June Jordan, “Bringing Back the Person,” and a Call to Community

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“Body and Soul, Black America reveals the extreme questions of contemporary life, questions of freedom and identity: How can I be who I am?” [1]

With these words, June Millicent Jordan (1936-2002) poignantly begins a conversation about blackness, about freedom and identity, and about wrestling with the “extreme questions” that continue to be salient today. In so doing, she invites us to simultaneously reflect upon who we are and how we might be our best selves. What is it that makes us who were are—as individuals, as members of communities, as thinkers, and students, as educators—and how might we tap into those things to not merely exist, but to be whole in that existence?

First published in the Evergreen Review [2] “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person” was one of many of Jordan’s responses to a tumultuous time. In addition to being historically located at the formal “end” of the Civil Rights Movement, Jordan was facing a battle of her own at City College of New York, where she was among students and faculty fighting to inaugurate an Open Admissions policy. Jordan was not alone in that battle, for Barbara Christian, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade were among her comrades in the English Department during that time.

That “Bringing Back the Person” was written in light of the university context should not go unnoticed. It is in fact essential. A self-proclaimed position paper,[3] Jordan compels students of Black Studies to collectively “name our god,” to “choose community,” and to “seize the possibilities of power even while they tremble about purpose.” Through Black Studies as constructed in the university context, students become equipped with another means of confronting the tyranny of racism. This is ironic, considering that the university is its own self-supporting machine—the antithesis of community. Yet Black Studies, in Jordan’s view, allows students to choose solace in community even while they confront “the humanly universal dilemma of individual limit.”

A mere twelve pages, “Bringing Back the Person” is packed with gems that require a kind of sacred, careful harvesting. Where I teach, “Bringing Back the Person” has become integral to our curriculum in Africana Studies. We incorporate the essay in our introductory and senior-level courses. It is always well received. Jordan’s uncanny knack for blending the personal and the political, for offering the scathing yet salient analysis, for simultaneously being timely and timeless, and for talking to us in a way that is accessible, is a welcomed invitation to my students and colleagues.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable on the significance of Jordan’s essay at the National Council for Black Studies. My husband and I joined with a collective of our brilliant students—among them @catalytic92, @_BrothaG, and @whereisvonna—and we discussed the possibilities and stakes for taking the idea of “bringing back the person” seriously. What does it mean to be a contemporary student of Black Studies? What does it mean, in a world that seems to despise blackness, to prosper within the university context? We agreed that, above all else, to remain anchored in Black Studies is to look directly into the question of the mirror as Jordan suggests, and to see ourselves, our families, and our commitments in our own reflections. To choose community is to choose ourselves, and that choice is essential to our collective survival.

To eschew the selfish promises of individualism, and to do so in the context of pursuing Black Studies is a risk June Jordan forces us to face head on. To make those choices is to rebuke the annihilation essential to anti-black racism. The call to bring back the person, to be the whole self, is a lofty aspiration, but what other alternative is there?

In this month of celebrating women’s history, I honor June Jordan’s life and legacy. Through my repeated encounters with her work I am reminded of the ever-important question: “How can I be who I am?”

I will name my gods.

I will choose community.

I will, to bring back the person, alive and sacrosanct.

Yes.

[1] Book cover image from Life as Activism: June Jordan’s Writings from the Progressive, edited by Stacy Russo with a Foreword by Angela Davis (Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books, 2014).

[2] October, 1969, 39-41, 71-72.

[3] Jordan, June. Civil Wars: Observations from the Front Lines of America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981). See also Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 2002)

 


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