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On This Juneteenth, the Oldest Known Celebration of the End of Slavery, We Celebrate the Legacy of Activist and Poet June Jordan

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This is Democracy Now!, and this is a Pacifica special: The State of the World 2002: War, Peace and Human Rights. Today is Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday dates back to the last days of the Civil War, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and slaves were free. The date was June 19, 1865.

The news of freedom came to Galveston’s enslaved men and women more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some say slaveholders deliberately withheld the news to maintain the labor force on the plantations. Others say federal troops delayed the news and waited to enforce Lincoln’s order so slave owners could reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest.

It was General Gordon Granger who finally delivered the news of freedom. Thousands flooded the streets of Galveston dancing and singing, where Granger read a statement aloud. The celebration of Juneteenth was born. The observance of Juneteenth has spread across the United States, and today over 150 cities in 30 states celebrate this Emancipation Day.

Today, the Pacifica network has dedicated the entire day of programming to a celebration of Juneteenth. And today on Democracy Now!, we are going to observe Juneteenth by paying tribute to a woman who lived her life as a call to freedom and a hymn for justice. She used poetry to emancipate, essays to educate, her voice to empower. She seemed to embrace each day as a June 19th, offering both a promise of democracy and vision of struggle.

I am talking about June Jordan, poet, activist, essayist, teacher. She died Friday at her home in Berkeley, California. She had been battling breast cancer for nearly a decade. She was 65 years old.

June Jordan is the most published African American writer in history. She burst onto the literary and political scene in the late 1960s, on the wings of the civil rights and antiwar movements. Poetry for her was a political act, and she used it to shine a fierce light on racism, sexism, homophobia, apartheid, poverty and U.S. foreign policy. Author Toni Morrison once summed up her career as “40 years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art.”

Today we’ll be joined by some of June Jordan’s dearest friends and colleagues, including Alice Walker, Laura Flanders and Angela Davis. But let’s start with June Jordan’s own words, a poem June wrote over 10 years ago about the Middle East. It could have been written yesterday. It is called “Intifada.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a Pacifica special, “The State of the World 2002: War, Peace and Human Rights,” on Pacifica stations around the country, a special full day, 15 hours, of programming.

Today is Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday dates back to the last days of the Civil War, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and slaves were free. The date was June 19th, 1865. The news of freedom came to Galveston’s Africans enslaved more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some say slaveholders deliberately withheld the news to maintain the labor force on the plantations. Others say federal troops delayed the news and waited to enforce Lincoln’s order so slave owners could reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest. It was General Gordon Granger who finally delivered the news of freedom. Thousands flooded the streets of Galveston dancing and singing where Granger read a statement aloud. The celebration of Juneteenth was born. The observance of June 19th has spread across the United States, and today over 150 cities and 30 states celebrate this emancipation day.

Today, the Pacifica network has dedicated the entire day to programming around Juneteenth. And today on Democracy Now!, we’re going to observe Juneteenth by paying tribute to a woman who lived her life as a call to freedom and a hymn for justice. She used poetry to emancipate, essays to educate, her voice to empower. She seemed to embrace each day as a June 19th, offering both a promise of democracy and vision of struggle. I’m talking about June Jordan, the poet, the activist, the essayist, teacher. She died on Friday at her home in Berkeley, California. She had been battling breast cancer for nearly a decade. She was 65 years old.

June Jordan is the most published African American writer in history. She burst onto the literary and political scene in the late 1960s on the wings of the civil rights and antiwar movements. Poetry for her was a political act. She used it to shine a fierce light on racism, sexism, homophobia, apartheid, poverty, U.S. foreign policy. Author Toni Morrison once summed up her career as “40 years of tireless activism, coupled with and fueled by flawless art.”

Today we’ll be joined by some of June Jordan’s dearest friends and colleagues, including the great writer Alice Walker. Laura Flanders joins us in the studio here in New York. Junichi Semitsu has continued her Poetry for the People project in California. Angela Davis will be with us from California.

But we’re going to start with June Jordan’s own words, a poem that June wrote 10 years ago [March 8, 1991] about the Middle East — could have been written yesterday. It’s called “Intifada.”

