Poetry is not just for renaissance shepherds trying to woo a maiden faire. The unique format of the medium allows activists to speak out against injustice and promote—or rebuke—political systems.
Poet, playwright, and essayist June Jordan redefined political activism by channeling the righteous fury of protesting through pen and paper. Sitting alone and reading a collection of her work such as Some Changes (1971) has the same riotous energy as attending a crowded march for justice. But how did Jordan accomplish this blending of style and substance?
Writing on Rights
Jordan’s poetry employed a unique style that lent her voice to the larger national and international conversations about racial, gender, and class inequality. Her famous “Poem about My Rights” features minimal punctuation accompanied by enjambments and lines varying from one to 13 words at a time. The elements of her writing work in tandem to create a sense of urgency, drawing readers’ eyes further and further along until they’re reading at breakneck speed.
June Jordan wrote on a myriad of social injustices. Her 1981 collection Civil Wars: Selected Essays, 1963–1980 covered sexuality alongside racial relations and family, detailing her relationship with her abusive father and the issue of children’s rights.
The Gift of Poetry
Jordan brought her dedication to activism into the classroom as she taught various classes. In the beginning, she hosted poetry workshops for children in her neighborhood of Harlem, encouraging the young writers to emulate spoken dialects as they wrote.
As she moved into higher education, earning teaching positions at Yale University, the State University of New York-Stony Brook, and the University of California-Berkeley, she continued to share her love of writing and literature with driven students. In 1991, she established the arts and activism program Poetry for the People, inspired by justice and peace advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Rewarding Her Voice
June Jordan’s work received critical acclaim for its “immediacy and accessibility,” according to Poetry Foundation. In 1982 she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additionally, she was recognized by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. The National Association of Black Journalists awarded Jordan the prestigious Award for International Reporting in honor of her dedication to civil rights.
Though Jordan passed away in 2002, her work continues to influence writers and activists. Through its Center for Justice, Columbia University offers the June Jordan Fellowship to “literary, visual, musical and performance artists who are committed to public engagement.”
In a world where activism defines the political climate, June Jordan’s voice and legacy are important now more than ever.