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Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood

An excerpt about her father’s influence from June Jordan’s autobiography.

by June Jordan
It’s a summer morning. It’s 10:30 a.m. With my coloring book and crayons, I’m bent over the kitchen table. And I’m sniffling from a cold.

On top of the radio on top of the roto-broiler on top of the utility cart, there are five enormous grapefruits. Over the radio, a white man winds up his lecture:
“What can be done? What can you do? What can anybody do to stop the washing away of Vitamin C even as you drink citrus fruit juices to replenish your Vitamin C supply? Is there an answer? Can you come up with one?”
Here my father makes his surprise move. He bangs his fist on the cart. The grapefruits roll off every which way.

“Well?”

I lift my head to look at him. My crayon drops from my fingers. I lower my hands toward the back of my chair so that I can push away from the table, fast.

And I make sure to answer him,

“Yes, Sir?”

“Yassuh! Eh! You don’ hear the mon ask the question? Heh? Vitamin C, girl: Vitamin C! How you gwine keep it in the body?”

“I don’t know, Daddy.”

“Aghh! You don’ even try. What you tink? You tink the mon’s a fool! You tink the mon talk to hear himself talk! You tink you must be too smart to learn from the radio! Too smart to learn from an ignorant mon like me, you father! You one of these know-it-all wiseguys, heh? You know even an old mon like me must be making himself learn? Even when the white, the young boss him get on the elevator—you tink I closing my ears? You tink they say anyt’ing an’ I don’ make myself listen what it is?”

“No, Sir.”

“Speak up, Mon! You hear me talkin’ to you, don’t you?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“‘Yassuh, yassuh’: That all you know how to say to me! You tink this is the Army? If this was the Army, believe me, girl, you won’t be sit there holding a crayon! Let me see what you got there!”

He jerks the coloring book away from me:

“Hmmph. Roy Rogers. On horseback. Now, that’s good: How the West Was Won; you ever tink to yourself How Did the United States of America Get So Big? Boy, it’s a vast one, you know!

“That was the frontier! It took strong men, men of faith! Men of courage. To go out there—into the unknown—an’ fight everything—the climate, the wolves, the Indians—everything! An’ fight to win a victory! A place to live! A place to be a mon.”

I should agree or cheer for “The Frontier,” but I don’t know how.

“Look at the damn garbage of Brooklyn. They tink because this is a Negro neighborhood, they tink we like garbage, they tink we love garbage, they tink we need the garbage so we can feel at home!”

He smashes the garbage can cover down on its contents:

“I gwine call them up Monday an’ give them something to hear! Where is your mother?”

I shrug my shoulders.

He rushes at me. He yanks me up from my seat. He shakes me:

“Where is your mother gone?”

“I don’t know, Daddy.”

“That’s better. I am’ raise no hellion around here. There don’ be no disrespect while I am head of this house! I have enough of that foolishness up on the job! The white boys them in a suit and tie an’ calling me—old enough to be the father—calling me ‘sonny,’ calling me what they damn please: Hmmph!”

I reach for a Kleenex.

“Ahh. You got asthma. You got runny nose. You growing up soft, girl. I gwine send you away. Maybe to New Jersey. And make you healthy yourself: Let you breathing clean air, clean air. Harden you up!”

He grins at me:

“I gwine buy you some Vitamin C tablets: Put hair on you chest!”

He puts a hand on my arm:

“Listen to me, girl. Mon to mon: You see? You have to be tink to you’self about everting. You can’ go through life like a nincompoop. You have to use you coconut!”

He thumps my forehead. I think this is a good sign:

“Daddy, can I please go out?”

“Yes, you can. But no: You may not go! You remember what I tell you about can an’ may do? Hmmph. The Brooklyn street is not going anywhere.

“Do you believe that? Do you believe that even if you don’ go to the street before tomorrow night it will still be there, waiting. For what? Waiting to suck you down, girl. Heh? You may go out this afternoon. But now I wan’ that you go upstairs an’ wrestle wit them books!”

“But I finished the reading, Sir.”

“What! You finish the whole of The Merchant of Venice by Mr. William Shakespeare?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“An’ did you make sense of it, mon?”

“No, Sir.”

“Aha! Then you read it again an’ you read it again until you thought through what it mean! An’ what about the poem?”

“I couldn’t finish all of it.”

“Let me hear what you did get to!”

“‘If you can keep your head while all about are losing theirs—If you can dream—and not make dreams your master—’”

I lose track of the lines.

“That can’ be right! G’wan with yourself: Upstairs an’ study it! G’wan!”

I try to get out of there.

“’Tention!”

I freeze.

“Head up! Shoulders back! Stomach in! And don’ be shuffling, girl. You am gwine be no run of the mill Negro sneaking around. You gwine be a fine mon you must be walk like a mon. I want that you stand tall an’ stride ahead! Strut your stuff, girl! G’wan! G’wan!”

“Daddy? Around here, nobody walks like this!”

“An’ so?”

“The other kids—it’ll look funny. I only see white people walk this way!”

“That should tell you someting! If the white people do it, you better to study yourself how it goes! G’wan! G’wan! Wait!”

I halt. My father executes a caricature bebop step around me:

“You like to see the old man cripple himself up like this? Looking sharp, heh?”

He makes me laugh.

“What you suppose you do now? A chimpanzee? Why you gwine cover up you mouth? When a mon laugh him throw him head back an’ laughing out loud!

Suddenly my father shouts:

“Tink fast!”

He fakes a punch at me. I am cowering, but he feints a left jab or two. I make a mistake: I look away. Then my father fakes a knockout punch to my face. He catches his fist half an inch away from my forehead. I’m looking up at him now, for sure.

He laughs:

“Don’t I tol’ you you don’ never take you eye off the enemy eye? Never! Hmmph! You see now, heh?”

He smiles at me:

“G’wan now; upstairs!



From the book Soldier: A Poet's Childhood by June Jordan. Copyright 2000 by June Jordan. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Civitas Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.
Originally Published: August 15, 2006

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 June  Jordan

Biography

One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was also known for her fierce commitment to human rights and progressive political agenda. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: over civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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