“In the Middle of Fighting for Freedom We Found Ourselves Free”

June Jordan’s 1993 tribute to Audre Lorde, her sister-in-arms from the ’60s student protests and beyond

Introduced by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
May 29, 2024

From June Jordan's tribute to Audre Lorde, 1993.

Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute

I have a tendency to write to the dead—so I can’t avoid the feeling of being too late. Every morning, I write with this feeling as I think about the loved ones I will never know, the poets and writers massacred, the children who will never live out the texts of their lives. This is what it means to write amid multiple ongoing genocides: We are too late. And yet, we cannot turn away from those whom death will not stop us from loving. We cannot stop envisioning a future with those who yet live in terrifying vulnerability at what Black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde called, in her poem “A Litany for Survival,” “the shoreline” or the “constant edges.”

The tribute to Audre Lorde by Black bisexual feminist writer June Jordan was also too late. Jordan completed it in 1993, in time for Lorde’s first birthday as an ancestor, after years during which—as far as I can tell from my archival research and interviews—the two poets were not speaking to each other. The loving sisterhood between these writers, forged during the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles in New York City, had broken down amidst divisions in the feminist movement about how to show up in solidarity with the people of Palestine and Lebanon following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. (Jordan sharply called out feminists who identified as Zionists, while Lorde tended to build bridges with Jewish feminists who critiqued but did not entirely divest from the State of Israel.) In writing her tribute a decade later, Jordan traveled back in time to a scene of common struggle, when she first met Lorde in the late 1960s, at the barricades of a City University of New York (CUNY) building that students had taken over, insisting on access to the means of education. It was immediately evident that the poets shared a sense that it was their intergenerational imperative to support the demands of the Black and Brown students at the uprising’s core. As Jordan had put it in 1977: “She showed up, as most teachers did not, to keep the faith with the Black SEEK students . . . The generous integrity of my sister Audre Lorde impressed me then as I will not forget.”

SEEK (an acronym for Search for Education Elevation and Knowledge) is a program at CUNY that was conceived as a series of remedial classes for students who had come to the college from underperforming high schools. But the program’s early faculty—including Jordan and Lorde, as well as other revolutionary writers like Toni Cade Bambara and Adrienne Rich—did not simply teach their students to assimilate into the norms of the system that had dispossessed them. Instead, they developed their pedagogy to heed what the students were seeking: ways of learning that honored the communities they loved at home as well as those struggling against colonialism globally. Jordan and Lorde and their SEEK colleagues taught their students to interrogate and transform the very meaning of education.

In 1969, as countries around the world fought for independence from European colonial forces, Black and Brown students at CUNY, many of whom were part of the SEEK program, removed the US flags on their campus, and lifted a Pan-African liberation flag and the Puerto Rican flag instead. It was at once an act of solidarity with global anti-colonial movements and a local focal point as the students struggled toward what they called “Harlem University”—a school that refused to reiterate racist structures, and instead committed to radical inclusion in the form of curricular and personnel changes and to open admissions so that all residents of New York City would be guaranteed a publicly funded post-secondary education. Along with colleagues including Bambara and Rich, Lorde and Jordan brought blankets and food to students who were sleeping on and under tables in campus buildings, and held workshops and teach-ins in support of those who made their very bodies obstacles to the functioning of the university as usual. This is where Lorde and Jordan became more than colleagues; they identified each other as sisters in struggle. And as June Jordan will tell you below: “We won. The students won.” Note the poetics there. The victory is one. The victory of the students translates to a victory for all.

Now, once again, as has so many times been the case all over the world, students are taking risks to make love visible. They are risking their degrees, their scholarships, their housing, their well-being, their healthcare, and their health to take institutions to task for their investment in violent regimes that are massacring tens of thousands of people and accelerating the conditions that make the planet unlivable for entire species. They are clarifying that what is at stake in stopping the war machine that seeks to eradicate and displace the people of Palestine, the Congo, and beyond is the future itself—and they are emboldening others to take braver action alongside them. As University of California, Irvine professor Tiffany Willoughby-Herard said to reporters who pressed her about her job security while riot police dragged her away from defending the student encampment on her campus, “What job do I have if the students don’t have a future?”

