Interview


 
Childhood Memories

An interview with June Jordan

By David Barsamian

June Jordan is assistant professor of African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She also directs the Poetry for the People program. She writes for The Progressive magazine. Sheís an award-winning poet and essayist. She has numerous books, including Technical Difficulties, Naming Our Destiny, Affirmative Acts, and Haruko/Love Poems. Her latest work is Soldier, a memoir of her childhood.

DAVID BARSAMIAN: Soldier. What a curious title. Is this about some military activity that youíve been hiding from the public?

JUNE JORDAN: Itís about the military activity of my father raising me to be his son. He was an immigrant from Jamaica. He actually came from Panama. My mother was from Jamaica.

You grew up in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant in a kind of bicultural home.

Definitely bicultural and definitely the home of immigrants to this country, which means that my parents, especially my father, arrived and stayed here with both the highest possible expectations of this country, of democracy as he thought of it and of his only child that he was raising to be a successful person in the world. He probably would have liked me to grow up to be a successful white man.

You were his helper, his sidekick.

We were as close as father and son. I was not as close to my mother. That would have been too much of an acrobatic stunt. On the other hand, she was there, and she was raising me to become a black woman. I had to develop a good bit of agility, but not more than most children have to.

The connection with your father was, to say the least, problematic.

It was problematic and without any question extraordinarily positive for me. My father was an amazing human being. Heís a man who when he came to this country in his late teens taught himself to read and write. At the time he came here, there were no resources available to him at all as a black immigrant man. I know that he did better than he could trying to raise a family, be a good husband. I feel without question that his inordinate ambitions for me have everything to do with most of the really happy, productive aspects of my life that I continue to try to honor in his memory.

You write that he hurt you and that you never knew why as a child. Do you know now?

He was an extremely complicated human being, as you might expect from someone of that intelligence and passion. He was also very violent and brutal where I was concerned. I donít know why. I can only conjecture now that my father had to withstand tremendous humiliation and also fear. I think my father was afraid that he would fail to prevent me from failing. I think that was the root of his fear. He didnít know what to do to try to provide against the failure of his only child in this new land. I think that probably contributed to the violence of his frustration. But that he loved me and thought me capable of anything and everything there was never any doubt.

In addition to your helping him with chores and carpentry, he also cared about your mind. He gave you two sets of secondhand books, one a set of novels by Sinclair Lewis and the other a set of westerns by Zane Grey. You really took to Zane Grey, which is bizarre, a little black girl growing up in Brooklyn into mesas, coyotes, and cowboys?

Yeah. Trails, ridges.

Part of the Brooklyn landscape?

No, but thatís the point. I couldnít imagine any of that on the basis of where I lived and what our house was like and where we played. I never had seen a man build a fire with his horse nodding around nearby. I thought, I want to do that. I want to see that. I want to be there. It seemed that it would be free, huge, and entirely different. And I wouldnít be alone because I would have my horse.

You made money as a kid writing poetry. How did you manage that?

I was a little hustler. In those days parents didnít give children pocket money. I didnít get allowances. I used to go around and collect bottles and bring them back for money. Then I found out that if you liked somebody, some girl, and then you werenít into it any more, and you wanted to say it nicely and you came to me and explained what the whole thing was, then I said, How long a poem? Weíd negotiate, ten cents, fifteen, up to twenty-five cents. So I made some money. I got connected to people as far as what they were really feeling and jittery about or excited about. I loved that connection and I was crazy about the fact that the other kids trusted me that I wouldnít miscarry what they meant. Iíd do my best. Mostly they seemed very happy with the product and they took it and used it. From that I got the idea that poetry could be useful.

Around the time you were growing up the major figures in African American literature were Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. Any inspirations there?

For some reason my father didnít give me Langston Hughes. The black poet that my father gave me was Paul Laurence Dunbar. Iím glad of it because the poems of Dunbar had a lot of what at that time was called black dialect, so there was a tremendous amount of emphasis on the spoken language of black folks. That was poetry. My father who gave me Shakespeareís sonnets to read and memorize also gave me Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Did your mother nourish you intellectually in any way?

She did, but not the way my father did. My father was serious about it, testing me every day. My mom was more religious. So much of the Bible and the biblical lore and values that she continuously immersed me in raised so many questions that in that way it was intellectually provocative. For example, Daniel in the lionís den. Thatís a very provocative story.

In what way?

What was he doing there? How did he get there? Where were his people? He seemed to be by himself. That was an unknown situation for me as a child. It was only when my parents took me to a white neighborhood going to the beach that I saw children sort of my age without their parents. I thought, Where are their parents? I didnít see that in our neighborhood, which was entirely black. You did not go beyond the block except to go to school by a definite route without your parents there. Itís a different culture. And the Bible was a different culture.

