the Black Power Movement for a "cultural revolution" to "unbrainwash" an entire people, and in response to the shift among black activists from attempting to change white attitudes and laws affecting blacks to working for changes in the self-confidence, identity, and sense of community among African Americans, the new African-American intellectual attempted to work for the African-American community by helping it define itself, rather than by representing that community to others. Baraka, in the 1960s, moves away from the role of the familiar Negro spokesperson to a more militant and separatist position marked by changing perceptions of the relationship between the African-American intellectual and his audience.
From Coming In to Coming Out: June Jordan
June Jordan follows through on Baraka's reform of our expectations for an African-American intellectual's responsibility to her audiences in her long and varied career as poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, teacher, activist, and journalist. While Baraka's most influential writings were published at the high point of the Black Power Movement, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of Jordan's major works have appeared in the past ten years.(5) And yet she is not often mentioned in the same breath as the new black intellectuals. Undoubtedly, she has benefitted from the recent vogue in African-American issues by moving up to a large publishing house for her latest collection of essays,(6) but she is not gaining so much mainstream press attention as are many other African-American writers and speakers. The reasons for this lack of attention are many and complex, but one factor that is important to consider, both in terms of her popularity and my argument that she reconfigures the role of the African-American intellectual, is her age. Jordan is almost a generation older than West, Henry Louis Gates, and the others linked by Berube and Boynton, and she falls between the division that Boynton makes in his generational model. But age here is almost a cover for a more ideological distinction, since it serves to marginalize those writers like Jordan who came of age during the heady time of the 1960s.
Boynton expands Berube's claim that black nationalism serves as the "springboard," "inspiration," and "antagonist" for the new intellectuals (75). Because the new intellectuals came of age after the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, "they enjoyed the fruits of both the civil-rights and the black-nationalist vision without being entirely beholden to either" (Boynton 62). This is not quite Jordan's experience. As a young woman, she took part in a CORE freedom ride, witnessed and reported on the Harlem Riot of 1964, and was an occasional conversation partner of Malcolm X's after his split with the Nation of Islam.(7) Jordan's career as an activist thus might lead to the assumption that her work is "beholden" to her involvement in the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, and her writings are responsive and responsible to social and political concerns. Perhaps it is the importance of direct activism to Jordan's intellectual work that frightens off the mainstream press. This slighting obscures the important political function of an intellectual. The multiplicity of Jordan's commitments and strategies as an intellectual occasion a rethinking not only of the definition and the genealogy of the new African-American intellectuals of the 1990s, but also of the relationship of the intellectual and artist to the audiences and social movements to which she is aligned.
Like Baraka, June Jordan both struggles against the role of the black spokesperson and is highly conscious of her audience.(8) She manifests the Barakian mutually constitutive black audience/black artist relationship in some of her early essays and in her children's books, with their attempts to articulate a literary black English.(9) But one important difference between Jordan's early work and Baraka's Black Arts writings is that Jordan's invocations of her audience are not quite so monological as Baraka's, even when Jordan adopts some of Baraka's key rhetorical strategies. Take, for instance, her response to Baraka's "SOS," a poem Jordan titles "Calling on All Silent Minorities":
C'MON COME OUT
WHEREVER YOU ARE
WE NEED TO HAVE THIS MEETING AT THIS TREE
AIN' EVEN BEEN PLANTED YET (Naming 24)
Jordan continues Baraka's attempts to produce, through the act of naming it, a community that only exists as a future projection, to give voice to a silent audience. But who is the audience that this poem calls on? The use of Black English marks the speaker (and thus the person who defines the "WE") as black, but the title suggests that Jordan is not interested in color or race or exclusion as a model for community building: She calls on all minorities to come out and play in the serious game of making their own voices heard. The substitution of a children's play call for the official, adult "SOS" puts the speaker outside of official channels and makes her less likely to be the source, rather than just the instigator, of what gets said at the meeting she calls for. She speaks loud, to wake up a complacent audience, to make it aware of itself as a coherent group, but calls her listeners "OUT," not "in." At least in this short poem Jordan seems wary of offering herself as the source for identity. She limits herself to pointing out the need for the next, communal step. Jordan is committed to many of the same cultural and political goals as Baraka and the Black Arts writers, to constitute an audience and thus a community by instilling an awareness of a sense of community and its value, and yet the role of the artist in this project is more circumscribed for her.
