“And I Got to Thinking about the moral meaning of memory . . . [A]nd what it means to forget, what it means to fail to find and preserve the connections with the dead whose lives you, or I, want or need to honor with our own.”
It was a meandering Saturday afternoon—babygirl just finally down for her all-too-short afternoon nap—when I downloaded my latest batch of e-mail. Weekend e-mail is usually meaningless, no notes from editors, good words from respected colleagues, or queries from ambitious grad students—the stuff that always gets me excited—just the usual banter from the various listservs that rarely hold my attention. It was on one of those listservs that the news of June Jordan’s death was forwarded to me.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Jordan was given a 40% prognosis of surviving more than five years. She lived for more than a decade after her diagnosis, becoming an advocate—on the real she had been an advocate for the voiceless, the nameless, the faceless, and the despised for more than 30 years—for other women afflicted with the disease. The author of 28 books of poetry, fiction, and social criticism, Jordan was one of the most prolific intellectuals of her generation.
But I am sure there are many, of all races, who perused newspaper accounts of her death, with no knowledge of who this woman was . . . is. In a society that believes that inane dictums embraced by American youth like “Be Like Mike” or “I Am Tiger Woods” are evidence of a color-blind, classless, genderless, and discrimination-free America, June Jordan worked as an activist tirelessly in the very trenches that Nike, Gatorade, McDonalds, Viacom and two national political parties claim in the name of commercial products even more inane than pop slogans for the miraculously athletic black men that we know on a first name basis. We are unlikely to hear any slogans in mainstream media . . . Ever . . . that proclaim we should “be like June.”
To many in the mainstream, the very idea of a black intellectual is obscure, so it’s not surprising that Jordan’s death has received only nominal (usually 400 words) attention in the mainstream press. There is, of course, an all-too-long history of the invisibility of black death. The Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas hearings overshadowed the death of Redd Foxx in 1991. The most genius of American Modernist—Miles Davis—was only given his due in jazz circles, though he was the very defintion of American style for more than four decades. One “witty” commentator even went as far to suggest that the Houghton family was out-of-line for their grandiose funeral arrangements for their daughter, pop singer Aaliyah (he was upset that traffic was backed up). Alluding to the lack of coverage of Miles Davis’s death, bassist Foley, joked on his 1993 track “Better Not Die (N Amerika Being Black)” that the media would have paid more attention if it was “Sonny or muthafuckin’ Cher” and of course Sonny Bono’s funeral (he was by then in the US Congress) was covered live on CNN.
In another example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently ran a story about the disappearance of Alexis Patterson, who was apparently kidnapped a month before Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance in Salt Lake City, but there has been little if any mainstream media coverage of Patterson’s kidnapping. NBC, ABC and others have devoted more than 30 minutes of coverage to the Utah kidnapping. The intensity of the coverage of Smart immediately struck me as an effort to divert attention away from Bush Jr.‘s attempt to transform the American Government via the creation of a Dept. of Homeland Defense—black folks were of course diverted by the arrest of an accused child sex offender and R&B singer, who appears in a widely-circulated bootlegged copy of child pornography that has probably been seen by more people than those who have read at least one June Jordan book—but I digress.
If June Jordan has been invisible to the mainstream in her death, it was not simply because she was black, but because she was a black woman, who chose to be an activist and a intellectual, in a society that seemingly has little value for black women who aren’t taking off their clothes, while celebrating their “bootilicious” reality on a Viacom-owned video channel or an HBO “sex” series. How ironic is it that there is little graphic sex on the channel’s Sex in the City which has no significant black female characters, yet black women are graphically featured on shows like Real Sex, the “hooker trilogy” of Hookers on the Point, Pimps Up, Hoes Down, Hookers at the Point: Five Years Later, and G-String Divas. Not surprisingly, HBO, which specializes in “groundbreaking” documentaries, passed on NO! , Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ brilliantly brave and important documentary about black-on-black sexual violence (some of those folks who have trafficked in child pornography via the R. Kelly video, need to spend a few hours with Simmons’s film), on the basis that it didn’t have mainstream appeal.
June Jordan was committed to exposing herself—her passions, convictions, and fears in her words, which she willfully gave to the world with the libretto I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and books such as Civil Wars, Selected Essays 1963-1980 (1996), and most recently her memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood (1999). In her essay “Besting a Worse Case Scenario” (from Affirmative Action, 1998), Jordan wrote defiantly about her illness: “I want my story to help to raise red flags, public temperatures, holy hell, public consciousness, blood pressure, and morale—activist/research/victim/morale so that this soft-spoken emergency becomes the number-one-of-the-tip-of-the-tongue issue all kinds of people join to eradicate, this afternoon/tonight/Monday morning.” For a decade, Jordan used her own trauma to raise question as to why nearly 50,000 woman succumb to Breast Cancer per year.
Jordan was an avowed feminist, but like Joy James’s notion of black feminist “Shadow Boxers,” Jordan eschewed the “feminism as simply identity politics” that so-called feminists have been able to soft-pedal in the New York Times or on the best-sellers list. Jordan instead sought “analyses of the world-wide absurdity of endangered female existence” (from the introduction to the forthcoming collection Some of Us Did Not Die). She openly challenges women, asking “when will we revolt against our marginalized, pseudo-maverick status and assert our majority, our indispensable-to-the-species’ power—and I do mean power: our verifiable ability to change things inside our own lives and in the lives of other folks, as well.”
At the time of her death, an advanced copy of Some of Us Did not Die: New and Selected Essay of June Jordan (scheduled for release in September of this year) sat in my bag, unread for close to a month. It was gonna be part of my “summer reading.” Jordan of course couldn’t afford simple pleasures like planning her summer reading. In a poignant moment in “Besting a Worse case Scenario” Jordan wrote:
I do everything I possibly can every day,
I postpone nothing
I no longer procrastinate.
I give whatever I undertake all that I’ve got
I pay closer attention to incredible,
surrounding reasons for celebration and faith
I watch for good news.
I become hourly more aware
Of the privileges conveyed by human life . . .
It has been a privilege for all those who have read Jordan’s work or have known and worked with her, to have shared some part of her humanity. Jordan was of course right, when she suggested that “some of us did not die.” The essay was written weeks after the 9-11 attacks, as Jordan struggled with the implications of the attacks and American response to them. Ultimately, she asserted (borrowing from Auschwitz survivor Elly Gross) that “We’re Still Here / I Guess It Was Our Destiny To Live / So Let’s get on with it!” For those us still in the world, it would do us well to “Be Like June Jordan.”
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// Marginal Utility
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