Soldier: A Poet's Childhoodby June Jordan
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In this captivating memoir, June Jordan unfolds the day-by-day making of a poet and writer during the first l2 years of her life. Through Jordan's unfailing eye and uncanny ear the reader sees and hears how a great talent was forged inside a household both violent and loving, a childhood both idyllic and roiled by turmoil and conflict.
In its thrilling and absolutely fresh descriptions of a young girl's everyday life, Soldier carries us into the shock of what childhood looks and feels like from the inside out. Jordan recaptures how we first come to love, how we first come to need to describe, and possess the world around us, through words. From these earliest years, we encounter the lyricism and the musicality-as well as the strength and the outrage--that remain pivotal to June Jordan's world-renowned poetry, today.
Jordan's earliest years are defined mainly by her brutal and loving father, a West Indian elevator operator a West Indian elevator operator who wanted his only child to be successful-to attain the dignity and power allowed only to white men at the time. To advance this ambition, he repeatedly challenged the young June physically, psychologically, and intellectually. With her father's "military" training guiding the way, we follow the poet as she confronts a huge variety of formative events---- in-house conflict, adventure, one-on-one warfare, and first love.
Written with exceptional beauty, throughout, Soldier stands and delivers an eloquent, heart-breaking, hilarious, and hopeful, witness to the beginnings of a truly extraordinary, American life.
June Jordan is Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also directs the Poetry for the People program. She has published numerous volumes of poetry and political essays, including Civil Wars, Technical Difficulties, Naming Our Destiny, Haruko /Love Poetry, Kissing God Good-Bye, and, most recently, Affirmative Acts. Her honors include Special Recognition by the United States Congress, A Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference of Black Writers, The Prix de Rome in Environmental Design, A National Books Award finalist nomination for her novel, His Own Where, a National Association of Black Journalists Award, and a PEN-West Freedom to Write Award.
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I was born on the hottest day, in Harlem. A beastly heat set records while my mother labored more than twenty-five hours, alone, inside a shuttered hospital room.
No one gave her anesthesia or any other comfort.
The staff kept my father waiting beyond the closed door. And, stunned by her incessant weeping, her repetitive, weeping petitions to the Lord for some relief, he could scarcely decide whether to sit, to stand, or to smash up a chair, a pane of glass, a coffee cup.
My mother continued to moan. And she begged God to forgive her for these outbursts of ingratitude.
She was being blessed with a child. Months before, she had been visited in her sleep by angels who had told her that this firstborn would prove to be a great help to her people: Colored people. She was being blessed.
But she felt sundered by an agony that would subside only to return with a piercing intensity that lasted quite beyond her sensible endurance.
Her own sweat and bits of shit and blood drenched the sheets beneath her torment and she twisted and she toiled through arduous hours of her sacred tribulation, and she triedshe triedto praise Jesus and His suffering as she suffered now, the curse of every woman.
This, then, was her cross to bear: This giving birth to me.
* * *
They were both West Indian immigrants. Both of them came to America from barefoot, peasant levels of poverty. But there the similarities disappeared.
My father quit after the first few months of grade school in Jamaica because, he said, the other children laughed at the rags he wore.
My mother completed the equivalent of high school and so, as my father reminded her, again and again, she knew how to read and write "long before" he got around to teaching himself those skills.
But my mother grew up in the dirt-floor cabin of a mountain village without electricity or running water. She would often whisper to me pictures of the frightening shadows of banana leaves below the changing message of the moon.
She came to this country because my grandmother, a domestic worker in New Jersey, finally sent for her.
My father came because his older brother, down in Panama, tried to take his teeth out with an ordinary pair of pliers.
Or: He came because he'd finished his stint as a British soldier who served in a cavalry regiment of Her Majesty's something or other in World War I.
It was hard to settle my father into a steady frame of reference.
He was a "race man," an admirer of Marcus Garvey, an enthusiast for theories about African origins of the human species, a zealous volunteer boxing instructor at the Harlem YMCA, devotedly literate in the available Negro poetry and political writingsand, also, he would angrily insist that he was not "black," not a "Negro."
Looking at him, you'd have to say that my father was extremely handsome, possibly white, and at least 50 percent Chinese.
Listening to him, you'd have to conclude that he was passionately confused and volatile.
Calling himself the Little Bull, my father was short, conspicuously fit, truculent, and generally (with women) flirtatious.
Believing that "idleness is the devil's plan," he stayed busy; reading through the night, his index finger tracking each syllable that he silently mouthed, or writing letters to government officials, or designing the next household or backyard project, or refining a schedule of forced enlightenment for me, his only child.
He was forever loquacious, argumentative, and visionary in his perspective.