Jordan's early essays, collected in Civil Wars, evidence the ways that she alternately adopts aspects of both Baldwin's and Baraka's notions of the black intellectual as they suit her strategic purposes. The Civil Wars essays stretch from one of Jordan's first published pieces (printed in 1964) to essays she placed in magazines like Ms. and The New Republic in the late 1970s. Here she addresses herself to white academics and black teachers and students alike to argue for the value of Black Studies to the curriculum at American universities; she calls on blacks to define a common culture through the study of Black English; and she argues that whites need to recognize the possibility that an African American can be more than the product of racist white America. One essay that attempts to reach a multiplicity of audiences is her 1964 "Letter to Michael," in which she describes the 1964 Harlem Riots to her recently estranged husband, who lives in Chicago. Ostensibly to inform Michael of what has been going on in his absence, but published in this collection and thus a public document, it is meant to find a larger audience.(10) Jordan writes of the absurdities of police violence and the way that the violence both shocked a community and forced it to recognize itself as a community. This information is intended to counter the less truthful accounts of the riots that appeared in the mainstream press, and its effects upon its audiences are multiple: It is a protest to the white community that critiques both white police violence and white complicity in that violence, and it serves to affirm and reassure the African-American community that was the object of this violence that their suffering is real and that they do have a public voice with which to confront the immorality of their antagonists. There is a little bit of Baraka and Baldwin here. Baraka employs poetry (usually considered the medium of personal reflection/communication) and official genres, like the "SOS" message, for public, political, and oppositional ends, while Baldwin brings the truth of misperception to his white audience. Likewise, Jordan adapts the usually private genre of the letter to serve a public purpose, to record and give meaning to an experience that is too often co-opted or ignored by established channels of news and history making, and she attempts to represent the truth of black experience to a deceived white audience.(11) But she differs from both Baraka and Baldwin in the centrality she places on her own experience as that which both authenticates and limits her perspectives: She insists upon an individual voice that speaks from an African-American perspective rather than speaking for all African Americans.
Understanding June Jordan as an African-American intellectual does not come down to a simple choice between the models offered by Baraka and Baldwin, nor is it just a matter of fusing the two positions. Both the black spokesperson and the black prophet privilege race as a category of power, oppression, and identity, diminishing the importance of all other bases for identity, community, and political action. Jordan's experience of the importance of gender in the Black Power Movement complicates her relationship to this movement and her understanding of the role of the African-American intellectual. In fact, many of her professional activities of the late sixties and early seventies might be seen as stereotypically "feminine" interpretations of how to achieve the goals of the Black Power Movement: She published children's books, worked in the Teachers' and Writers' Collaborative in Brooklyn helping young inner-city children write poetry, became an instructor at City College, and raised her son. A question she asked of feminists in 1976 illustrates the value Jordan places on these nurturing, educational tasks: "Will we liberate ourselves so that the caring for children, the teaching, the loving, healing, person-oriented values that have always distinguished us will be revered and honored at least commensurate to the honors accorded bank managers, lieutenant colonels, and the executive corporate elite?" (Civil Wars 120). This is a question that Jordan could just as well have asked of the Black Power Movement - and, in effect, does when she presents the "ostensible leadership" of the Movement with the question, Why, when they talk "about the 'liberation of the Black man,' that is precisely, and only what they mean?" (Civil Wars 118).
In her poetry, Jordan begins to take on the task of sketching in what other liberations are needed. She offers a sample list of what gets left out of the official channels of the liberation movement in her long dramatic monologue "From The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones: Poem # one." As is almost always the case with Jordan, the title of the poem is central to establishing the work's rhetorical context. By emphasizing that this poem is both "From" a longer poem, and is the first in a series, Jordan offers the monologue as part of a species of many similar monologues. She also names the speaker in the title, letting us know that this voice is individual, and one among many who may come to speak. At one point Jordan has Valentine critique the naming strategies of "bodacious Blackm[e]n":
and the very next bodacious Blackman call me queen because my life ain shit because (in any case) he ain been here to share it with me (dish for dish and do for do and dream for dream) I'm gone scream him out my house
The context within the poem for this outburst is when "you (temporarily) shownup with a thing / you say's a poem and you / call it / 'Will the Real Miss Black America Standup?'" (Naming 17). The larger context is the Black Arts Movement's poetry of invocation. The male "you" of the poem presumes that no "real Miss Black America" has stood up, and that his words are the ones that will stand her up (or stand in for her). Valentine responds to this male emptying out and then filling back in of a notion of black womanhood by listing all of the domestic routines that the boudacious Blackman fails to see or valorize. His aestheticized Black Woman knows nothing of the real daily work of black women that enable him to devote time to his poetry. Instead, he claims that the black women he knows are not "real," and he fails Valentine because, as she says, ". . . what I wanted was / your love / not pity" (17). Jordan is performing the same critique that West makes fifteen year later: She lets us know what gets lost when a black leader poses as the voice of black America. Yes, Baraka and the other Black Arts writers brought new attention to the meanings of blackness and the needs of a black audience, but changing the images black people identify with should also involve changing how images mean. Black intellectuals should not fall back on universal, idealizing images that ignore or devalue experience and difference. To do so only repeats the same kinds of images and effects that whites produced with their black stereotypes.