JUNE JORDAN: “Intifada”

In detention
in concentration camps
we trade stories
we take turns sharing the straw mat
or a pencil
we watch what crawls in and out
of the sand

As-Salamm ’Alaykum

The guards do not allow the blue
woolen blanket
my family traveled far
to bring
to this crepuscular and gelid cell
where my still breathing infant son
and I
defy the purgatory implications
of a state-created hell

Wa’Alaikum As-Salam

The village trembles from the heavy
tanks that try
to terrify the children:
my little brother runs behind the rubble
practicing the tactics of the stones
against the rock.
In January soldiers broke his fingers
one by one. Time has healed
his hands but not the fury that controls
what used to be
his heart.

Insha A’llah

Close the villages
Close the clinics
Close the school
Close the house
Close the windows of the house
Kill the vegetables languishing under the sun
Kill the milk of the cows left to the swelling of pain
Cut the electricity
Cut the telephones
Confine the people to the people

Do Not Despair of the Mercy of Allah

Fig trees will grow and oranges
erupt from the desert
holdings on which plastic
bullets (70% zinc, 20% glass, and 10%
plastic) will prove blood
soluble and fertilize the earth
where sheep will graze
and women no longer grieve and beat
their breasts
They will beat clean
fine-woven rugs outside a house
smelling of cinnamon
and nutmeg


So says Iman
the teacher of peace
the shepherd on the mountain of the lamb
the teacher of peace
who will subdue the howling of the lion
so that we may kneel
as we must
five times beginning just after dawn
and ending just before dusk
in the Ibadah
of prayer.

Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar

AMY GOODMAN: “Intifada,” June Jordan. June Jordan died last Friday. She was born, though, on July 9th, 1936, in Harlem. She went to Barnard College, the alma mater of Zora Neale Hurston. In 1957, she graduated and then went on to the University of Chicago, Chicago where Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks hailed from, playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Her writing, her political awareness grew. And her first book of poetry, Who Look at Me, was published in 1969. In 1972, June published her biography of Fannie Lou Hamer. It was aimed at students. The book filled a void in the curriculum of most public education institutions. Over the next decade, June wrote critically acclaimed collections, including Some Changes and Things that I do in the dark. And she continued to write in local publications, as well as national magazines. For the last, oh, more than a decade, she was a professor of African American studies at the University of Berkeley — University of California, Berkeley.

And today we will be talking to a group of her friends, Alice Walker joining us. The great writer Angela Davis will be with us. The man who’s carried on her Poetry for the People project, Junichi Semitsu. But we’re going to begin right here in New York with Laura Flanders, who’s just come back from California, where she has spent a good deal of time with June Jordan.

On this Juneteenth day, Laura, I know this has been a very, very hard week for you since June died. Can you talk about the significance of the day and the woman?

LAURA FLANDERS: Oh, I just think it’s a perfect day to talk about June Jordan. The day that so many enslaved Africans found that they were liberated is no — there could be no better day to talk about the message that June Jordan brought us. She was always a source of good news. I sort of — certainly in my life, at daybreak, just as I thought things were very, very gloomy, just when I thought the news couldn’t get worse, there would be June, with her righteous anger, but always the laugh, always the smile.

She believed that we had to believe in a better life. We had to believe and extend our hands to all of those, Americans and around the world, people who were working to realize the promise of equality and freedom. She believed you could draw no line when it came to equality or freedom. And if you tried to draw a line — some for you, but not for that other person, more for this one, less for that one — then you better watch your back. You better watch out. June’s message was “We the People” is us. We are no longer, she wrote once, minorities or fringe elements or special interests; we have become the people.

And in her work, which was all about smile, be beautiful, be raging, be furious, but be proud, be excited to be glad to be part of this project — she wrote of Dr. King something that I think was completely true of June Jordan. She wrote of King that because he taught us the value of our lives, we have become capable of saving them. And that’s what June did. She taught each of us, individually, those of us who knew her, the value of our lives. She believed so adamantly in our worth that eventually we had to take ourselves as seriously as she did. And there are now thousands, I would say hundreds of thousands, of people who have been stiffened in their spines by June’s belief in them, have come to believe in themselves, maybe not quite as much as she did, but almost. We’re getting there.

And although I can’t believe she’s no longer on this planet in her physical form, she’s here. Her spirit is here. And it’s a spirit of Juneteenth-type good news.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, she wrote the book Real Majority, Media Minority: The Costs of Sidelining Women in Reporting and is a host of Working Assets Radio on KALW in San Francisco.

