Some of Us Did Not Die

New and Selected Essays


By June Jordan

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“She remains a thinker and activist who ‘insists upon complexity.’ “Reamy Jansen, San Francisco Chronicle*Some of Us Did Not Die brings together a rich sampling of the late poet June Jordan’s prose writings. The essays in this collection, which include her last writings and span the length of her extraordinary career, reveal Jordan as an incisive analyst of the personal and public costs of remaining committed to the ideal and practice of democracy. Willing to venture into the most painful contradictions of American culture and politics, Jordan comes back with lyrical honesty, wit, and wide-ranging intelligence in these accounts of her reckoning with life as a teacher, poet, activist, and citizen.



Also by June Jordan

Who Look At Mex


The Voice of the Children

His Own Where

Dry Victories

Fannie Lou Hamer

Some Changes

New Days, Poems of Exile and Return

New Life: New Room

Passion, New Poems 1977–1980

Kimako's Story

Things That I Do in the Dark, Selected Poems, 1977

Civil Wars, Selected Essays 1963–1980

Living Room, New Poems 1980–1984

On Call: New Political Essays

Lyrical Campaigns: Selected Poems

Moving Towards Home: Selected Essays

Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems

Technical Difficulties: New Political Essays

Haruko/Love Poetry of June Jordan

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint

Kissing God Goodbye: New Poems 1991–1997

Affirmative Acts: New Political Essays

Soldier: A Poet's Childhood


New and Selected Essays of

Dedicated to

Sriram Shamasunder

Xochiquetzal Candelaria

Alberto Palomar

Trevor Baumgartner

Stephanie Yan

Preeti Rajpal

Sheila Menezes

Junichi P. Semitsu




The Infinite Music


Adrienne B. Torf

It is my privilege to thank Gloria Loomis—my agent, my advocate—for her steadfast encouragement, counsel, and our abiding friendship.

I am grateful for the continuing, best expectations, and support, of my editor, Vanessa Mobley.

And for making a fight out of a pretty difficult situation, my deep appreciation to Dr. Hope Rugo, Dr. Jennifer Ross, Dr. Jonathan Terdiman, Dr. Catherine C.
Park, Suzanne Eder, N.P., Edrie Schade, N.P., and Professor Elaine Kim.

And for being here, in very bad weather, my gratitude and my love, to Charlotte Lagarde, and my loving appreciation to Jim Saliba, Frances Reid, Lauren Muller, Robert Allen, Nicola Blank, Andre Dos Santos Morgan, and Zack Rogow.

And, thank you, Sara Miles, who always sanctifies chapter and verse, without fear, and in absolute good faith.

And, always, word by word, and beyond words, thank you, Laura Flanders, for blessing my life.

part one



ONCE THROUGH the fires of September 11, it's not easy to remember or O recognize any power we continue to possess.

Understandably we shrivel and retreat into stricken consequences of that catastrophe.

But we have choices, and capitulation is only one of them.

I am always hoping to do better than to collaborate with whatever or whomever it is that means me no good.

For me, it's a mind game with everything at stake.

For example, what has what kind of savagery blurred or blocked or buried alive?

This is an excerpt from my Poem To Take Back The Night:

What about moonlight
What about watching for the moon above
the tops of trees and standing
still enough to hear the raucous crickets
chittering invisible beneath the soon lit stones

What about moonlight
What about moonlight

What about watching for the moon
through windows low enough to let the screams
and curses of the street the gunshots
and the drunken driver screeching tires
and the boombox big beat and the tinkle
bell ice cream truck

What about moonlight
What about moonlight. . . .

Luckily, there are limitless, new ways to engage our tender, and possible responsibilities, obligations that our actual continuing coexistence here, in these United States and here, in our world, require.

For example, as the great Afghan poet, Rumi, has written:

“Bird song brings relief
to my longing. . . .

Please, universal soul, practice
Some song, or something, through me!”

Thank you so much, Barnard's Women Center, and thank you Barnard College, for your notice and your faith! Thanks for asking me to speak, out loud, about the rough-hewn trajectories of my poet's life.

I am rather late as I try to tell you tonight about my gratitude.

Back in 1975, I wrote:

“To be honest, I expect apocalypse, or I look for and I work for defeat of international evil, indifference, and suffering, only when I am not otherwise stunned by the odds, temporarily paralyzed by the revulsion and grieving despair.