Did your parents live to see your publishing and academic success?

Unfortunately not. Iím not sure it would have meant all that much to my mother, but I think my father would have been pleased.

What do you see as the role of the poet in society and where do you fit?

The role of the poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words. The trust of other people that you will not miscarry what they mean and what they want. Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised is to rally the spirit of your folks. I feel that more and more consciously over the last ten years. Itís not okay for me if Iím despairing and angry and bitter to go out in public. I have to get myself together and figure out a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that itís a spirit task. I also do my homework. The inhumanity of people here and elsewhere in the world, the injusticed. I have to figure out some way as a poet and activist to shape that information so that folks can stand up and run with it, and better resist the inclinations that absolutely overwhelm. The more you know, the more itís really easy to feel overwhelmed.

Some progressives engage in a rhetoric of purity. I canít talk to you, you smoke. I canít talk to him, he voted for Gore. You captured this tendency in a poem in your collection Passion, ďA Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades.Ē


 

First they said I was too light

Then they said I was too dark

Then they said I was too different

Then they said I was too much the same

Then they said I was too young

Then they said I was too old

Then they said I was too interracial

Then they said I was too much a nationalist

Then they said I was too silly

Then they said I was too angry

Then they said I was too idealistic

Then they said I was too confusing altogether:

Make up your mind!

They said. Are you militant? Or sweet?

Are you vegetarian or meat?

Are you straight? Or are you gay?

 

And I said, Hey! Itís not about my mind.

There are a lot of Stalinists out there. A lot of people like to feel that theyíre right. Thatís okay. You can feel that youíre right. But donít get too comfortable. Unless youíre really born of the Virgin Mary, I think we should chill a little bit. I also think thatís the result for all of us growing up in the West. We find ourselves inculcated in either/or habits of thought. Right and wrong. Black and white. Good and evil. You say, Iím not evil, so Iím good. Even though in the New Testament, speaking of the Judeo-Christian traditions of thought that prevail here, there is the value of humility. We donít find that in this culture. Thereís no value in humility. When you get into Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism, all of a sudden you find that for most of the people in the world humility is a value that people are serious about. Anybody who violates that is at best a fool. I hope at least as far as intellectual interrogation goes, more and more folks will go East and pick up on that.

Another poem from Passion is ďPoem about Police Violence,Ē which with Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, is an ever-recurring story.


 

Tell me something

what you think would happen if

everytime they kill a black boy

then we kill a cop

everytime they kill a black man

then we kill a cop


 

you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby

comes back to my mouth and I am quiet

like Olympian pools from the running

mountainous snows under the sun


 

sometimes thinking about the 12th House
of the Cosmos

or the way your ear ensnares the tip

of my tongue or signs that I have never seen

like DANGER WOMEN WORKING


 

I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rapid

and repetitive affront as when they tell me

18 cops in order to subdue one man

18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle

(donít you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue

and scuffle my oh my) and that the murder

that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn

street was just a ďjustifiable accidentĒ again

(Again)


 

People been having accidents all over the globe

so long like that I reckon that the only

suitable insurance is a gun

Iím saying war is not to understand or rerun

war is to be fought and won

 

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby

blots it out/the bestial but

not too often tell me something

what you think would happen if

everytime they kill a black boy

then we kill a cop

everytime they kill a black man

then we kill a cop


 

you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?

I wrote that in 1974. I was teaching at Yale at the time. Itís astonishing. Just last year we have Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his apartment house in the Bronx. How many cops?ó41 bullets; 19 of them lodged. It was a justifiable accident because he went for what they thought was a gun and it was his wallet. Another immigrant to this country. His mother let him come because she thought here surely he could have a more beautiful life. He was hoping to send money back to his family.

Abner Louima was from Haiti.

Another immigrant. This is not a good track record particularly with black immigrants.

A new crime to white people, at least, not new to African Americans, who have long been subjected to it, is DWB, driving while black. What do you think of racial profiling?

Itís something we ought to all be looking at and get into. We do it all the time, all of us. I see Andy and Brian videoing us here and I think, two white boys. What do they think? Black woman. There are things that go along with. All of us do it. In school this semester racial profiling was the focus of our work. We started with Wen Ho Lee, the scientist at Los Alamos, who was supposed to be a threat to our national security. Heís Chinese. You have the hip-hop black kid with the baggy pants and the hood. Heís wrong. And you have Wen Ho Lee. Heís wrong. I would like to suggest that whatís going on in our heads and our attitudes also can have deadly consequences for every person in this country unless we start copping to it that we all do it. Itís not just the police. I think it is by its nature and by implication both annihilating.                                        Z


 


David Barsamian is a radio producer and journalist. He is the founder and director of Alternative Radio and the national producer of Making Contact.