Alice Walker is also on the line with us, the great writer, poet, civil rights activist, author of, among many other books, The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Among her other books, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, The Temple of My Familiar, Possessing the Secret of Joy, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women.

Alice, welcome to Democracy Now! Welcome back.

ALICE WALKER: Thank you so much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, a difficult time, but also a day to celebrate — it’s hard to say the memory of a woman. But can you talk about June Jordan, the June Jordan you knew?

ALICE WALKER: I really met June when I was living in Mississippi. And it was a very, very hard, difficult time, in the ’70s, the early ’70s. And she came, and she was doing a piece on those of us who were, you know, there in the struggle, and also she came to meet Mrs. Hamer. And we bonded because she was very concerned, you know, that we feel connected to the larger world, which, of course, we did not, being in Mississippi. And it is that protectiveness, that is the quality that I most think of when I think of June, that she put those small, shining arms around people who seemed to need it. And at that time I was one of them. And so I became her little sister, in a way. And we have had a friendship for over 30 years that grew out of her coming to this very terrible place and being this very bright, warm light.

She was very loving, and saw everything, it seemed to me, and had such a passion to tell the world about the suffering of the world. She was always telling the world about its own suffering, which is one way of bringing it to the light, to consciousness, so that things can be changed.

AMY GOODMAN: We played “Intifada,” the poem of June Jordan. In fact, her very early, outspoken stance on Palestinian issues really threatened her career. Laura, could you talk about that?

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, I think she didn’t think of it that way exactly. She saw a wrong being done against a people, the Palestinian people, and a wrong being done against Palestinian people that she felt would have repercussions for people everywhere — Jews, not Jews. She was very concerned in the last years of her life, the last weeks and months of her life, about a rising tide of antisemitism that she thought would follow upon the U.S. support of Israeli policies against Palestinians. She saw it, simply. She told the truth. That was her mandate, her mission in life, to tell the truth.

And in 1982, when Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon and were bombing around the clock Beirut, and the news leaked out of the Israeli-assisted, -facilitated, perhaps even -ordered massacre in the refugee camps of Shatila and Sabra, she wrote a poem. She wrote several poems, but one of them, the most memorable of that moment, was an apology to the people of — to all the people of Lebanon, in which she pointed out that every explanation for the Israeli action in Lebanon had been proven to be a lie. She talked about the humanity of the Lebanese people, the Palestinians in the refugee camps, the wrongness of the bombing.

She continued to write what she saw to be true, and to say, as I said before, you cannot have freedom for some and not for others; you cannot have justice for some and not for others; you cannot simply decide that some people are less human, that some people don’t deserve land, water, love, healthcare, education, deserve their voices to be listened to. She wrote things as she saw them.

But at that time, in '82, was no comfortable time to be speaking out for Palestinian rights or for Palestinian people or for saying, “We the Palestinians.” It was not a phrase that you heard or didn't pay a price for articulating. She paid a price. I think she believed — and others would confirm this — that her role, which at that point had been to be a regular contributor to some of this country’s mainstream newspapers, _The New York Times, to name just one, her role was suddenly shifted into becoming a kind of outsider, somebody who was no longer welcome on the op-ed pages, somebody who had to struggle to get her books the kind of attention and respect that they deserved. Twenty-eight books, and yet when she offered to speak out about the Gulf War, when she offered her opinions on the U.S. war now against Afghanistan, she was not welcome on the op-ed pages. And I think that her career was absolutely affected by her forthright, adamant stand for equal rights for everybody, against supremacist thinking of all kinds.

But she was still — her last piece that she wrote for the book of essays coming out this fall, Some of Us Did Not Die, is about Israel-Palestine, is about the killing of Danny Pearl, is about the dangers of antisemitism and of anti-Islamic thinking in this country. She was adamantly concerned with this issue until her death.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for stations to identify themselves, and then we’re going to hear a speech of June Jordan’s and then come back to this discussion. You are listening to Democracy Now! Our guests, Laura Flanders, she is host of Working Assets Radio on KALW in San Francisco, and Alice Walker, the great writer. We’re talking about June Jordan. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Uhuru,” the African Children’s Choir, from the Beloved film soundtrack. I’m Amy Goodman, talking about the life and legacy of June Jordan, as we go right back to June. It is hard to think of the fact that she died last Friday of breast cancer at her home in Berkeley, California. But this is June in March of 1991 speaking out against the Persian Gulf War in Hayward, California. It was recorded from Pacifica’s Peace Watch program.