The poem "Case in Point" provides another powerful critique of masculine uses of power in the black community, but it is not just black men who are forced to confront their assumptions in this poem. It begins with "a friend of mine" who tells the speaker that "there is no silence peculiar / to the female." The speaker's "2[cents]" on this subject turn out to be the narration of her most recent rape by a "blackman actually / head of the local NAACP":
Today is 2 weeks after the fact of that man straddling his knees either side of my chest his hairy arm and powerful left hand forcing my arms and my hands over my head flat to the pillow while he rammed what he described as his quote big dick unquote into my mouth and shouted out: "D'ya want to swal- low my big dick; well do ya?". . .
He was being rhetorical. My silence was peculiar to the female. (Naming 81)
The man's question is "rhetorical" because he assumes that he already knows the answer to his question; his position of power allows him to construct an answer without needing the consent of his addressee. Here, as in "Miss Valentine Jones," Jordan is concerned with the ways that powerful male speakers presume to know what black women would say and how this presumption silences any different perspective that women would bring to a dialogue (be it political, social, or personal).
"Miss Valentine Jones" and "Case in Point" both critique the institutions of black protest from a feminist standpoint. The rhetoric of the NAACP head and the Black Arts poet are taken to task for silencing women and ignoring the debt that the institutions of black protest owe to women. But in its counter-argument to the friend's assertion that there is no silence peculiar to the female, "Case in Point" also registers another critique. Silence was an important idea in the wave of feminist thought and writings of the 1970s, and the friend who speaks at the beginning of the poem takes a familiar feminist stance. She is critiquing the cultural assumption that women are essentially passive and thus "naturally" silent about many things, including politics. But, of course, women are not naturally silent, and the ideology of silence was constructed by patriarchy to enforce gendered hierarchy.(12) What this argument fails to consider, and what Jordan points out, is that this strategy of a generalized, abstract response to silence, and the assumption that to reveal an ideology as a false consciousness is to disable it, does not take into account the real and differing material and political circumstances that contribute to the silencing of women, especially black women.
In her poems and essays, then, Jordan adopts a complex and shifting position. She shares many of the goals of the Black Arts Movement, working to give value to black experience and black culture. But she is not afraid to take issue with authoritative definitions when those definitions and their authorities are not responsive to experiences important to Jordan's sense of her own identity. Likewise, while her critiques of the Black Power Movement are primarily gendered critiques, she is also wary of a too easy identification with a feminist position when feminism does not account for the multiple ways that power is encoded in race and class, as well as gender. Jordan's multiple identifications and political affiliations lead her to articulate positions that try to defeat either/or reasoning. "Case in Point" is an instance of the "declaration of an independence I would just as soon not have," the title of an essay in which Jordan expresses the hope that "I can count on a sisterhood and a brotherhood that will let me give my life to its consecration, without equivocation, without sorrow" [Civil 121]). She declares her independence from narrowly defined versions of the Civil Rights and Women's Movements that seek to stifle her individual voice, while still trying to find a way to affirm the positive values of these movements.