But life itself compels an optimism. It does not seem reasonable that the majority of the peoples of the world should, finally, lose joy, and rational justice, as a global experiment to be pursued and fiercely protected. It seems unreasonable that more than 400 million people, right now, struggle against hunger and starvation, even while there is arable earth aplenty to feed and nourish every one of us. It does not seem reasonable that the color of your skin should curse and condemn all of your days and the days of your children. It seems preposterous that gender, that being a woman, anywhere in the world, should elicit contempt, or fear, or ridicule, and serious deprivation of rights to be, to become, to embrace whatever you choose. . . .

At Barnard, there was one great teacher whom I was privileged to know, Barry Ulanov. And in freshman English I remember two assignments for which I will always feel gratitude. One was a paper that would pull together, I think he said ‘somehow,’ Alfred North Whitehead's Aims of Education and Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Many of my classmates became more or less suicidal as they reflected on this task. But I thought, damn, if you can synthesize Whitehead with Greek mythology, then maybe you can bring the Parthenon to Bedford-Stuyvesant, and make it all real.”2

Back then, I meant to say that Barnard College never gave me the connection between the apparently unrelated worlds of black and white. But that is not quite true: because there was no obvious given connection between Barnard and Bedford Stuyvesant, I had to discover and invent that connection for myself—which is worthy work for anyone, for sure.

And because this/Barnard was the Parthenon, I got to thinking about how some of us choose to remember, and why, and how: why we do not forget.

And I got to thinking about the moral meaning of memory, per se. And what it means to forget, what it means to fail to find and preserve the connection with the dead whose lives you, or I, want or need to honor with our own.

Before Barnard, I didn't even know there was a Parthenon, or a Pantheon— these are ideas at least as much as they are standing, if mostly ruined, remains of human pride and hope and a reaching for impossible, and imperative, accomplishments. So, however belatedly, thank you for that! And thank you for the man who became my husband and the father of my son.

“In between classes and in the middle of campus, I met him on a very cold day. He stood, without shivering, behind a small table on which an anti-McCarthypetition and pages of signatures lay, blowing about. He wore no overcoat, no gloves, no scarf, and I noticed that his cheeks seemed almost bitterly red with the wind. Although that happened some half century ago, I remember that he wore a bright yellow Oxford cloth button-down shirt, open at the neck, and no tie. He explained the petition to me. But I wanted to do something else. I wanted to excuse myself and find him a cup of coffee so he'd keep warm enough to continue standing out there, brave against Senator Joe McCarthy and the witch-hunts that terrorized America. He looked like a hero to me. It really was cold. He really didn't care. He stood there, by himself, on purpose. I went away to bring him back a cup of coffee, and, as I recall, that same afternoon I told a couple of my friends that I had met the man I would marry.

That was 1954. He was a twenty-year-old senior at Columbia College. I was eighteen and a sophomore at Barnard College, across the street. It would be hard to say which one of us was younger or more ignorant of the world beyond our books, our NAACP meetings, school parties, ping-pong, running hikes through Van Cortlandt Park, or our exhaustively romantic letter-writing at the rate of two or three letters a day. But he was taller and stronger, and he was white. We were not the same.”

And beginning then, inside that interracial, state criminalized relationship, I learned all the way to my knees, the sometimes terrible consequences of difference, the sometimes fatal response of religious, and of political, and social systems set against differences among us, differences characterized by those most powerful as deviant, or pathological, or blasphemous, or beneath contempt.

That confrontation with heavyweight intolerance carried me through our Civil Rights Revolution and into our resistance to the War Against Vietnam and then into the realm of gender and sexual and sexuality politics. And those strivings, in aggregate, carried me from Brooklyn to Mississippi, to South Africa, to Nicaragua, to Israel, to Palestine, to Lebanon and to Northern Ireland, and every single one of those embattled baptisms clarified pivotal connections among otherwise apparently disparate victories, or among apparently disparate events of suffering, and loss.

Issues of community control in New York City's public schools plunged me into the complicated facets of self-determination. And, then again, my personal recovery from actual rape catapulted me into difficult questions about resistance as a reluctant attitude for anyone who believes he or she has been violated and debased.

In turn, several intricate problems of resistance have taken me into repeated attempts at overview constructions and analyses of the world-wide absurdity of endangered female existence: I mean, why is that our universal situation? And 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.

For example, I attended one of the best prep schools for girls in this country.
And then I came here to Barnard.