JUNE JORDAN: This is the column that I wrote on the night that was, among other things, the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, was last Thursday.

On a recent cold Sunday morning in Kennebunk, Maine, George Bush and his wife Barbara apparently seated themselves inside a small country church of God. To think about what?

Alma Powell, wife of the joint chief commander of the United States Armed Forces, reports that she likes to keep comforting foods like vegetable soup ready on top of the stove for Colin, her certainly hard-working husband. Alma adds that these days she just knows that her Colin doesn’t want to hear little stories about the children. Just the soup, ma’am.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, second only to his boss in bloodthirst for arm’s length armchair warfare, has never served half an hour even in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines. I know, it’s not right to pick on him just for that.

Last Saturday, at a local antiwar rally, organized by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, I noted aloud that the war to date was costing us $56 billion; every 24 hours the cost is $1 billion at least. I therefore proposed the following to the crowd scattered on the grass and under the trees: $1 billion a day for seven days for Oakland. Can you imagine that? One billion dollars a day. But to hell with the imagination. This is our city, this is our money, these are our lives. One billion dollars a day for seven days for Oakland. Or do we accept that there is only the will and the wallet when it’s about kill or be killed? Do we need this money, or not? Do we need it here? Do we need it now? And so on.

When I left the stage, a reporter came up to me. “You meant $1 million, didn’t you?” “No,” I answered him, amazed. “One billion. One billion dollars a day for seven days for Oakland. That’s the bill. That’s our bill for housing and drug rehabilitation and books in the public schools and hospital care and all of that good stuff.”

One billion dollars a day, it’s a modest proposal. In less than three months, those maniacs in the White House and the Pentagon have spent $56 billion, in my name and with my taxes, trying to obliterate Iraq and its people and their leader. I’m saying call home the troops and the bucks. We need these big bucks to make this a homeland, not a desert right here for the troops and for you and for me. What’s the problem? It’s a bargain. Seven billion dollars of a serious improvement of American life in Oakland versus $56 billion for death and destruction inside Iraq? What’s the problem?

But the reporter was giving me a weak smile of farewell that let me understand he found my proposal preposterous. One million dollars for life, OK. Billions for kill or be killed, OK. But really big bucks on us, the people of these United States, $1 billion a day to promote, for example, the safety and educational attainment and communal happiness of 339,000 Americans? I must be kidding.

As I walked away from the park, I felt a heavy depression overtaking me. The reporter, a tall white man with clear eyes, could not contemplate the transfer of his and my aggregate resources from death to life as a reasonable idea. Worse, he could not suppose his and my life to be worth anything close to the value of organized, high-tech and boastful murder. But then, other people stopped me to ask, “How can we do that? Do we write letters or what?”

And so, as I write this column tonight, I am reassured, because not every American has lost her mind or his soul. Not every one of my compatriots has become a flag-wrapped lunatic, lusting after oil, power, the perversions of kicking ass, preferably via TV.

A huge number of Americans has joined with enormous numbers of Arab peoples and European communities in Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain, and Muslim communities throughout India and Pakistan to cry out “Stop!” And when I say huge, I mean it. If 1,000 Americans contacted by some pollster can be said to represent 250 million people, then how many multi-, multimillions do we antiwar movement gatherings of more than 100,000 coast to coast and on every continent — how many do we represent? How come nobody ever does that kind of political math?

And tonight, February 2nd, 1991, when yet again the ruling white men of America despise peace and sneer at negotiations and intensify their arm’s length armchair prosecution of this evil war, this display of a racist value system that will never allow for any nationalism that is not their own and that will never allow Third World countries to control their own natural resources and that will never, ever express, let alone feel, regret or remorse or shame or horror at the loss of any human life that is not white — tonight, I am particularly proud to be an African American. By launching the heaviest air assault in history against Iraq on January 15th, George Bush dared to desecrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Tonight, and 83,000 bombing missions later, is the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

On this sorry evening, the world has seen the pathological real deal behind the sanctimonious rhetoric of Bush and Company. The Persian Gulf War is not about Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The war is not about Kuwait at all. Clearly, it’s not about international law or respect or United Nations resolutions, since by comparison to Washington and Pretoria, the Butcher of Baghdad is a minor league Johnny-come-lately to the realm of outlaw conduct and contempt for world opinion.

