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"Splendid...an inspiring account of Barbara Jordan's remarkable life."
—The New York Times Book Review
"[A] thoughtful biography of a one-of-a-kind twentieth-century figure."
"The new Jordan biography-like its subject-commands respect."
"A reverent portrait that observes...the dignity, precision, oratorical gifts, discipline and self-sufficiency that defined Barbara Jordan."
"[A] splendid new biography."
—San Antonio Express-News
"Impressive...a major work...Jordan emerges from the page with an immediacy that leaves one with a new sense of loss over her death. "
—The Women's Review of Books
|Ch. 2||The Ancestors||7|
|Ch. 3||The Community||20|
|Ch. 4||The Gift of Voice||35|
|Ch. 5||The Transition||60|
|Ch. 6||The Joy of Politics||74|
|Ch. 7||The Right to Vote||91|
|Ch. 8||The Pursuit of Power||109|
|Ch. 9||Friends in High Places||130|
|Ch. 10||The Opportunity||145|
|Ch. 11||Running for Congress||160|
|Ch. 12||The U.S. Congress||173|
|Ch. 14||"One of Those Texas Tribal Things"||227|
|Ch. 15||The Voting Rights Act of 1975||240|
|Ch. 18||Withdrawal and Renewal||301|
|Ch. 19||American Patriot||324|
|Ch. 20||Final Assignment||335|
BARBARA CHARLINE JORDAN was born February 21, 1936, the third daughter and last child of Benjamin Meredith and Arlyne Patten Jordan. The fortunes of Ben and Arlyne were good enough to pay Dr. Thelma Patten, a relative of Arlyne's father, John Ed, to deliver the baby at home instead of in Houston's charity hospital, where the first two Jordan girls had been born. Ben Jordan saw his daughter almost immediately after the delivery, and his first comment was, "Why is she so dark?"
From that moment, skin and body--color, hue, texture, size, condition--began to determine who Barbara Jordan was and how she reacted to her life. She learned quite early that the degree of blackness for a black child mattered. It mattered to her father, and it mattered in the white world, which would be beyond her imagination until she was almost an adult. It also mattered in the black world, her world, the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, and would hit her with full force when she was in the all-black Phillis Wheatley High School in the early 1950s. There, her color, her size, her hair texture, and her features would determine and limit her choices. "Color-struck" teachers favored light-skinned students, who were given the honors and awards, the opportunities for college and jobs. They even escaped the harshness of encounters with the white law. A common saying in the African American neighborhoods was, "The lighter the skin, the lighter the sentence."
By the time she was a teenager in the early 1950s, Barbara Jordan had been confronted by all of America's negative messages about skin color: pitch-black, charcoal, cocoa, bronze, copper, chestnut, mahogany, smoke, milky brown, high yellow--so many shades and variations, but one consistent message. "The world had decided that we were all Negro, but that some of us were more Negro than others," Jordan remembered. "The whole system ... was saying to us that you achieved more, you went further, you had a better chance, you got the awards, if you were not black-black with kinky hair. Black was bad and you didn't want to be black, and so the message we were getting was that you were really in tough shape and it was too bad that you were so unfortunate that your skin was totally black and there was no light there anywhere." It was a particularly tough message to get from your own father.
Barbara looked like her father's father, Charles Jordan, who was dark and strong-featured, with a ridge of bone over his eyes that gave him the appearance of stubborn strength. Ben Jordan did not resemble his father. He had lighter skin and the finer features of his mother, Mary. Tall, handsome, of medium color, and imbued with the pride of a Tuskegee man, Ben Jordan wanted his daughters to represent his success and God's glory. In the African American community in the 1930s, light skin and delicate features were the visible marks that divided the educated from the ignorant, the well-off from the poor, the attractive from the plain. Black was not beautiful. It was a burden. For a girl-child, the degree of melanin pigmentation in her skin and the turn of her features mattered. The shape of her nose or the texture of her hair determined acceptance, opportunity, and status. Ben Jordan knew all of that, and he knew he would have to demand much more of his new baby girl to compensate for her blackness. Mind, will, discipline, work, achievement--those attributes would be the hope, and the challenge, for this child.
The pain of being a dark-skinned female goes back to slavery and intensified with Reconstruction. The preferential treatment of lighter-skinned, mixed-race African Americans by whites had "laid the groundwork for a pattern of color classism in black America." It was the lighter-skinned African Americans who had the first opportunities for education and the benefits of freedom in post-Reconstruction America. Certain churches, neighborhoods, colleges, sororities and fraternities, social clubs, even political clubs, harbored a light-colored elite. At one time African Americans had their own "Blue Vein Society"; admission to this Nashville group depended on skin color. An applicant had to be fair enough for the spidery network of purplish veins at the wrist to be visible to a panel of expert judges.
