Childhood Memories

David Barsamian

June Jordan is assistant
professor of African American studies at the University of California at
Berkeley. She also directs the Poetry for the People program. She writes for
The Progressive magazine. She’s an award-winning poet and essayist. She
has numerous books, including Technical Difficulties, Naming Our
, Affirmative Acts, and Haruko/Love Poems. Her latest
work is Soldier, a memoir of her childhood.

Soldier. What a curious title. Is this about some military
activity that you’ve been hiding from the public?

It’s about the military activity of my father raising me to be his son. He was
an immigrant from Jamaica. He actually came from Panama. My mother was from

You grew up
in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant in a kind of bicultural home.

bicultural and definitely the home of immigrants to this country, which means
that my parents, especially my father, arrived and stayed here with both the
highest possible expectations of this country, of democracy as he thought of
it and of his only child that he was raising to be a successful person in the
world. He probably would have liked me to grow up to be a successful white

You were his
helper, his sidekick.

We were as
close as father and son. I was not as close to my mother. That would have been
too much of an acrobatic stunt. On the other hand, she was there, and she was
raising me to become a black woman. I had to develop a good bit of agility,
but not more than most children have to.

connection with your father was, to say the least, problematic.

It was
problematic and without any question extraordinarily positive for me. My
father was an amazing human being. He’s a man who when he came to this country
in his late teens taught himself to read and write. At the time he came here,
there were no resources available to him at all as a black immigrant man. I
know that he did better than he could trying to raise a family, be a good
husband. I feel without question that his inordinate ambitions for me have
everything to do with most of the really happy, productive aspects of my life
that I continue to try to honor in his memory.

You write
that he hurt you and that you never knew why as a child. Do you know now?

He was an
extremely complicated human being, as you might expect from someone of that
intelligence and passion. He was also very violent and brutal where I was
concerned. I don’t know why. I can only conjecture now that my father had to
withstand tremendous humiliation and also fear. I think my father was afraid
that he would fail to prevent me from failing. I think that was the root of
his fear. He didn’t know what to do to try to provide against the failure of
his only child in this new land. I think that probably contributed to the
violence of his frustration. But that he loved me and thought me capable of
anything and everything there was never any doubt.

In addition
to your helping him with chores and carpentry, he also cared about your mind.
He gave you two sets of secondhand books, one a set of novels by Sinclair
Lewis and the other a set of westerns by Zane Grey. You really took to Zane
Grey, which is bizarre, a little black girl growing up in Brooklyn into mesas,
coyotes, and cowboys?

Yeah. Trails,

Part of the
Brooklyn landscape?

No, but that’s
the point. I couldn’t imagine any of that on the basis of where I lived and
what our house was like and where we played. I never had seen a man build a
fire with his horse nodding around nearby. I thought, I want to do that. I
want to see that. I want to be there. It seemed that it would be free, huge,
and entirely different. And I wouldn’t be alone because I would have my horse.

You made
money as a kid writing poetry. How did you manage that?

I was a little
hustler. In those days parents didn’t give children pocket money. I didn’t get
allowances. I used to go around and collect bottles and bring them back for
money. Then I found out that if you liked somebody, some girl, and then you
weren’t into it any more, and you wanted to say it nicely and you came to me
and explained what the whole thing was, then I said, How long a poem? We’d
negotiate, ten cents, fifteen, up to twenty-five cents. So I made some money.
I got connected to people as far as what they were really feeling and jittery
about or excited about. I loved that connection and I was crazy about the fact
that the other kids trusted me that I wouldn’t miscarry what they meant. I’d
do my best. Mostly they seemed very happy with the product and they took it
and used it. From that I got the idea that poetry could be useful.

Around the
time you were growing up the major figures in African American literature were
Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. Any inspirations

For some reason
my father didn’t give me Langston Hughes. The black poet that my father gave
me was Paul Laurence Dunbar. I’m glad of it because the poems of Dunbar had a
lot of what at that time was called black dialect, so there was a tremendous
amount of emphasis on the spoken language of black folks. That was poetry. My
father who gave me Shakespeare’s sonnets to read and memorize also gave me
Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Did your
mother nourish you intellectually in any way?

She did, but
not the way my father did. My father was serious about it, testing me every
day. My mom was more religious. So much of the Bible and the biblical lore and
values that she continuously immersed me in raised so many questions that in
that way it was intellectually provocative. For example, Daniel in the lion’s
den. That’s a very provocative story.

In what way?

What was he
doing there? How did he get there? Where were his people? He seemed to be by
himself. That was an unknown situation for me as a child. It was only when my
parents took me to a white neighborhood going to the beach that I saw children
sort of my age without their parents. I thought, Where are their parents? I
didn’t see that in our neighborhood, which was entirely black. You did not go
beyond the block except to go to school by a definite route without your
parents there. It’s a different culture. And the Bible was a different

Did your
parents live to see your publishing and academic success?

not. I’m not sure it would have meant all that much to my mother, but I think
my father would have been pleased.