What has happened tonight is that the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the government of Iraq have reached an agreement whereby Iraq will withdraw from Kuwait. And that is a fact, regardless of anything else included or omitted by the proposal. This agreement should provide for immediate ceasefire, a cessation to the slaughter of Iraqi men and women, and a halt to the demolition nationwide of their water supply, their access to food, their securement of shelter.

So, what is the response of the number one white man in America? He’s gone off to the theater. I guess that means that the nearest church was closed, or that Colin Powell was busy dipping his spoon into the comfort of a pot of soup somebody else cooked for him, and that Dick Cheney was fit to be tied into any kind of uniform, so long as it meant nobody would take away his Patriot missiles and Apache helicopters and B-52 cluster bomb bombers and Black and Brown and poor white soldiers and sailors, and all the rest of these toys for a truly big-time coward.

Confronted with the nightmare prospect of peace, Bush goes off to the theater, because he’ll be damned if he will acknowledge that Saddam Hussein is a man, is the head of a sovereign state, is an enemy to be reckoned with, an opponent with whom one must negotiate. Saddam is not a white man. He and his Arab peoples must be destroyed. No peace, no ceasefire, no negotiations.

And I am proud tonight to remember Dr. King and Malcolm X, and to mourn their absence even as I pursue the difficult challenge of their legacy. Both of these men became the targets of white wrath when they, in their different ways, developed into global visionaries persisting against racism in Alabama, in Harlem, in South Africa, in Vietnam. Neither of these men could have failed to condemn this current attack against the Arab world. Neither of these men ever condoned anything less than equal justice and equal rights. Hence, the undeniably racist double standards now levied against Saddam Hussein would have appalled and alienated both of them completely.

I am proud to shake hands with the increasing number of African American conscientious objectors. I am proud to remark the steadfast moral certainty of United States Congressman Ronald Dellums’ opposition to the war. I am proud to hear about the conscientious objections of Congressmen Gus Savage and John Conyers and Mervyn Dymally. I am proud to observe that even while African Americans remain disproportionately represented in the United States Armed Forces, we as a national community stand distinct, despite and apart from all vagaries of popular opinion. We maintain a proportionately higher level of opposition to this horrible war, this horrendous evasion of domestic degeneration and decay.

And I want to say something else specific to you, Mr. President. It’s true you can humiliate, and you can hound, and you can smash and burn and terrify and smirk and boast and defame and demonize and dismiss and incinerate and starve. And yes, you can force somebody, force a people to surrender what happens — what happens to remain of their bloody bowels into your grasping, bony, dry hands. But all of us who are weak, we watch you, and we learn from your hatred, and we do not forget. And we are many, Mr. President. We are most of the people on this god-forsaken planet.

AMY GOODMAN: June Jordan. No, she didn’t give that speech last weekend. She gave that speech in 1991 [March 7, 1991], speaking out against the Persian Gulf War. She was in Hayward, California. She died last Friday, June 14th, 2002, after a decade-long battle with breast cancer. She was 65 years old, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

You’re listening to Democracy Now! As we speak with Alice Walker, Laura Flanders, on the line with us now from California, Angela Davis. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Your thoughts as you listen to June Jordan?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I suppose I would say that it’s very hard to imagine a world without June Jordan in it. She spoke to every issue with all of her heart and all of her passion. I can remember when she accepted the position at UC Berkeley. I certainly don’t think that Berkeley realized how much it would itself be transformed by her presence on that campus.

But she’s also left many legacies. And I suppose in order to get through the pain of trying to imagine the world without June, I have to think about the many seeds she planted, the many young people who are taking the poetry they learned to write with her, the way they learned to think about themselves politically. June was never affiliated with a political organization, at least not in recent years. But I think she did more than anyone else I know to urge people to think politically about the world and about the relationship between their everyday lives and the state of the world. In that sense, she was really a poet. She was a poet in the most radical sense of of the word.