The African-American intellectual is not a stable identity for June Jordan. She can neither wholeheartedly join Baraka and the Black Arts writers in their attempt to assert a Black Nation when this nation continues to silence African-American women, nor can she fully endorse a feminist perspective that obscures the real difference between women, like the absolute need for resistance to the racist power dynamics that contribute to the problems of black women. Baraka, Baldwin, and a narrowly defined feminism are all unsuitable models for Jordan because each attempts to define itself as the embodiment or representative of a singular audience. As a female African-American intellectual, Jordan cannot fit herself to the simplicity necessary to promote a traditional nationalist argument, but shifts her position and tactics in order to better serve the interest of all three terms of the hyphenated moniker "African-American Woman."
Technical Difficulties: Local and Global Politics
In July 1974, with Inez Smith Reid, Executive Director of the Black Women's Community Development Fund, June Jordan called for a "national meeting of Black media peoples" to respond to the crisis of the African famine in the Sahel. Jesse Jackson attended the meeting, and Fanny Lou Hamer and Roberta Flack, among others, donated time and effort to the Afro-Americans Against the Famine (AAAF) crusade that grew out of the meeting. Jordan describes this effort as "an exhausting, instructive, and unsuccessful campaign" (Civil 79) in which she learned that "it was as though Black nationalism meant only a preoccupation with your neighborhood conditions, a preoccupation incapable of making pragmatic connections to the continental African struggle" (80). This failed campaign would mark the beginning of another facet of Jordan's career. Her poems and essays begin to become more international in subject matter in the mid-1970s. For example, Jordan's essay "Angola: Victory and Promise" takes up the cause of Agostinho Neto, and introduces Americans to the first President of the People's Republic of Angola's poetry and politics, while several poems from this time period address the issue of South African Apartheid.(13)
In addition to bringing international issues to her domestic audience, Jordan's internationalism includes a broadening sense of her audience. In a 1989 interview Jordan explained how her poem "Moving Towards Home," which had been translated into Arabic, was well known by Palestinians living in the West Bank: "As far as I'm concerned, that's the kind of validation of the usefulness of my work that's beyond anything I've ever dreamed of' (qtd. in Freccero 259). During this period, Jordan began to describe herself as a "dissident" poet (On Call 2), and her work began to align her with the goals of misrepresented or silenced peoples whose causes share much with her own needs and experiences as an African-American woman living in America.(14)
In her recent collection of essays Technical Difficulties, Jordan continues to focus on the misrepresented and silenced, and though the subject matter of these essays is more domestic than international, these assays of the local are her means to a broadly conceived project: the living and effecting of a moral, activist life. Jordan has given up the fixed relationship between spokesperson and constituency, presenting her voice as one among many that are fighting for power in the public forum. As she explains in an interview,
"I make an effort in my political essays and poems to make it clear to people, this is just me speaking. I'm gonna put the best possible argument together to make you think about my point of view, but I'm not going to tell you that this is the truth, that all the important people in the world think this way, or whatever. I have tried to hinge everything I write to the truth of my personal experience, to give my writing a kind of anecdotal quality, because then people can see how I got there." (qtd. in Nelson 51)
Jordan's political writings are honest attempts to grab and redirect power, and her most common rhetorical strategy of late has been an almost iconoclastic use of the occasional essay. Her essays are self-interested in the way they speak from and for Jordan's experiences, but also heterogenous in the many outsider, or unheard from, positions they articulate. Most of the essays reprinted in Technical Difficulties were originally published as Jordan's regular contributions to The Progressive magazine, and as such they usually respond to something topical. What makes these essays almost iconoclastic is the way in which Jordan links the local to large political issues in surprising ways. In one essay she adopts the rhetoric of the traditional (male) African-American preacher to condemn both the U.S. government's and the black leadership's failure to rally to Anita Hill's side during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Jordan invokes the refrain Can I get a witness? and repeatedly asks questions to challenge the assumptions that allowed Thomas to use race to obscure an abuse of power along the axis of gender. She critiques the male black leadership's inability to live up to its own rhetoric. But this now familiar vigilant attention to the specific ways in which race disempowers women is placed alongside essays about Martin Luther King and Mike Tyson that find different lessons in the experiences of these two men.
