June 15th, 2002


June Jordan RIP

June Jordan died yesterday after a 10-year battle with breast cancer. I’ll admit I haven’t read a lot of her recent work. But she’s always been an inspiration to me because I read a lot of her work when I first began trying to move from having political ideas to doing political organizing. In my state of confusion of the early/mid-80s, who could ask for more than an eloquent Black, radical, feminist, bisexual poet to help me work things out?

So here’s something I bet you never thought you’d see on Gordonzola LJ: a poetry excerpt. I’m not claiming this is her best work, just one that has always stuck with me.

(From Song of the Law Abiding Citizen)

Trucks cruising down the avenue
carrying nuclear garbage right next to you
and it’s legal
it’s radioaction ridin’ like a regal
load of jewels
past the bars the cruel
school house and the church and if
the trucks wipeout or crash
or even lurch too hard around a corner
we will just be goners
and it’s legal
it’s radioaction ridin’ regal
through the skittery city street
and don’t be jittery
because it’s legal
radioaction ridin’ the road

Though I like her poetry, I’ve always been more of an essay-oriented person. Her book "Civil Wars", a collection of essays from the ‘’70s is one of the books I can credit with helping me understand some of the hidden histories of social movements I was too young to be a part of. Like "Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin, it provides a groundwork of the Civil Rights Movement and that wasn’t just a looking-back-and-summing-up type of work, but a collection of works that were engaging with the issues at the time. The benefit of this to me was the demystification of the time period. Both Baldwin and Jordan were trying to take on history as it was being made which lead to a different type of prioritization of issues than the one we recognize today as, for lack of a better phrase, the Social Movements canon. Reading essays that were meant to spark action or thought on issues that are no longer even on the table for discussion, or are discussed in completely different ways can provide insight to how history works.

Though while going back and re-reading some of her essays this morning, it’s surprising how non-clunky or dated they seem.

Jordan’s political essays, like Baldwin’s also just can’t help oozing out empathy, compassion, possibility of redemption, desire for a better world and community, and the connection between maintaining one’s humanity and doing decent political work. In the essay "Civil Wars", Jordan describes a falling out between Francis Fox Piven (author of "Poor People’s Movements" and many other books and essays) and herself. Jordan was unhappy with Piven’s failure to accept Gay Liberation as part of the Civil Rights mantle and Piven felt Jordan’s call for publicity of the fact that Lubavitcher Jews beat a Black man into a coma was anti-Semitic (according to Jordan).

Jordan’s son urged her to read "Poor People’s Movements" and Jordan did. Bursting with optimism, questions and craving discussion Jordan reached for the phone.

Jordan writes, "If the essence of a people’s movement is its spontaneity (one of the theses of the book) then how can you sustain it?

"But I hesitated. I thought again about all the other things that we would not talk about and all the arguments that would persist between us, and my feeling was ‘What the hell; friendship is not a tragedy. . .’

"And so I called her up, to talk."

The idea of possibility, even with those you’ve fought with on seemingly uncompromisable issues, is an inspiration I’ll always have, partly in thanks to her.

The only online obituary I could find so far is this not-so-great one in the capitalist press:

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