Life Studies: A Reflection on June Jordan & Solidarity for Black Lives

The American evidence of contempt for our Afro-American lives can easily be seen when you realize that we who are Black, and we who live in urban centers of the country, and we who poison ourselves simply by breathing the air, and we who swallow soap and worms and worse than that, when we drink a glass of water — we cannot come into any classroom and learn what we need to know. — June Jordan

June Jordan in her graduation speech to Brownsville I.S. 55 in 1970 asked students to ask the following questions, again, again, and again:

How does this study,
How does this subject, relate to the
Truth of my life?

We have to ask more of our work, and we should. June Jordan’s words echo in my mind. Her questions to the mostly Black students in Brownsville supported them in challenging systems that don’t serve the truth of their lives. What are the truths of my life? Is my work serving these truths, and is it serving the truths of my Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Muslim folks? Is my racial equity work serving Queer, Trans, Nonbinary people of color? Is my racial equity work serving folks of color with disabilities?

To answer June Jordan’s questions, here are my truths:

In the last nine years I have been navigating the implication of my race, my ethnicity, my culture, my religion and my female body in a new country that has racialized me as “Asian” and “brown”. In this country I learned what it means to be othered and exocitized in the same breath. I learned that I am Asian and that somehow encompassed all my identities. I am a Southeast Asian immigrant with a Muslim name so threatening to national security that I am on a secondary screening list every time I travel. Yet, my story of migration is a privileged one. I have documents. I migrated to a country that was founded on genocide of a group of people, slavery of another and dehumanization of plenty others who are not White. When I have my hijab on, people have refused food from my hand. Otherwise, I am racially ambiguous, but unambiguously not white. During this time too, I learned that when I say the same words that my Black colleagues and friends say, I become the more reasonable one. I know that police will not stop me for no reason and I never have to fear that they might shoot me. That anti-Black racism is the foundational architecture to structural racism that affect all of us. I also began to understand how entrenched anti-Blackness is globally, thanks to colonialism and US imperialism.

This year, with my colleagues, Nadia Owusu and Ratna Gill, I wrote a report on our year-long attempt to answer the question, “What does it take to embed racial equity lens in our work?”. In this report, we unequivocally believe that, “We cannot advance racial equity until we focus on anti-Black racism and intersectionality.”

The term “intersectionality” was coined by a Black woman academic, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to describe how different forms of oppression can interact and overlap, and why it is necessary for feminists to take into account the needs of Black women when considering social questions and issues to advocate for. Intersectionality is not about the multiplicity of identities that someone holds. Rather, it is an analysis of the intersection of power structures and the identities one holds. As Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor puts it best — it surfaces the cumulative burdens placed on a person, which then create new categories of suffering.

Andrea Smith, a Cherokee intellectual, feminist and anti-violence activist came up with a framework of White Supremacy in which “white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics. Envision three pillars, one labeled Slavery/Capitalism, another labeled Genocide/Colonialism, and the last one labeled Orientalism/War, as well as arrows connecting each of the pillars together.”

What these frameworks gave me was a way to articulate how we can center anti-Blackness without denying or diminishing other non-Black people of color’s oppression. There are specific ways that structural racism affect each of our communities and yet the truth of this country is that the dehumanization of Black lives has been the foundational structure of oppression.

In the same speech to the Brownsville students in 1970, June Jordan asked: Where are the central required courses that will teach us how to design and govern cities so that the cities will function as great temples of life that welcome us inside, that welcome our lives? Where are the central required courses that teach us how to destroy the enemy, urban situation that threatens all life now dwelling inside our city walls?

At the end of the speech, June Jordan made a call for people power to eliminate political machines that ignore communities of people, or else burn down villages off people, or else starve families of people, or else murder the children of our communities.

In our work at Living Cities, I watched our organization grapple with these truths collectively, as others began to bring their own personal truths, and how we began to pivot from a race-neutral “better results for low-income people in US cities” to a bold “closing racial wealth gaps”. And we know that to get to this shared result, we have to examine and dismantle anti-Blackness. We are still collectively grappling with these truths. But I am hopeful. All Living Cities staff has to go through anti-racism training, has performance measures related to racial equity. Conversations about race are normalized, and we are getting deeper on anti-Blackness.

I also had the privilege this year to witness five city governments grapple with the truths of structural racism in their cities. Cities like Philadelphia, Louisville, Austin grapple with the truths of anti-Black racism in their cities. Cities are developing the methodology for applying racial equity to budget decisions, to long range planning from land use codes to resilience plans, to citywide workforce strategic plan. In our convenings, city leads bring up the toll of anti-Blackness to themselves and their communities as they work to dismantle structural racism in their local governments.

For me, my racial equity practice is a constant interrogation of my values, practice and action and how it relates to Whiteness and anti-Blackness. Questions I will keep asking myself again, again, again and again: how am I complicit in profiting from anti-Blackness? How do I continue to uphold white supremacy structures, when I try to be palatable to whiteness? Who am I showing up for in my work? How do I show up for Black lives?

We can ask more of our racial equity work, and we should. This year, I have seen what happens when we do so. We have a long way to go still, but we go deeper.

In a reflection and celebration of June Jordan, a Black woman poet, writer, teacher and activist, I learned to ask these questions and to ask more of my work: How long can a question circle before action and agency? How do you convert a question to action and agency? What is conversion to you? What is your practice of conversion? What are your limits of imagination to conversion?