And he was addicted to beauty, which is probably why he married my mother.
She had flawless brown skin and enormous dark brown eyes. She was very beautiful. She was also very sad. But my father mistook her sadness for dignity, and he treasured her reserve, her hesitant pacing, her mysterious poise. He also savored the teasing of her artificial quiet, the fullness of her bosom, and her quivering lower lip. She walked that proud Jamaican walk, allowing for no haste, no misstep, no embarrassment of clumsy impulse.
He was a man's man. She was a man's woman, thrilled to be chosen by an unemployed, ambitious West Indian who would make her his wife: He would be the stubborn provider who would take proper care of her in this strange, fast-talking city.
And on the afternoon when he did at last get work, as an elevator operator, my father ran the whole length of Manhattan, uptown to their two cramped rooms, to shout, "A job! A job! I got a job!"
He intended to keep every single promise he made to herand to himself.
All he wanted in exchange was her fidelity, her respect, a little loosening up on the affectionate side of things, and a son.
* * *
I loved orange juice. It seemed to me that orange juice and daylight fused in my mind as soon as I could focus. It was such a wonderful color! And you could see orange pulp particles moving inside that delicious liquid! A bottle or a glass of orange juice presented me with an aquarium that I could taste. And, oh! The pleasures of that color and that movement of that coloring on my tongue!
I could look and look at orange juice. I wanted and I hoped for and I never forgot about orange juice.
Milk was good for you.
I hated it.
But orange juice and the transparencies of glass and suffusing modulations of a day's light could and would excite me awake, my eyes wide open for more orange juice: More!
* * *
Half a year after I was born, it must have been Christmastime. The square rooms of our public-housing apartment felt crowded to me as many more visitors than usual came and went. A variety of unfamiliar voices boomed and lilted around the tree and my wicker bassinet.
My mother did not feel like starch or smell like food. I tried to reach for the tiny holiday rhinestones I saw sparkling around her neck and swaying from her ears. But she'd shake her head and tickle my stomach and singsong a nursery rhyme to distract me:
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
The little dog laughed
To see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon
My mother had the habit of connecting a particular part of my body to every noun. For example, she'd say "Hey diddle diddle" and, at the second "diddle," she'd choose a spotperhaps my cheek or the tip of my noseand she'd press or pinch or kiss that chosen counterpart: "The cat" (scratching my elbow) "and the fiddle" (squeezing my thumb).
It's fair to say I could not help but fall in love with words.
In this regard, my favorite rhyme was
This little pig went to market
This little pig stayed home
This little pig had roast beef
This little pig had none
This little pig cried wee, wee, wee!
All the way home
Quickly enough I learned I had five toes on each of my feet: My mother would wiggle them one at a time to identify each little pig, and, then, when she got to "all the way home," she'd bury her nose in my belly and giggle a soft sound that I liked to listen to.
Pretty soon my body had absorbed the language of all of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and my mother's dramatization of the rhythms of these words filled me with regular feelings of agreeable intoxication.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe She had so many children she didn't know what to do She gave them some broth without any bread And whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed
Even that seemed wildly hilarious to me; I could hardly wait to hear it, again and again.
But except for Christmas, things stayed pretty quiet. My father talked to my mother. My mother talked to me.
* * *
And there was somebody else: Another child, my cousin, Valerie. She lived with us.
Until I got to be seven, my parents raised her as their own daughter.
She was four years older than I.
She looked like my mother: She resembled her so strikingly that passersby would often comment upon my mother's pretty little girl, and then, turning their attention to me, they'd ask, "Whose baby is this?"
* * *
Valerie was a musical prodigy and, while we were still living in Harlem, she actually held her debut piano recital at Little Carnegie Hall. With an astonishing memory, an uncanny mimic's gift, and huge almond eyes smothered by curly black eyelashes, she was, as everyone said, a remarkable, very pretty girl.
And shortly after I was born, Valerie was found trying to snuff me out. She was holding my baby pillow over my face and counting.
I don't think she was happy.
None of her childhood photographs shows her smiling.
* * *
If you happened upon my parents as they took their Sunday strut, pushing me forward in a top-security baby carriage, what you'd see, nailed as it were to this ponderous pram, were three initials: FDR. My father's attitude toward Franklin Delano Roosevelt verged on reverence. It was almost as though a member of our own family (presumably despite this and that hardship or temptation) had risen to power but then had never forgotten his lowly originswhich is to say, Roosevelt had not forgotten "the little man," Granville Ivanhoe Jordan.
Everything political filtered through my father on the most personal, intimately emotional terms. He would speak of this or that eminent politician as though no distance of any sort separated our family from this man's largesse or that other man's corruption.