And I also felt, as you said, that her talk, which we just listened to, could have been given yesterday. She had the amazing capacity to speak to specific conjunctures, specific moments, and at the same time produce an enduring, lasting effect.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about breast cancer for a moment. She learned 10 years before she died that she had breast cancer. Laura, you were a dear friend of June Jordan and have gone through the last few years with her battle with it, ultimately deciding not to take the drugs or the medications anymore. You were with her when she died. Can you talk about what breast cancer meant for June Jordan?

LAURA FLANDERS: Well, I think maybe we’ll let her talk about it in her own words. I mean, she called it a “national disgrace” in her essay, “Besting a Worst Case Scenario,” that’s in the collection Affirmative Acts. She writes:

“This is a national disgrace.
This is a soft-spoken emergency.
This is a colossal loss of life
lost to a colossal absence of
uncontrollable serious, coast-to-coast,
around-the-clock, no-nothing-as-usual,
outcry and civil
and uncivil disobedience
to a status quo that includes such
unbelievably huge numbers of women
suffering and dying
at a predictable rate
during predictable time periods”

June Jordan asked, “What’s up?”

There is no better question. What is up? Fifty thousand women die every year of breast cancer. This is not OK. Angela was there when June was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She saw the hell that June went through 10 years ago. We saw the hell she went through this year. Excellent doctors, the best possible care, and still it sucks. There is nothing OK about it. Everything everybody is doing in every way that they try to survive this disease is correct, in June’s view. Her mission to all of us was stop this disease. How come we don’t know the source? How come we don’t know what will cure it? How come we don’t know whether fat or no fat or having children or not having children or, you know, breastfeeding or not breastfeeding has any impact on breast cancer? This is a national disgrace, compounded today by the fact that it stole from us June Jordan, our beloved. It’s a national disgrace. We have to end it.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, talking about June Jordan. Her last days, she decided not to take any more.

LAURA FLANDERS: She had decided in the last month. The breast cancer that she had had metastasized to various parts of her body. She had been playing a brutal game of squash or tennis, or some metaphor, with it for the whole of the last three years. She had work to do. She wanted to write a book about democracy. She was finishing a collection of essays that will come out in the fall. She was gathering together a whole new book of poems. She had work to do. The treatment was interfering with the work. The treatment was miserable. She had had enough. She accepted hospice care in the last three weeks, four weeks of her life. She died surrounded by very loving friends and her son Christopher. She did make a choice as to how she wished to end her life. It was not tied up to machines. It was not drugged with chemotherapy drugs. It was raging against this illness, raging that she was not able to do the work that she intended to do. But ultimately, in a certain — to a certain degree, June was at peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Junichi Semitsu is also with us, director of the Poetry for the People, the program on political and artistic empowerment with students at UC Berkeley that was founded by June Jordan, I guess just before she was diagnosed, right about the same time, with breast cancer. Junichi, can you talk about June’s legacy?

JUNICHI SEMITSU: Absolutely. I think that with regard to the Poetry for the People program, it’s pretty much the classic embodiment of exactly what it is that June stood for. One of the things that she promoted was this idea that students are not going to take themselves seriously unless we who teach them honor and respect them in every practical way that we can. She was a teacher unlike any other, to the extent that she absolutely invested in her students in a way that is just unbelievable to think that a human being could believe in so many thousands of people who have come through her classroom. She was literally, to me, this one-stop sort of shopping stop of everything you needed to believe in the power of your voice. To me, she was like a mentor, a mother, a microphone, an amplifier, a superhero, even a fashion stylist, and absolutely a soldier. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, that was the name of one of her books, Laura.

LAURA FLANDERS: Her most recent — her last — her memoir.


LAURA FLANDERS: Came out in ’99.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to break for stations. Some stations will leave us now; others will stay with us. Our guests, Laura Flanders, Junichi Semitsu, who is the director of the Poetry for the People project of June Jordan’s. Alice Walker is still on the line with us, and we’ll continue to talk with her and Angela Davis. You’re listening to Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “I Remember, I Believe,” Sweet Honey in the Rock, here on Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with a host of guests remembering, on this Juneteenth, June Jordan, who died last Friday, June 14th, 2002, at the age of 65, battling breast cancer, the most published African American in history. This is June Jordan reading her poem to rapper Eminem called “Ode to Eminem.”

