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"Poet of the People" June Jordan, a UC Berkeley professor of African American studies, dies at 65
17 June 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - At the University of California, Berkeley, the colleagues, students and friends of June Jordan, an award-winning poet, professor and activist, are mourning her loss. After battling cancer since the 1970s, Jordan died Friday at age 65.

"Poet of the People" June Jordan   Jane Scherr photo

A campus memorial service is tentatively scheduled for September, said Charles Henry, professor and chair of UC Berkeley's African American Studies. There will be no formal funeral service, he said.

Jordan became one of the most published African American writers, known for reviving black English as a medium of black literature. She published dozens of books of poetry, librettos and operas, children's books, a screenplay, and gutsy and eloquent columns about political and personal causes in "The Progressive" and other publications.

"She used black English in a way that brought out the poetry in American speech," said Zack Rogow, director of the UC Berkeley Lunch Poems series, a senior editor at the campus's Graduate School of Education, a poet and one of Jordan's longtime friends.

Ishmael Reed, a senior lecturer in UC Berkeley's English Department as well as a novelist, poet, essayist and magazine editor, described the June Jordan poem as "straightforward, unadorned, in-your-face. No poems about blackberries here."

"I never knew anyone so fearless in defending what she believed in," said Charles Altieri, a professor of English at UC Berkeley and director of the campus's Consortium for the Arts. "She had
this amazing combination of personal sweetness and political ferocity. And she had the ability to cut to the core of any issue."

Born in Harlem to parents who were immigrants from the West Indies - her mother was a nurse, her father a postal worker - Jordan grew up in a Brooklyn, New York, ghetto. She attended Barnard College and the University of Chicago, but never earned a degree.

In 1966, she became a poet-in-residence at Teachers & Writers Collaborative and then taught on the English faculties at Connecticut and Sarah Lawrence colleges before joining the English Department at Yale University in 1974. Jordan came to UC Berkeley as a lecturer in 1986, remaining there until her death at her Berkeley home last Friday (June 14). She taught in the departments of English, African American Studies and Women's Studies.

She was committed to numerous issues, ranging from black women's health to Palestinian rights, and to her students, earning a nickname of "the universal woman." In one of her courses, "The Politics of Childhood: UC Berkeley Students Redefine Abuse," the class formed a student group to inform others about children's rights and to help children resist abuse.

"She brought the same passion and energy to her teaching as she did to writing, so her presence among us was an enormous gift," said UC Berkeley English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Bob Hass.

An extremely versatile writer, her published books include the autobiography "Soldier: a Poet's Childhood" (1999), "Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Political Essays" (1989), and "Kissing God Goodbye" (1997). She and California political activist Angela Davis were the subjects of an English TV documentary, "A Place of Rage."

"She did everything with a kind of fire that was just like no other person that I ever met," said Rogow. "She just cared very, very deeply about the state of the world and the people she was close to."

As a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley, Jordan founded and directed "Poetry for the People," a course in which 150 undergraduates participate in marathon poetry readings before large audiences. They also study the poetry of African Americans, Arabs and Arab Americans and many other groups Jordan considered generally overlooked in the classroom.

"June Jordan was one of the most popular professors on campus," said Reed. "Like a Renaissance master, she had more than a following. She had a school. For her, every student was a star, and they were not merely performance poets."

A publisher compiled an anthology of poems by Jordan's students, something Reed said is unheard of because of the general assumption that poetry is created by the middle-aged.

Jordan awed listeners when she performed poetry readings on university campuses, before the United Nations and United States Congress, as well as at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Walker Arts Center, Guggenheim Museum, New York Public Library and on National Public Radio.

"She was an amazing reader, one of the most dramatic and charismatic readers I've ever heard," said Rogow, who met Jordan 1974 while he was at Yale University, looking for a faculty adviser for his senior thesis. She also helped him at graduate school, and Rogow said he probably would not have become a poet without her encouragement.

"She cared about every line break and every comma in my poems, and made me care about it," Rogow recalled.

The many honors Jordan received included a special Congressional recognition for her outstanding contributions to literature, the UC Berkeley Citation, the American Institute of Architecture Award for the African Burial Grounds Project and Harvard University's President's Certificate of Service and Contribution to the Arts. Jordan also earned the PEN Center USA West Freedom to Write Award and Ground Breakers-Dream Makers Award by The Women's Foundation of San Francisco.

Longtime friend Carolyn Porter, a UC Berkeley professor of English, called Jordan "equal parts creativity and courage, making the two into one. And her capacity for moral outrage was only equaled by her capacity for sheer joy when something went right -- as when South Africa was at last free. For June, there was no distinction between personal and public -- the liberation of a nation was as joyful an event for her personally as was the liberation of a friend, whether from illness or grief. She had a spirit of insuperable power. She also had an illimitable well of laughter. She had a distinctive laugh. It fused a giggle with a squeal with a belly laugh."

Jordan's attention was deep, Porter said. "She listened to you, mindfully, and with all her senses. She had great wit. She was a total friend. Her talents were multiple and extraordinary. A world class teacher. A brilliant storyteller. A great essayist and poet. A satirical bent that always rang true."

While most find Jordan's productivity astounding, Porter said Jordan was always on deadline without being hurried or fraught.

"Even for the many years she had cancer, enormous physical pain from her hip, and God knows how many unannounced pains and torments, June remained June -- sardonic, funny, smart, energetic, attentive, kind, warm, there -- always there," Porter said. "And she never gave up hope -- not only in regard to her illness, but also for the world and its possible future. And she had good reason for hope, since she changed countless, and I do mean countless, lives. Ask her students. Just ask them."

Jordan is survived by her son, Christopher Meyer.

"Though the master has moved on," said Reed, "the Jordan school of poetry, I suspect, will be with us for a long time. This is her legacy,"