A Fortress from Self Pity: June Jordan and Fannie Lou Hamer

June Jordan (1936-2002) was born on July 9, 1936, in Harlem, New York, the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents. She was a poet, essayist, teacher, feminist, civil rights activist, and self-identified Bisexual. While the students at most of the schools she attended were predominately White, at Barnard College, “No one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force . . . Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America.” She left without graduating, but returned later. Her first book, Who Look at Me, a collection of poems for children, was published in 1969. She wrote 27 more books, the last three published posthumously. Jordan was the librettist for the musical Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. She taught at several colleges and at SUNY at Stony Brook, then founded the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley in 1991. She died of breast cancer at age 65 in 2002.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), American civil rights leader, women’s rights activist, community organizer, and spiritual singer. While having surgery in 1961 to remove a tumor, 44-year-old Hamer was also given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent by a white doctor; this was a frequent occurrence under Mississippi’s compulsory sterilization plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. Hamer is credited with coining the phrase “Mississippi appendectomy” as a euphemism for the involuntary or uninformed sterilization of black women, common in the South in the 1960s. Hamer was an organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by racists, including members of the police, while trying to register and exercise her right to vote. She later helped and encouraged thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters and helped hundreds of disenfranchised people in her area through her work in programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative. She unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971. In 1970, Hamer led the legal action against the government of Sunflower County, Mississippi for continued illegal segregation. She died of complications of hypertension and breast cancer on March 14, 1977, at age 59.

To read June Jordan’s poem, “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer” click:

1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer

by June Jordan

You used to say, “June?
Honey when you come down here you
supposed to stay with me. Where
Meanin home
against the beer the shotguns and the
point of view of whitemen don’
never see Black anybodies without
some violent itch start up.

                                       The ones who
said, “No Nigga’s Votin in This Town . . .
lessen it be feet first to the booth”
Then jailed you
beat you brutal
you blue beyond the feeling
of the terrible

And failed to stop you.
Only God could but He
wouldn’t stop
fortress from self-

Humble as a woman anywhere
I remember finding you inside the laundromat
in Ruleville
                  lion spine relaxed/hell   
                  what’s the point to courage   
                  when you washin clothes?   

But that took courage

                  just to sit there/target   
                  to the killers lookin   
                  for your singin face   
                  perspirey through the rinse   
                  and spin

and later
you stood mighty in the door on James Street  
loud callin:

                  “BULLETS OR NO BULLETS!   
                  THE FOOD IS COOKED   
                  AN’ GETTIN COLD!”

We ate
A family tremulous but fortified
by turnips/okra/handpicked
like the lilies

filled to the very living   
one solid gospel

one gospel

one full Black lily   
in a homemade field   

of love

“1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer” from Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, © 2007 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate Trust – Copper Canyon Press

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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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