JUNE JORDAN: So, I recently wrote something called “Owed to Eminem” that I’m delighted to present to you. I don’t have a beat under me, but if you know Eminem, maybe you’ll be able to follow this. It’s called “Owed to Eminem.” O-W-E-D.

I’m the Slim Lady the real Slim Lady
the real Slim Lady just a little ole lady
I’m Slim Lady the real Slim Lady
all them other age ladies
just tryin to page me
but I’m Slim Lady the real Slim Lady
and I will
stand up
I will stand up

I assume that you fume while the
dollar bills bloom
and you magnify scum while the
critics stay mum
and you anguish and languish runnin
straight to the bank
and you scheme and you team with
false balls so you rank
at the top and you pop like the jury the
the judge

but the ghetto don’t trip to the light
stuff you flip
or the chan saw you skip
the rope and the knives and that bunk
about tying who up like a punk in the
back of the trunk
or that dope about mothers and wives
give you worse than the funeral hearse
hickies and hives
you fudge
where you come from or whether you
mean it
the shit you can’t make without
sycophants see’n it
but nobody’s dumb
enough to believe that you grieve
because folks
can’t conceive that you more than a
or why would you whore on
the hole in your sole?

At this stage of my rage
I’m a sage so I know how you blow
to the left then the right and you maim
every Columbine game about “No!
Cuz he’s white!”

But I am that I am
and I don’t give a damn
and you mess with my jam
and I’ll kill you
I will!

And if you insist listenin close for a dis
then you missin more than the gist in
I gotcha pose by the nose

I hear how you laugh and cut corners
in half
And I see you wigglin a line that’s not
while you screwin around with more
than all that

But I am that I am
and I don’t give a damn
and you mess with my jam
and I’ll kill you
I will!

Don’t tell me you pissed or who’s
slashin whose wrists
or pretend about risks
to a blond millionaire
with a bodyguard crew that prey
behind shades and that pay
to get laid — What?
What’s that about fair?

I’m not through with you!

I’m the bitch in the bedroom the
you chump I’m the nigga for real so get
ready to deal
I’m tired of wiggas that whine as they
About bitches and faggots and little
girls too!
I’m a Arab I’m a Muslim I’m a
Orthodox Jew!

I’m the bitch come to take you
I’m the faggot to fake you
outta the closet
outta the closet
fulla the slime you deposit

for fun

rhyme and run
you the number one
phony-ass gun

Oh! I am that I am
and I don’t give a damn
but you mess with my jam
and I’ll kill you
I will!

(Hey, Shady
you know what I’m sayin
I’m just playin!
You know I love you!)


Slim Lady

I sent it to him. Oh, yeah. This is a poem called “Poem for Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakyas: The Original Buddha.”

You say, “Close your eye to the butterfly!”
I say, “Don’t blink!”

I think what I’ll do now is I’ll read “Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet in Black English Translation.”

Don’t let me mess up partner happiness
because the trouble
An’ I ain’ got the heart
to deal!
That won’t be real
(about love)
if I
(push come to shove)
just punk

Not hardly! Hey:
Love do not cooperate
with cop-out
provocations: No!

Storm come, storm go
but love stay
(if you ready or
you not!)
True love stay
True love stay

AMY GOODMAN: June Jordan, reading her poem to the rapper Eminem called “Owed to Eminem” — that’s O-W-E-D — and other poems. We’re talking about June today, Alice Walker on the line with us. I’m looking at the book Fifty Black Women Who Changed America by Amy Alexander. And it says, “More than 20 years before a nationwide debate over the value of Black English gripped the nation, June was exploring the phenomenon of young African Americans who used a controversial form of slang to communicate. June’s poetry collection sparked a heated ideological debate over the use of Black English. And she defended the practice as a necessary part of some Black Americans’ personal evolution.” Can you talk about June Jordan using Black English way before a lot of people dared to publish this, Alice Walker?

