Out of Print: June Jordan

Reintroducing the National Book Award finalist and architect who reimagined Harlem.

This is from the debut issue of 
Lenny: Feminism, style, health, politics, friendship, and everything else from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Like it? Share it with a friend.

During the mid-1960s, June Jordan, a young architect whose European education at the American Academy of Rome inspired in her a taste for conical structures and winding roads, reinvented northern Manhattan.

At the time, two life-changing events encouraged the native Brooklynite to redesign Harlem: the riots of 1964 and the birth of her only son, Christopher. She was a young, worried, black mother. Jordan, in collaboration with her mentor the futurist architect and engineer Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller, translated her critical theories about the effect of space on families, place, and mood into a blueprint for a new Harlem. She planned green space, sketched longer roads, and lifted earthbound apartment complexes into the sky in wide, cylindrical towers, thereby lifting the neighborhood's psyche out of depression, her thinking went. The plan rid the area of corners—those junctures associated with drug dealing, inadequate housing, and young girls selling—and introduced curvature.

She sold the plan, which she and Fuller named "Skyrise for Harlem," to Esquire in 1965.

Before the check came on Christmas Eve, she'd had no money for herself and her tiny son. And when it did, she cashed it immediately; she and Christopher walked around the city buying presents, food, and a tree. "That Christmas Eve I was a millionaire in love," she embellished, "spending 500 dollars before the doors were locked for the night."

When the blueprints were published in April, the magazine removed her name and changed the article's title to "Instant Slum Clearance." "My title had been 'Skyrise for Harlem,' " Jordan reiterates in a letter written to Fuller after publication of the article. "We conceived of this environmental redesign as a form of federal reparations to the ravaged people of Harlem."

Though her vision for Harlem was never actualized, June Jordan the architect and June Jordan the writer converge naturally: if Jordan's aspiration as a young builder was to invigorate black life by restructuring black environments, she achieved this as a mature writer and critic.

The professor, poet, cultural critic, architect, and foremother of the racial environmental-justice movement published 27 books during her lifetime. The genres she worked in ranged from poetry to criticism to fiction to what Toni Morrison called "political journalism." In her poems, Jordan was often "directed by desire," writing sparse, structural odes to sensuality in the ghetto. In her essays, she watched the 1991 telecast of an emerging Nelson Mandela. She wondered where a young Mike Tyson, both criminalized and criminal, could have learned "the difference between violence and love." She condemned the enemies of Anita Hill and all black women in professional America.

In her fiction, which included the young-adult novel His Own Where, Jordan created the two young Brooklyn lovers Buddy and Angela, who cooed to each other in their native Black English while making skittish love in a crumbling fort. The book is one of her most lauded yet controversial works; when His Own Where was a finalist for the National Book Award in the early '70s, many black intellectuals derided her for "promoting" anything other than standard English to young black kids. To their derision, Jordan mounted her rebuttal: "Our culture has been constantly threatened by annihilation or, at least, the swallowed blurring of assimilation. Therefore, our language is a system constructed by people constantly needing to insist that we exist, that we are present." 

Even as a writer, she still had soulful hopes for the black metropolis: "I will not pretend that it is privacy and fame and quiet that I want when what I need is a sanitary, safe, and reliable subway or public bus system, an attractive apartment that I can rent … And then, as often as possible, at night, I want and I need an ostensible stranger who will lie beside me becoming someone I love at least as much as I love myself." Jordan did take lovers, men and women, up until her death in 2002, but besides the marriage that gave her Christopher, she more regularly lived and loved and worked alone.

I encountered Jordan's writing a few years ago, when I attempted to write a book of criticism focusing on black women in pop culture. I experienced an intense amount of joy and a bit of horror to discover her this way, all shining and unfamiliar, when she should have been a part of my and every American's education. June Jordan is certainly not forgotten; any writer who reads criticism produced by black women will find Civil Wars or Some of Us Did Not Die in the annals. The architects are less likely to know her. But she should be a household name, and that she isn't speaks volumes about the forwardness of her work and the inability of literary gatekeepers to accommodate such vision from a black woman.

Doreen St. Félix is the editor-at-large of Lenny.

Lenny is an email newsletter founded by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, the creators of HBO's Girls. Subscribe now at lennyletter.com.