Of Mike Tyson she writes a "Requiem for the Champ" that draws connections between Tyson's and Jordan's Brooklyn neighborhoods, and claims that the violent lifestyle that led Tyson to rape a woman originated in the spiritual and economic poverty of the world in which Tyson grew up. The only escape Tyson saw from this poverty lay in the monetary rewards our culture offers a violent response to this situation. For Tyson's limited options, and especially the limited constructions of masculinity available to him, Jordan finds herself, the Brooklyn community, and the American economic system responsible. "Who," Jordan asks, "would pay him to rehabilitate inner-city housing or to refurbish the bridge? Who would pay him that to study the facts of our collective history?" (226). There must be some way for our culture to reward a black man for something other than violence; there must be something else for a black man from the ghetto to do or be. Jordan articulates a similarly sympathetic and self-searching response to the failings of a black man when she writes of Martin Luther King in light of recent revelations that King was sexually opportunistic and deceitful, that he did not live up to the standard for a moral life that he preached. Jordan says that, while we should not "emulate the man who was not God," she will "follow after . . . this Black man of God" and is "thankful that he lived and that he loved us and that he tried so hard to be and to do good" (115-17). Jordan's most recent essays are thus a far cry from Baraka's "SOS," or even her own "Calling on All Silent Minorities." With her acute sense of the past's importance to the present and future, Jordan attempts to give the past a useful meaning, to recuperate it and build upon it rather than focus all energy toward the impossible goal of a totally new future. Jordan looks to a better future, but the path to this future is a healing of the divisions and wrongs of the present and the past.
A common critique of the media coverage of the new black intellectuals is the narrow context used to explain their supposedly sudden arrival. Their emergence is traced to America's post-Cold War turn from international issues to domestic concerns, or the repetition, for a new generation of thinkers who happen to be black, of the particular intellectual and institutional circumstances that produced the New York Intellectuals.(15) What these efforts to explain the newness of the new black intellectuals obscure is the long genealogy of the African-American intellectual tradition. Sam Fullwood reminds us that, "if the collective intellectual history of black Americans down the ages had been monitored by an electroencephalograph, the spikes might correspond to the periods of white people's attention. But the overlooked base line would record the steady, strong pulse of the body's resistance to oppression - a testament to African Americans' vitality" (32). June Jordan's work is this strong pulse that links the spikes of the Black Power Movement to today's current vogue. Her work translates the energy of Baraka's and Neal's writings in the service of a black community to a more complex and yet no less politically responsible accountability to the multiple grids of power and identity that shape a black audience and a black intellectual.
Michael Hanchard argues that what distinguishes the new black darlings of the press, and what disempowers them and thus makes them safe for public consumption, is that they "have no specific constituency or constellation of organizations to answer to, which would place their actions in a political context that speaks to both local and global communities" (23). Jordan's constituency is not specific in the sense that it is not singular. And yet in her work she is always aware of her audience and her responsibilities to that audience. She ties her writings to specific organizational goals,(16) and her work always seeks her audience's response, not just its passive acceptance of her words and definitions. She explains in an interview with Peter Erickson that "I'm really about what you do, rather than who you are." That is to say, she is not against finding out who you are as a personal therapy, but "the point is that then you can, in a knowledgeable and intelligent way, undertake to connect or intersect with other people's lives to some political purpose having to do with the positive acquisition of new power" (Erickson, "After" 149). In one sense, then, Jordan is not West's race-transcending prophet. One of her recurring concerns is how the politics of race have taken power away from people, and she writes to right this wrong. But at the same time she does transcend race when she draws on her experience of power inequalities - her experiences shaped by race, gender, and class - to address and attempt to redress all inequalities of political power that she encounters. To return to West's words, Jordan's work is characterized by a "vision of fundamental social change to all who suffer from socially induced misery" (70).
June Jordan's career thus inspires a broadening of our expectations for what an African-American intellectual can and should do, and how she can do it. Jordan addresses African-American concerns in a way that seeks to serve the best interests of the African-American community that she aligns herself with, a community that she recognizes as fluid and diverse, but which can be united in its opposition to the inequalities of power produced by the politics of race. She avoids the egotistical trap of the spokesperson model, and she shifts the Black Arts utopian vision to more pragmatic (and less oppressive) ends by seeking both to forward the interests of her multiple audiences and to elicit their responses. But if Jordan's career as a multiply aligned activist is the bridge to a new kind of African-American intellectual, one that begins to undertake the mission outlined by Du Bois, Cruse, and West, then why is she not enjoying so much public recognition as the "newer" intellectuals like Gates and West? Perhaps it has something to do with the explicitly political nature of much of her writing, as compared to the more cultural and aesthetic focus of many of the more celebrated writers. Jordan suspects that editors find political writing by a black woman "presumptuous or simply bizarre," and Toni Morrison and bell hooks, the only women consistently linked with the new intellectuals, are decidedly cultural and literary in their focus (On Call 1). But I wonder if there might also be a little bit of fear involved in this response, a fear that comes with facing someone who does not back down.