Pictures of Roosevelt and the Queen of England and the Archbishop of the Diocese of Long Island hung on our parlor walls, not quite side by side.
But those visual reminders were superfluous, in fact. My father constantly invoked one or another world player in his daily conversation. And with ecstatic animation, he'd pursue his own game of "What you t'ink the Queen gwine do if?!"
These were not moments of fanciful speculation, however. These were test questions intended to teach my mother, or later myself, about The Way Great People Go Through Life.
Locally, my father somehow got the mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, to hold me on his lap, and after that his ambitions for me bounded beyond the extraterrestrial.
He was not very predictable. Yes, he'd carefully chosen the Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop as my godfather. Father Bishop presided over Harlem's St. Phillip's Episcopal Church, an august Anglican edifice that, after my baptism, I was never taken to again. Apparently, attendance was not the point: It was official; I belonged to that fellowship. And, curiously, my godfather, as sophisticated as my father was naive, nevertheless chose to exert himself on my behalf all the way into my teens.
On the other hand, there was a practically self-proclaimed charlatan on the scene who dubbed himself Father Divine. My father patronized his rural outpost north of the city with unapologetic frequency. There his only child could see "real nature," drink milk from a cow she could touch, and marvel at steaming-hot hominy grits or crispy corn flakes with farm-fresh peaches sliced on top, their rough red hearts split into slippery bits and pieces of the entire tantalizing display.
These treats arrived at immaculate oilcloth-covered tabletops courtesy of nubile volunteer followers of Father Divine, adorned by names like Hope or Faith or Peace.
So evidently there were choices among churchly allegiances.
But inside the Jordan household nothing about religion was optional.
Along with Mother Goose nursery rhymes, my mother taught me prayers and most of the Old Testament. Her steady presentation of Little Bo Peep Who Lost Her Sheep differed in only one respect from her saturation recitation of the heroics of David against Goliath or Moses and the parting of the waters. When it came to God, there would be no tweaking of my toes. I was expected to learn about the Lord without rewards of related physical pleasure. So I did.
My mother held to her premonition about my usefulness to colored people. And shortly before my birth she shared her expectations with her church, the Universal Truth Center, which was housed above an incredibly wide and high flight of stairs on West 125th Street.
I don't think anybody minded about my mother's claims to an annunciation. It was just one more reason to praise God.
The minister, a woman everyone called Big Momma, affected a sequined turban and flowing sequined togas or gowns. She was the shepherd for three or four hundred colored women who idolized and utterly trusted her.
I suppose it was a Christian congregation. I know that Big Momma's creed centered on the powers of the Word. If you lost your wallet, you'd say, "There is no loss in the Divine Mind," and you'd believe that, and your wallet would turn up. If your neck was swollen with an elephantine thyroidal disorder, you'd say, "I am perfect in the Lord," and you'd believe it and that disorder would then shrink or disappear.
At the Universal Truth Center, the Word was nothing to play with.
And every week, my mother carried me there.
I got used to crowds of women surrounding me and prompting me "to say" anything, anything whatsoever.
And I can't imagine what my father was doing while all of this went on and on!
He must have been asleep.
But once he heard about my precocious singing at the church, my singing not just the melodies but the words of the hymns, he undertook to test and to observe me, more and more closely, for signs of intelligence.
* * *
This is when the fighting began.
I was not yet two years old.
Until then, I had assimilated everything from cereal and baby blankets to rhymes and stories and I had given nothing back, so to speak, besides a toothless gurgling or a watchful, fleeting look of concentration.
Now, my father decided, that was not enough. He wanted, he needed, to ascertain exactly what I was learning, and how. There would be no more mere listening to Sing a Song of Sixpence, a Pocketful of Rye / Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie!
It was my turn. He'd plod through a rhyme out loud, and then I'd be tested: Could I recite that myself?
Well then, how much was four and twenty?
Of course, even the question was meaningless to me.
No matter! Clearly I must learn to count. I must pay attention to the four and twenty pale green peas he now rolled across the floor.
He would teach me about numbers.
And further, to that end, he purchased a miniature abacus with green and blue and yellow wooden beads that easily flew back and forth on straight, colorless rods.
I was given an illustrated hardcover Mother Goose and, alternating with my mother, he read to me the rhymes I had already memorized.
Next he'd encourage me to open my large new Mother Goose and "find," for example, Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill.
Okay: Read it to himbackward.
As he assumed control, he advised my mother that she, in effect, had been dismissed.
He knew what had to be done.
He'd do it.
I'd do it.
She'd see, very soon, that his decision was the right decision.
They argued about who was more likely to "spoil" or "ruin" me.