ALICE WALKER: Oh, she absolutely did. And I’m thinking now of her book His Own Where — no, actually, Who Look at Me was before that. And just the way that she managed to put so much of the heart and the soul of people in the language. And she also, in that first book — there were paintings. And so you were able to hear the sounds of the people in the paintings as if they were speaking. And I think that this had a great impact on all of the writers who had probably been afraid to trust that the way their grandparents sounded, the way their parents sounded was actually OK. So she was even doing that, encouraging young people, encouraging young writers, and just being in the role of someone who said, “It’s OK. This is fine. This will actually reconnect you to yourself, to your people, to your ancestors.”

But what I’ve been thinking while I’m listening to her incredible voice is just I feel this amazing happiness to have known her and to have been able to hear her giggle and to hear her be happy and to — you know, to be in her presence and to see that shining face of hers is so wonderful, just to know that we are all lucky enough to live in the time of June Jordan.

And I was thinking also how great it would be if everyone on the planet, and especially in this country, could hear her and read her, because she shines the light on all of the conundrums that I think most people are completely perplexed by. And I think there are people who have no idea what is happening. I mean, it’s gotten so complicated that most people think, you know, “I will never understand this. I will never understand the Gulf War. I will never understand the present war. I will never understand, you know, how these people got into the White House. I will never understand, you know, them taking away the voting rights of Black people, after we have died and suffered to give voting rights to Black people. I will never understand this.” Well, If you read June Jordan, you will understand it all. I mean, she really was there. She had that light, the light of her incredible intelligence and her great passion. She had that, and she beamed it on all of these areas.

And so, as a medicine for the world, I would say read everything that June has written. And if you can get tapes of her reading, I mean, you could hear how she sounds. It’s just phenomenal. I mean, she just puts it all together in the most — just, I mean, I’m stunned. I mean, I’ve listened to her for 30 years, but hearing her this morning, I’m stunned all over again with her clarity and her passion and her truthfulness and her dedication to the living.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, His Own Where ended up being a great success.

LAURA FLANDERS: Yeah, it was a huge success at the time. And it was the first-ever novel published in — entirely in Black English. And I encourage people to mount a campaign to get it back into print, a fantastic book written for young readers about a young African American boy, really, who created a home for his beloved, a home in a graveyard, the most beautiful, dream-like romance site that he could make for some woman he loved. A fantastic book. Check it out.

AMY GOODMAN: I started off talking about June in school, but in fact she ended up dropping out of Barnard. Is that right?

LAURA FLANDERS: She did. She did.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet she’s a professor at UC Berkeley.

LAURA FLANDERS: And, indeed, this last month received the Berkeley Citation, a rarely given award for a professor who has contributed, as Angela said, not just to the campus life, but to the community life. And she was there to receive it. Adrienne Torf read her acceptance speech. A wonderful, gratifying award to June in the last weeks of her life.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, your last thoughts? Angela has just left us, but —

ANGELA DAVIS: No, no, no. I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, Angela, you’re there. Sorry.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes. I was thinking that, as I think back on June’s many accomplishments, she was always two steps or five steps or 10 steps ahead of anyone else. And it occurs to me that now people, particularly women, are trying to make connections between the various forms of violence, the violence of sexual assault, the violence of rape, the violence of colonialism, the violence of genocide. As a matter of fact, there’s a new organization and a new movement that is attempting to explore those connections. But June asked us to think in those complicated and yet very simple ways many years ago with her — what is her most well-known poem, I think, “Poem About My Rights.” And she was always 10 steps ahead of us, and I think we need to try desperately and passionately to follow in her footsteps.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Laura, you were with June Jordan when she died on Friday and have spent a lot of time with her over these last few years. Your final thoughts to leave our listeners and viewers with today?

LAURA FLANDERS: June believed that revolutionary possibility always takes place, revolutions always take place, on the basis of great hope and rising expectations. And she gave us grounds for great hope, despite all sorts of adversity. And her expectations of us, of the future of this country and of this world never flagged. And maybe I could just close with a short poem that she wrote years back. It was called “Calling On All Silent Minorities,” and I think it gives you an idea of her idea of hope.

HEY [she wrote]





We’ve got work to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Junichi Semitsu, thank you very much for being with us as we celebrate the life of June Jordan. She may have died last Friday, but her legacy lives on.

Democracy Now! produced by Kris Abrams, Miranda Kennedy, Lizzy Ratner, Michael Yeh. Anthony Sloan is our music maestro and engineer. Our website, for more information, contact, links to information about June,, email I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening.

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