In the introduction to Civil Wars, Jordan recounts how her uncle taught her how to stand up to bullies. He told her to remember, "It's a bully. Probably you can't win. . . . But if you go in there, saying to yourself, 'I may not win this one but it's going to cost you' . . . they'll leave you alone." Jordan may have lost a lot of fights in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but her uncle was right. ". . . nobody fought me twice," she observes. "They said I was 'crazy'" (Civil xi-xii). And Jordan has continued to fight the fight that began, for her, during the Harlem Riots of 1964, in which her response to the bloodshed on those nights was first to address immediate needs, to heal the wounded, and then to address the larger social, cultural, political, and economic wounds that led to that real blood. June Jordan is still fighting to heal these wounds, and her ability to stand up to bullies has contributed to many advances, such as the rise of the new black intellectuals who are following after her. But there is yet a ways to go before the fight is won.
1. Berube's New Yorker article and Boynton's cover story for The Atlantic have spearheaded a broader debate that has appeared on the pages of Sunday newspapers and weekly magazines. See, for example, Sam Fullwood's article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Michael Hanchard's in The Nation, Adolph Reed's in The Village Voice, Sean Wilentz's in Dissent, and Jacqueline Trescott's in The Washington Post.
2. For a more balanced treatment of Baldwin's conception of the black spokesperson, see Houston A. Baker's The Journey Back, in which Baker argues that "Baldwin's ideal black spokesperson . . . is 'socially responsible' to neither white nor black America . . . [and] cannot be easily categorized as 'integrationist' or 'assimilationist' since he is racing 'with all deliberate speed' to escape society" (61). In other words, Baldwin is an advocate for a politics of individual freedom.
3. One reading of Black Arts writing that disagrees with my interpretation is Phillip Brian Harper's claim that the violent rhetoric of "performative language predicates the status of Black Arts poetry as being heard by whites and overheard by blacks" (254). For the purpose of this essay I am more interested in the effects Black Arts writing had upon understandings of the African-American intellectual than in the performative effect of the language as such. But Harper's argument does foreground the multiplicity of audiences and audience effects that the African-American intellectual must consider.
4. My process-oriented and future-looking reading of Baraka differs slightly from Baker's powerful reading. Baker claims that Baraka attempts to reach a primordial blackness "through sheer lyricism and assertiveness" (134-35).
5. Her major collection of poetry, Naming Our Destiny, was published in 1989. The essay collections Technical Difficulties and On Call were published in 1985 and 1994, respectively, and her important first collection of essays, Civil Wars, originally published in 1981, was reissued by Touchstone (a division of Simon & Schuster) in 1995.
6. Technical Difficulties was published by Vintage. Jordan's most recent poetry collection, Kissing God Goodbye, was brought out by Anchor, a subdivision of Bantam Doubleday Dell.
7. She tells of these experiences in the essays "Letter to Michael" and "One Way of Beginning This Book," both collected in Civil Wars. For more biographical information on Jordan, see her interview with Peter Erickson in Transition and Carla Freccerio's article in African American Writers.
8. One sign of Jordan's discomfort with this role is her struggle over the title of one of her first published essays. The Nation renamed the essay "Spokesman for the Blacks" without Jordan's consent. When Jordan reprinted the essay, she used its original title - "On Listening: A Good Way to Hear" (Civil 39).
9. Jordan's campaign for the recognition of the value of Black English is one of the most visible markers of her black nationalist attempts to give voice to, and valorize, black cultural expression. Her second book-length publication, His Own Where, is a children's book written in Black English; many of her poems employ Black English; and several of her essays explain why she uses Black English and attempt to initiate a more rigorous study of it as a dialect. Her most interesting writings on this topic include the two essays "Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan" (Call 123-140) and "White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation" (Call 59-73).
10. In her introduction to this essay in Civil Wars, she connects this piece to one she wrote for the Herald Tribune in the months before the riot. The editor asked Jordan "to determine whether or not there would be 'a long hot summer' in Harlem." Jordan's conclusion was that ". . . there would have to be/that there should be a long hot summer because, as I titled my essay, 'nothing is new for the man uptown'" (16-17). The Tribune did not accept the essay.
