reviewed by Stephanie Burt
“I am black alive and looking back at you,” June Jordan announced in 1969. She kept looking, and protesting, and advocating, and clarifying her life, and setting examples for radical activists, until her death in 2002. This first posthumous volume to hold both her verse and her prose puts her back near the center of conversations where—with Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich—she clearly belongs. It takes in bold verse devoted to causes personal and international; brief segments from her novel for young people, His Own Where (Feminist Press, 1971) and from Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood (Basic Civitas Books, 2000); collaborations for singers and for the stage; and a panoply of speeches and essays, including her famous defenses of black English, an homage to Walt Whitman’s “democratic faith,” and a profile of “Phillis Miracle Wheatley.” Those who know only the Brooklyn-bred poet’s verse or her memoir might learn much from her changing relations to the Black Arts Movement, or from her self-critical “Report From the Bahamas,” on how much feminist academia excludes “most of women of the world.” “To be honest, I expect apocalypse,” she remembered writing in 1975; the outcries of Jordan’s 1970s and 1980s—for Palestinian struggle, against apartheid, against the Iraq wars—might only stoke such expectations now. Younger readers in search of radical examples may discover Jordan’s dimensions through this big book. Older ones will take heart from the reminder and return to their struggle fortified, scared, or glad to remember (as Jordan concluded in one late poem) that “you’d / better love a Black revolutionary before she / gets the idea // that you don’t.”
We’re On: A June Jordan Reader is edited by Christoph Keller and Jan Heller Levi. This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.