And I did not know, I did not understand, the fantastic privilege such an education implied.

I think I more or less mostly tolerated school because, to me, it was just that, “school.” And yet, here, in this new millennium, we are struggling with the consequences of the abysmal fact that education, that basic literacy, in fact, is not god-given, or a sovereign state entitlement. As a matter of fact, education is denied to most female human beings on the planet. And even if you disregard the significance of that for girls and women, you just might, nevertheless, begin to care about the documented correlations between illiterate female populations and the impoverishments, the barbaric hardship of every society maintaining and/or imposing such an unequal, such a literally suffocating status quo.

Before the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan, 90% of girls and women were illiterate. After the Taliban, it is virtually 100%. Now some of us knew about these deplorable conditions quite a while ago. In my 1993 essay, “I Am Seeking an Attitude,” I wrote:

“It took longer than inexcusable indifference for folks inside the United States to even raise an outcry against the documented, systematic, genocidal rape of more than 20,000 mostly Muslim women, and girls, inside the former Yugoslavia.

It is still all quiet on the documented, horrifying fate of women, and girls, inside Afghanistan.”

And yet it was years later, and not because our official government cared about the sisters of the Taliban, before USA policies stopped supporting the Taliban.

Indeed, it was American feminists including Jay Leno's wife, who agitated for censure of horrible Taliban practices. And, nevertheless, as recently as 4 months ago, George W. Bush gave the Taliban 43 million dollars. Why? To cajole Taliban cooperation with our War Against Drugs—Clearly a war way more important than a war against the maiming and annihilation of Afghan women.

I have evolved from an observer to a victim to an activist passionately formulating methods of resistance against tyranny of any kind.

And most important, I think, is this: I have faced my own culpability, my own absolute dirty hands, so to speak, in the continuation of injustice and powerful intolerance.

I am discovering my own shameful functions as part of the problem, at least. I no longer think “They” are this or that, but rather, “We” or “I” am not doing enough, for instance, or “I” have not done my homework, and so on.

Here is one poem from my Kosovo Suite:

April 10, 1999

The enemies proliferate
by air
by land
they bomb the cities
they burn the earth
they force the families into miles and miles of violent exile

30 or 40 or 81,000 refugees
just before this
or who knows where
they disappear

the woman cannot find her brother
the man cannot recall the point of all
   the papers somebody took
     away from him
the rains fail to purify the river
the darkness does not slow the trembling
   message of the tanks
Hundreds of houses on fire and still
   the enemies seek and find
     the enemies

only the ones without water
only the ones without bread
only the ones without guns

There is international TV
There is no news

The enemies proliferate
The homeless multiply
And I
I watch I wait.

I am already far
and away
too late

too late

And as I have wrestled with my own violence, my own instincts to strike back, to strike out and smash what hurts me, or my people, or my country, or my ideal aspirations for my beloved America I have written in part:

“the bombing
began and did not terminate for 42 days
and 42 nights relentless minute after minute
more than 110,000 times
we bombed Iraq we bombed Baghdad
we bombed Basra/ we bombed military
installations we bombed the National Museum
we bombed schools we bombed air raid
shelters we bombed water we bombed
electricity we bombed hospitals we
bombed everything that moved/ we
bombed everything that did not move we
bombed Baghdad
a city of 5.5 million human beings”

And then, getting strictly personal, and strictly political, at the same time, I wrote Soldier, the story of my childhood:

“Maybe I should have been born a boy. I think I dumbfounded my father. Whatever his plans and his hopes for me, he must have noticed now and again that I, his only child, was in fact a little girl modeling pastel sunbonnets color-coordinated with puffy-sleeved dresses that had to accommodate justin-case cotton handkerchiefs pinned to them.

I’m not sure.

Regardless of any particulars about me, he was convinced that a “Negro” parent had to produce a child who could become a virtual whiteman and therefore possess dignity and power.

Probably it seemed easier to change me than to change the meaning and complexion of power.

At any rate, he determined he'd transform me, his daughter, into something better, something more likely to succeed.

He taught me everything from the perspective of a recruiting warrior. There was a war on against colored people, against poor people. I had to become a soldier who would rise through the ranks and emerge a commander of men rather than an infantry pawn.

I would become that sturdy, brilliant soldier, or he would, well, beat me to death.”