11. At one level, Michael, a white graduate student in the Anthropology department of the University of Chicago, stands in for this white audience.
12. Besides de Beauvoir's classic argument against naturalized gender categories, two powerful critiques of the assumption that silence is natural for women are Adrienne Rich's On Lies, Secrets and Silence and Tillie Olson's Silences. Susan Griffin's Pornography and Silence is a later work (1981) which nicely sums up several arguments of the period. Especially important in light of Jordan's critique is Griffin's use of James Baldwin to suggest a parallel between the ways that the majority culture has obscured the real beauty of women and the way that it has constructed an imaginary black man. What does not occur to Griffin is what kind of effect this logic might have on the doubly silenced category of the black woman, and how her silences might be addressed.
13. See, for instance, "Poem for South African Women" and "Poem About My Rights" (Naming 89, 103). The essay about Nero is collected in Civil Wars (103-12).
14. An extended comparison of the careers of Baraka and Jordan, which is beyond my scope here, might usefully highlight the motives, means, and audiences of their efforts to become more international in scope. Jordan's broadening sense of subject matter, responsibility, and audience corresponds in some ways with Baraka's Third-World Marxist writings, though as usual Jordan keeps her critical distance from established categories of representation and political action by naming her project "First Worldism" and by continuing to employ the strategy that divides her from Baraka by insisting on differences and a multiplicity of audiences/voices.
15. The former is Boynton's explanation, and the latter is Berube's.
16. See, for instance, the description of her curricula for her creative writing class at UC-Berkeley which she published with Shanti Bright. Jordan's "Poetry for the People" project attempts to reform both the content and method of the college classroom in response to the changing demography of the U.S. university.
Baker, Houston. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon P, 1955.
Baraka, Amiri. The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Ed. William J. Harris. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1991.
Berube, Michael. "Public Academy." New Yorker 9 Jan. 1995: 73-80.
Boynton, Robert S. "The New Intellectuals." Atlantic Mar. 1995: 53-69.
Carroll, Rebecca. I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black Women Writers. New York: Crown, 1994.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967.
DeMott, Benjamin. "James Baldwin on the Sixties: Acts and Revelations." James Baldwin: A Collections of Critical Essays. Ed. Keneth Kinnamon. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1974. 155-62.
Erickson, Peter. "After Identity: A Conversation with June Jordan and Peter Erickson." Transition 63 (1994): 132-49.
-----. "June Jordan." Afro-American Writers After 1955: Prose Writers and Dramatists. Vol. 38 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 146-62.
Freccero, Carla. "June Jordan." African American Writers. Ed. Valerie Smith. New York: Scribner's, 1991. 245-61.
Fullwood, Sam. "Intellectuals in the Promised Land." Los Angeles Times Magazine 9 Apr. 1995: 10+.
Griffin, Susan. Pornography and Silence. New York: Harper, 1981.
Hanchard, Michael. "Intellectual Pursuit." Nation 19 Feb. 1996: 22-25.
Harper, Phillip Brian, "Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s." Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 234-55.
Jordan, June. Civil Wars. 1981. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
-----. His Own Where. New York: Crowell, 1971.
-----. Kissing God Goodbye. New York: Anchor, 1997.
-----. Naming Our Destiny: New & Selected Poems. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1989.
-----. On Call: Political Essays. Boston: South End P, 1985.
-----. Technical Difficulties. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. New York: Doubleday, 1971. 272-90.
Nelson, Jill. "A Conversation with June Jordan." Quarterly Review of Black Books 1 (May 1994): 50-53.
Olander, Renee. "An Interview with June Jordan." AWP Chronicle Feb. 1995: 1+.
Reed, Adolph. "What are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Current Crisis of the Black Intellectual." Village Voice 11 Apr. 1995: 31-36.
Van Deburg, William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture: 1965-1975. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
West, Cornell. Race Matters. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Wilentz, Sean. "Race, Celebrity, and the Intellectuals: Notes on a Donnybrook." Dissent 42.3 (1995): 293-99.
Scott MacPhail is a doctoral student in English at Indiana University-Bloomington. His dissertation, titled "Lyric Nations: Representative Identity and Oppositional Practices in U.S. Poetry" traces relationships between the genre of lyric writing and resistant national identities in the United States.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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