My father's voice got loud.
My mother didn't say much, but she never said, "All right."
She was fighting.
They were fighting.
They were fighting with each other.
I had become the difference between them.
* * *
Thanks to his energetic outreach and persistent inquiries, my father moved us into the Harlem River public housing projects only days after city officials cut the inaugural ribbon.
I was still a baby.
It was going to seem like paradise to me. All of the low-rise red brick buildings matched rather nicely, and sapling maple trees asserted themselves in the freshly planted dirt that bordered pedestrian paths. To the west, space enough for four lanes of traffic created a very generous conduit for natural light. To the east, a gigantic sloping lawn drew you down to the river where tugboats and occasional cargo freighters floated by.
That man-made valley of light to one side and the slow flowing of the river on the other never failed to salvage a morning or an afternoon from any sense of confinement or doom.
Whenever I was taken outside I felt like singing and, very often, I did just that. I sang out loud:
Jesus loves me
This I know
For the Bible
Tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak but He is strong!
* * *
My mother's wedding picture portrays a young woman standing in white satin and lace. It is as though this is the snapshot of a statue no one can identify. She will not move. She does not breathe. She stands attuned to the timing of an event she can neither comprehend nor compromise. The slant of her beautiful head mystifies the camera, and her lowered eyes appear to pity the bridal train of languid lace that spills past her feet, on the floor.
This young woman is no one I ever knew.
* * *
I was two. People asked me how old I was so often that I got used to thinking, "I am two." My parents talked about me that way.
They'd say, "She's two."
I thought two was who I was.
* * *
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 just-in-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.
* * *
One morning when I was about two and a half years old, my father transported me downtown, away from my mother. Everybody looked large to me, and white. We went inside the Ethical Culture School and some lady kept smiling at me but I didn't know why so I watched her without saying anything and I stayed inside my father's arms until they put me in a room with chickens: Feathery yellow chickens!
I had never seen chickens before and there was a funny smell to them and they zigzagged or skittered about and I enjoyed the whole thing.
I'm not sure what happened there, but I guess it was a test situation of some sort. And my test score and the teachers who assessed me there evidently persuaded my father that he had a geniusor a monsteron his hands. And from that downtown trip forward, anything like a regular childhood lay entirely behind me.
Now, whenever possible, my father would carry, prod, or toddle me across the Harlem River Bridge, for two reasons: To drill me in techniques of observation and to increase my breathing stamina.
I'd be instructed to hold my breath as long as I could while noticing how many tugboats of what color passed below us, or how many people of what kind or age had passed us by.
He called this "military reconnaissance training" and he explained to me that one could never get too good at this sort of exercise: It might save your life.
I didn't like all the questions all of the time, but I liked it when he held my hand.
* * *
As usual, my father had been holding my hand when, unexpectedly, he swung me into the air by my arm, at the same time commanding me to stop that swinging of my body any way I could. But I couldn't stop it. And he lost my hand and I went flying headfirst into the outside corner of a stone building. This accident split my forehead and there was a great deal of blood and I could see and I could hear my father crying and yelling for help.
I still have that scar.
* * *
When he went away to work, when my father left my mother and me alone, I was allowed to indulge my more solitary inclinations.
My mother would position a zinc tub on the sloping lawn behind our apartment. She'd attach a toy laundry wringer, fill that tub halfway with water, and bring me a pile of doll's clothing to wash and wring dry. This was bliss.
She'd leave me there.
My father would not suddenly appear and beat or threaten me with "the strap."
Nobody bothered me. I could splash and play, bemused by the creamy iridescence of soap-flake spray. I could contemplate the watery reflections of so many no-longer-definite things: My face or the drastic attenuation of an overhead branch. And meanwhile I was washing my clothes!
I never wearied of this make-believe.
And it was only partly not true.
Yes, the clothes were not dirty, for starters, and, yes, I never got around to rinsing out the soap, but other than that I was really washing clothes, and when I lifted my eyes from the tub, or if I looked beyond the handle of the wringer, I could always see the Harlem River, always bright and always sliding along.
Otherwise, she'd bring out a miniature tin tea set, complete with teapot, cups, and saucers, and I'd settle one or two dolls across from me and, since I'd never seen any grown-ups "take tea," there was nothing I had to remember or emulate.
I'd sit there and wait for "The Tea" to happen.
And I'd continue to sit and to wait, with my dolls.
And I liked this peculiar ritual a lot.
But mostly, with or without my father in the house, I spent my time reading. And mostly, I did not understand what I could nevertheless decipher and pronounce correctly.
Excerpted from SOLDIER by JUNE JORDAN. Copyright © 2000 by June Jordan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet 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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