And sometimes, I suspect, whenever any of us feel defeated we may think maybe everybody should have been born a boy. Maybe everybody should have been capable of the awesome and inspiring heroism of our firefighters, and our police, who sought only to retrieve and rescue the living and the wounded from the infamy of September 11.

Maybe we should all of us be that strong that way.

Maybe that would be easier, all around.

But there is also the humble love of Ruth and Naomi I will place right next to the derring-do of David's love for Jonathan.

There is the bravery of the Women In Black who for more than a decade hold public, silent vigils to end the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

There are the ridiculed pink-beribboned people against violence in the bedroom, the kitchen, the streets, and in our domestic and foreign priorities. There is the bravery of women against the valorization of violence and force rather than the valorization of a negotiating wish and commitment to make merciful and just our coexistence with really different people trying, always, to fully and freely live on this one earth.

So, actually, I am ok with being a girl, and becoming a woman.

I am fighting breast cancer, and it's not a readily visible contest but you know, it's mine, and it's also the fight that a stupendous number of other women have no choice about.

Ode #2 Written During Chemotherapy at UCSF
Ode to I'd Really Rather Be Sailing
Or failing to dive fast enough so fish
Marvel at the rapidity of my descent into the sea
So deep even sperm whales move on sound
So dark even what's electrical will not ignite into a luminous event

Oh, I'd rather be flying
Or lying beside somebody lift
My lips to lips
Averse to words
Lips articulate as colorings of an eye
About to blink me just beyond just lust

I'd rather be no answer
Or no cancer always stuck inside gray company
Of frail and bald and sagging melodrama
Intro-venous drips and problematic pokings in my veins
And daily pills that kill acuity of consciousness
And stats that say, “That's it! That's that!”

Oh, no lie!
I'd really rather be somebody's
Sweet potato pie!

In 1999, I published an essay, Are You Hunting For Jews?

“‘You're looking for me.’

With those four, casual swords, Aryan Nation member Buford O. Furrow Jr. presented himself to the FBI in Las Vegas, August 11, 1999.

One day earlier, Furrow was hunting for Jews. He wanted to kill Jews. He wanted America to wake up. He thought that killing Jews would help to interrupt a dangerous national sleep during which ‘the spawn of the devil’— Jews, blacks, homosexuals—have gained something or other powerful and good at the expense of Christian white people. . . .

And then, a few weeks later, I heard an Auschwitz survivor, Elly Gross, in an interview with Laura Flanders on Pacifica Radio.

Elly Gross is part of a class action suit seeking compensation for the slave labor forced upon her, and thousands of other Jews, in 1944.

What struck me to my soul was her spontaneous, on-air declaration. She said: ‘I guess it was my destiny to live.’

She meant that her life hopes to honor the memory of her mother and her five-year-old brother who were waved to the left—to their death—by a white-gloved Nazi officer, June 2, 1944, while she was waved to the right, first to Auschwitz, and then to the slave labor at Fallersleben.

She meant that to live is not just a given: To live means you owe something big to those whose lives are taken away from them.”

And two things happened for me: I realized that regardless of the tragedy, regardless of the grief, regardless of the monstrous challenge, Some of Us Have Not Died.

Some of us did NOT die, for example, on September 11th. This is what Elly Gross meant by “I guess it was my destiny to live.”

And I come among you, here, humbled by that attack against the World Trade Center, September 11, that atrocity against so many thousands of men and women, from more than 50 countries around the world and as I listen to and as I watch various New York City survivors express their rage and their terrified, seared consciousness, and their inconsolable longing for loved ones lost, and their sense of safety lost—may I just repeat this idea that, as Elly Gross said, I guess it was your destiny to live.

Indeed some of us did not die.

Some of you, some of us remain, despite that hatred that violence that murder that suicide that affront to our notions of civilized days and nights.

And what shall we do, we who did not die?


On Sale
Aug 5, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Civitas Books

June Jordan

About the Author

June Jordan was Professor of African American Studies at U.C. Berkeley and was born in New York City in 1936. Her books of poetry include Haruko / Love Poems and Naming Our Destiny: New and Selected Poems. She was also the author of five children’s books, a novel, three plays, and five volumes of political essays, the most recent of which was Affirmative Acts.

For more than ten years, she wrote a regular political column for The Progressive magazine. Her honors included a National Book Award nomination, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and a National Association of Black Journalists Award. June Jordan died in Berkeley, California on June 14, 2002.

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