What do you
see as the role of the poet in society and where do you fit?

The role of the
poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of
people who know that what you do is work with words. The trust of other people
that you will not miscarry what they mean and what they want. Always to be as
honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you as you
possibly can. Then the task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people
hated and despised is to rally the spirit of your folks. I feel that more and
more consciously over the last ten years. It’s not okay for me if I’m
despairing and angry and bitter to go out in public. I have to get myself
together and figure out a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks
can use to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach
more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to
accomplish something. I feel that it’s a spirit task. I also do my homework.
The inhumanity of people here and elsewhere in the world, the injusticed. I
have to figure out some way as a poet and activist to shape that information
so that folks can stand up and run with it, and better resist the inclinations
that absolutely overwhelm. The more you know, the more it’s really easy to
feel overwhelmed.

progressives engage in a rhetoric of purity. I can’t talk to you, you smoke. I
can’t talk to him, he voted for Gore. You captured this tendency in a poem in
your collection
Passion, “A Short Note to My Very Critical and
Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades.”


First they
said I was too light

Then they
said I was too dark

Then they
said I was too different

Then they
said I was too much the same

Then they
said I was too young

Then they
said I was too old

Then they
said I was too interracial

Then they
said I was too much a nationalist

Then they
said I was too silly

Then they
said I was too angry

Then they
said I was too idealistic

Then they
said I was too confusing altogether:

Make up your

They said.
Are you militant? Or sweet?

Are you
vegetarian or meat?

Are you
straight? Or are you gay?


And I said,
Hey! It’s not about my mind.

There are a lot
of Stalinists out there. A lot of people like to feel that they’re right.
That’s okay. You can feel that you’re right. But don’t get too comfortable.
Unless you’re really born of the Virgin Mary, I think we should chill a little
bit. I also think that’s the result for all of us growing up in the West. We
find ourselves inculcated in either/or habits of thought. Right and wrong.
Black and white. Good and evil. You say, I’m not evil, so I’m good. Even
though in the New Testament, speaking of the Judeo-Christian traditions of
thought that prevail here, there is the value of humility. We don’t find that
in this culture. There’s no value in humility. When you get into Hinduism and
Buddhism and Taoism, all of a sudden you find that for most of the people in
the world humility is a value that people are serious about. Anybody who
violates that is at best a fool. I hope at least as far as intellectual
interrogation goes, more and more folks will go East and pick up on that.

Another poem
Passion is “Poem about Police Violence,” which with Rodney King,
Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, is an ever-recurring story.


Tell me

what you
think would happen if

they kill a black boy

then we kill
a cop

they kill a black man

then we kill
a cop


you think
the accident rate would lower subsequently?

the feeling like amaze me baby

comes back
to my mouth and I am quiet

Olympian pools from the running

snows under the sun


thinking about the 12th House
of the Cosmos

or the way
your ear ensnares the tip

of my tongue
or signs that I have never seen



I lose
consciousness of ugly bestial rapid

repetitive affront as when they tell me

18 cops in
order to subdue one man

18 strangled
him to death in the ensuing scuffle

(don’t you
idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue

and scuffle
my oh my) and that the murder

that the
killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn

street was
just a “justifiable accident” again



People been
having accidents all over the globe

so long like
that I reckon that the only

insurance is a gun

I’m saying
war is not to understand or rerun

war is to be
fought and won


the feeling like amaze me baby

blots it
out/the bestial but

not too
often tell me something

what you
think would happen if

they kill a black boy

then we kill
a cop

they kill a black man

then we kill
a cop


you think
the accident rate would lower subsequently?

I wrote that in
1974. I was teaching at Yale at the time. It’s astonishing. Just last year we
have Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his apartment house in the Bronx. How
many cops?—41 bullets; 19 of them lodged. It was a justifiable accident
because he went for what they thought was a gun and it was his wallet. Another
immigrant to this country. His mother let him come because she thought here
surely he could have a more beautiful life. He was hoping to send money back
to his family.

Abner Louima
was from Haiti.

immigrant. This is not a good track record particularly with black immigrants.

A new crime
to white people, at least, not new to African Americans, who have long been
subjected to it, is DWB, driving while black. What do you think of racial

It’s something
we ought to all be looking at and get into. We do it all the time, all of us.
I see Andy and Brian videoing us here and I think, two white boys. What do
they think? Black woman. There are things that go along with. All of us do it.
In school this semester racial profiling was the focus of our work. We started
with Wen Ho Lee, the scientist at Los Alamos, who was supposed to be a threat
to our national security. He’s Chinese. You have the hip-hop black kid with
the baggy pants and the hood. He’s wrong. And you have Wen Ho Lee. He’s wrong.
I would like to suggest that what’s going on in our heads and our attitudes
also can have deadly consequences for every person in this country unless we
start copping to it that we all do it. It’s not just the police. I think it is
by its nature and by implication both annihilating.


David Barsamian is a radio producer and journalist. He is the founder and
director of Alternative Radio and the national producer of Making Contact.