As I re-read June Jordan’s intimate, brave words to Audre Lorde below, tinged with regret and washed again with love, I am calling not only on the poetic effectiveness and personal integrity of both author and addressee, but also on their political generosity, their offering of themselves to the visions of their students. I know that in this moment, both poets would give everything they have—their spiritual resources, their hard-earned insights, courage they hadn’t even named—to follow the student leaders demanding an immediate and permanent ceasefire, a free Palestine in our lifetime, and an end to all forms of apartheid and genocide. The students are teaching us that, though we cannot undo the incalculable loss of genocidal violence, it is not too late. It is exactly the time to be braver together in service of a livable future. It is time for what June Jordan calls below “words that death cannot spell or delete.” Our love.

—Alexis Pauline Gumbs

for Audre

I will always remember our first meeting, back in the Sixties, when both of us went into doubleovertime fighting for Open Admissions at City College and teaching our Free University classes held in Harlem’s strangely windowless new school called I.S. 201[.]

We were surrounded by revolutionary comrades and revolutionary students and we thought we could change public education in this country, and we did. We won. The students won. The principle of open admission to higher learning triumphed over predictable diatribes against an alleged lowering of standards that the entry of our Black and Brown children would necessarily entail.

We knew better. We had been Black children. And each of us had given birth to a Black child here, in America. So we knew the precious, unimaginably deep music and the precious unimaginably complicated mathematics that our forbidden Black bodies enveloped.

You and I held so much in common! West Indian—which is to say driven and unreasonably proud, and riveted to thousands of pages of thousands of books! We grew up as poets. We grew up to be single Black mothers at war with poverty and racist violence. We came of age not quite trusting our own beauty but stubbornly determined to find the origins of our strength and the wellsprings of our grace inside the large, dark eyes that opened up the mystery of our own mother’s face.

As the years rushed into our lives, we found her eyes and we tried to give voice to everything she never said out loud.

In the middle of our fighting for freedom, we found ourselves fighting against hatred that would kill us if it could: hatred of us as Black folk and as Women folk, both. In the middle of our fighting for freedom we found ourselves daring to try for love across racial and sexual lines of vigilant taboo. In the middle of our fighting for freedom we found ourselves free beyond fear and beyond capitulation.

And as you righteously lived your free and fearless life you wrote such beautiful, great poetry, and so many powerful, new sentences to teach so many how to stand in the truth of our dreams and desires!

In one of my favorite poems of yours, you wrote:

“I is the total black, being spoken from the earth’s inside. . . . Love is a word, another kind of open.  As the diamond comes into a knot of flame I am black because i come from the earth’s inside Now take my word for jewel in your open light.” [sic]

In another of my favorite poems of yours, you wrote:

“The different between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children.” [sic]

And you lived that difference and the example of your courageous and powerfully gifted life inspired and inspires young poets and young men and women across American [sic], today.

At different points our lives diverged as did our chosen paths for struggle[.] But we did not ever fully disentangle from joined combat against hatred and the annihilation of all bigotry[.] And then breast cancer came to claim your life with suffering and with terror and, at last, with death[.] So have our lives converged, again, as I must battle now against the same dread [sic], difficult, intruder.

And I look to you, my Sister, with a full and trembling heart;

Here are my flowers blooming like jasmine Here is the flame of my faith Here are the words that death cannot spell or delete Here is my love that I place in your capable hands until we meet again face to face

June Jordan 2/18/93 Berkeley, California

Tribute to Audre Lorde by June Jordan, © Christopher D. Meyer, 1970. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the Frances Goldin Literary Agency.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer Black feminist love evangelist and an aspirational cousin to all life. She is the author of five books including the forthcoming biography Survival is a Promise: The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde. Her book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals won the 2022 Whiting Award in Non-Fiction. A recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize in Poetry, the National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, and a National Humanities Center Fellowship, Dr. Gumbs lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina. Audre Lorde is one of the great ancestral loves of her life.