The separate social and educational paths taken by light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans during Reconstruction divided their world. By the turn of the century, the light-skinned mulattos were the intellectual and political leaders. They were the doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and entertainers, admired and emulated by the rest.
The prevalence of skin prejudice began to weaken after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and all but disappeared in the African American community with the resurgence of black pride in the 1960s and 1970s. But even before black pride, before "Black is beautiful," before "I am somebody," Barbara Jordan got comfortable with herself. By the time she was in the third grade, in 1944, she knew in her guts that she was somebody special. It did not matter to her how black she was. If someone didn't like her because of her color, she just thought, "Well, those are stupid people, and I don't have time to deal with them." Quite early, she had the self-confidence to transcend the limits of her body, whether imposed by color, culture, physical capability--or stupidity! It was a pattern of being and behavior that stayed with her until the day she died. To all who thought that black was not as good as white, her retort was, "That's a colossal lie!"
All of her life, she was determined to discredit the naysayers, the people for whom color determined quality or human worth, "the people who thought you were inferior ... because you were born in certain economic conditions, because you're a certain race, because your hair is a certain texture--that because of that you are not as good as the person seated next to you with blond hair and blue eyes." Quite early, she adopted a belief, with all of the considerable passion she could muster, in a fundamental human truth: "You've got to be able to love yourself--love yourself strongly, and not let anybody disabuse you of your self-respect." When anyone, black or white, challenged her--or even really looked at her--they knew it was true. She had worked very hard, however, to create this deep reservoir of self-respect and belief in herself.
She often quoted the former slave Frederick Douglass, who taught himself to read and write and who decided that education was the key to his success. "Education unfits a man to be a slave," he said. Jordan would tell her audiences, "If you want to be free ... free in your heart, free in your mind, free in your movement--free!--that means get something in your head." And that was always her driving force--to get something in her head in order to be free.
The character, certainty, and command at the core of Barbara Jordan, the powerful woman whose voice could move men and women to tears, insight, inspiration, or action, came from that blackness and from her acceptance of it. She took pride in her own inner power. "The greatest motivation ... has to come from inside you.... If you don't think very much of yourself then you are not going to succeed."
The person who taught her to be proud of herself, to be proud of her blackness, was not her father, Ben Jordan, or his father, the dark-skinned Charles Jordan, but her maternal grandfather, John Ed Patten. Her relationship with this old man, and with all of his problems, taught her to be free within herself, even within the confines of her segregated, color-constrained world in Houston, Texas.
"Grandpa didn't want me to be like the other kids.... He would say this very directly. There were kids who lived just behind my grandfather's house ... that he did not want me to associate with," she said. John Ed Patten told her, "`You just trot your own horse and don't get into the same rut as everyone else.'" She always believed that Grandpa Patten considered himself "quite different, just a little cut above the ordinary man, black or white. That was continually driven into me in those years: Look, this man can make it, my grandfather. He can put together whatever combination of things necessary and just kind of make it."
Knowing John Ed Patten is essential to understanding Barbara Jordan, but his story is so rooted in and covered up by the troubles of the past that we can glimpse only snatches. It begins, of course, with the enslavement of African Americans in the South. Slavery, war, freedom, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and all of the political struggles that flowed from these events shaped Jordan's Grandpa Patten--and through him, her.
Barbara Jordan knew little of her Grandpa Patten's story, except that it combined hope and failure, triumph and tragedy. It certainly shaped, however, her view of black history in general. In 1981 she told the Urban League: "History may have consigned to blacks race as an unending negative which will support failure and oppression. That does not have to be the case. Blacks can reject history's negatives and call upon the strengths endemic to us and make America work for us." And then she asked, "But is it possible?"
Barbara Jordan's life was her answer to her own question. Did America work for her? Did she reject history's negatives? Could she transcend race as an unending negative? Her personal answer was a resounding yes! Her patriot's belief in the American Dream was grounded in e pluribus unum. "We are diverse, and yet we can be one," she believed. "Each person must be willing to tolerate the other person in their differences and in their inner souls."
Barbara Jordan's path to her inner soul--and to America's--was laid for her before she was born. We see her first "landmark" in 1891, forty-five years before her birth--appropriately, in the legislative chambers of the state Capitol Building in Austin, Texas. There, a script unfolds that Barbara Charline Jordan would star in, win acclaim for, and complete. There, her personal story begins.
Posted May 23, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted June 3, 2009
No text was provided for this review.