Bearing Witness


Writer, activist, and professor June Jordan’s final essay collection serves as a barometer for the last four decades of radical humanitarian thought. Some of Us Did Not Die is comprised of new works and excerpts from four previous books: Civil Wars (1981), On Call (1985), Technical Difficulties (1992), and Affirmative Acts (1998). From anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209 to the 2000 presidential heist, Jordan has thought, and fought, about the difficult issues. At turns hortatory, critical, and ruminative, Jordan’s disquisitions are not thematically organized. They are framed by something looser, namely her unflagging quest for equity for oppressed people.

Jordan rose to prominence during the ’60s Black Arts and women’s movements, both of which bolstered and stultified her pluralist impulses. Black Arts’ cultural nationalism stifled her individualism and gender critiques, while feminism failed to consistently recognize race as an oppressive agent.

Jordan’s insider/outsider status—as a black, bisexual, feminist writer—helped her cultivate a global conscience. Being simultaneously a part of and apart encouraged Jordan to think outside the obvious boxes and caused her to identify with the oppressed “other” anywhere. In these essays, as she searched for justice, she derided Reagan’s support of the Contras and inveighed against Israeli occupations. She constantly stared fear in the face: wandering Nicaragua’s streets; worshiping at a Berkeley synagogue following a shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center. She demonstrated her allegiance with Jewish Americans when she asserted, “You’re looking for me!” in her essay “Hunting for Jews?” As well as offering herself up as a potential target, Jordan sought out “enemies” who shared the same skin. From Dr. to Rodney King, from O.J. to Mike Tyson, Jordan challenged African American men for their misogyny and oppression of women. “Can anyone imagine those years (from 1955 to 1968) without Dr. King?” Jordan writes in the essay “The Mountain and the Man Who Was Not God,” while she simultaneously acknowledged his adulterous behavior.

In the occasional essay “Requiem for the Champ,” Jordan sympathetically explored the brutal milieu that gave rise to heavyweight champ and convicted rapist Mike Tyson: “Poverty does not teach generosity or allow for the sucker attributes of tenderness and restraint. . . . He was given the choice of . . . the violence of defeat or the violence of victory.” Throughout much of her childhood, Jordan’s father treated her like a punching bag, yet she explored Tyson’s rape conviction without mala fide knowing that “Tyson’s neighborhood and my own have become the same no-win battleground. And he has fallen there. And I do not rejoice.” Her words for Tyson were hard-earned. In “Notes Toward a Model of Resistance,” she recounted being raped twice: Of the vomit, the isolation, she wrote, “It was more than a year before I could tolerate any man . . . closer than ten feet away from me.” Jordan used her pen and her demoralizing personal pain to catalyze women into activism.

In the essays “Besting a Worst Case Scenario” and “I Am Seeking an Attitude,” comparable to Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, Jordan wrote candidly about how her body faced its final opponent: breast cancer. Throughout her difficult personal meditations, Jordan employed her signature mixture of anecdotal vulnerability (“you never want to undress in front of anybody”) and statistical vigilance (“Over the past ten years, roughly 140,000 Americans have died of AIDS while close to 600,000 Americans have died of breast cancer. . . . Of course, breast cancer kills only women”).

Jordan did not use her radical tenacity solely to confront or condemn, but rather to illuminate. As a child she was taught that the truth was painful; as her personal and political convictions deepened in adulthood, not telling the truth became the unbearable act. Whether it was her blunt portrayals of an abusive father or her candid descriptions of being raped, Jordan bore witness and demanded that of those around her.

Jordan’s personal ferocity and rectitude compel me to doff my critic’s cap and break my own decade-long silence about a violent act that I committed. A woman I loved hurt me with incessant barbs of “Leos have thicker dicks.” She even joked about it as we made love. I vomited repeatedly, had nightmares about these men. Following an argument one evening, we fooled around. After I entered her, she asked me to stop. I didn’t. Jordan’s eponymous essay “Some of Us Did Not Die” intimates that, because living is not a given, we owe something to those whose lives have been taken. Jordan succumbed to breast cancer on June 14, 2002, but her words continue to rattle in my psyche. So I offer my admission as an initial payment on a long-overdue debt of silence, both mine and other men’s.

In this aforementioned essay, Jordan ruminated on the 9-11 tragedy and a 1999 Pacifica Radio interview with Auschwitz survivor Elly Gross. Gross’s family was waved to the left—to death; she to the right—to life. But rather than wallow in these horrors, for Jordan, the radical humanitarian, the question invariably becomes What do we do next, what do we do now? How do we address “ugly”? How do we confront “the other”?

Jordan was a populist who engaged in a wondrous and troubling struggle with the world and herself. At times, she was a mother without a husband, or poet without a publisher, but she could never be accused of being a woman without vision. Her reflections on Dr. King’s legacy mirror her own: “How could anyone quarrel with the monumental evidence of his colossal courage?” Jordan’s days were spent in constant revelation. Read her words, risk your own unveiling.