by June Jordan
State University of New York, Stony Brook
Progressive teachers often face the problem of making education in the schools relevant to life outside of the schools. They are confronted regularly with the challenge of introducing controversial subject matter that often forces students to examine critically their values and world views, and their positions in this society. In this essay, June Jordan describes the experiences in her undergraduate course on Black English in which both she and her students mounted the charge o f making education and schooling truly relevant and useful when they decided to mobilize themselves on behalf of a Black classmate whose unarmed brother had been killed by White police officers in Brooklyn, New York. The Editors have decided to reprint this essay because of its particular relevance to the theme of this Special Issue. wish to thank June Jordan for granting us permission to reprint her essay in our pages.
Black English is not exactly a linguistic buffalo; as children, most of the thirty-five million Afro-Americans living here depend on this language for our discovery of the world. But then we approach our maturity inside a larger social body that will not support our efforts to become anything other than the clones of those who are neither our mothers nor our fathers. We begin to grow up in a house where every true mirror shows us the face of somebody who does not belong there, whose walk and whose talk will never look or sound “right,” because that house was meant to shelter a family that is alien and hostile to us. As we learn our way around this environment, either we hide our original word habits, or we completely surrender our own voice, hoping to please those who will never respect anyone different from themselves: Black English is not exactly a linguistic buffalo, but we should under- stand its status as an endangered species, as a perishing, irreplaceable system of community intelligence, or we should expect its extinction, and, along with that, the extinguishing of much that constitutes our own proud, and singular, identity.
What we casually call “English,” less and less defers to England and its “gentlemen.” “English” is no longer a specific matter of geography or an element of class privilege; more than thirty-three countries use this tool as a means of “intranational communication.”2 Countries as disparate as Zimbabwe and Malaysia, or Israel and Uganda, use it as their non-native currency of convenience. Obviously, this tool, this “English,” cannot function inside thirty-three discrete societies on the basis of rules and values absolutely determined somewhere else, in a thirty-fourth other country, for example.
In addition to that staggering congeries of non-native users of English, there are five countries, or 333,746,000 people, for whom this thing called “English” serves as a native tongue.3 Approximately 10 percent of these native speakers of”English” are Afro-American citizens of the U.S.A. I cite these numbers and varieties of human beings dependent on “English” in order, quickly, to suggest how strange and how tenuous is any concept of “Standard English.” Obviously, numerous forms of English now operate inside a natural, an uncontrollable, continuum of development. I would suppose “the standard” for English in Malaysia is not the same as “the standard” in Zimbabwe. I know that standard forms of English for Black people in this country do not copy that of Whites. And, in fact, the structural differences between these two kinds of English have intensified, becoming more Black, or less White, despite the expected homogenizing effects of television” and other mass media
Nonetheless, White standards of English persist, supreme and unquestioned, in these United States. Despite our multi-lingual population, and despite the deepening Black and White cleavage within that conglomerate, White standards control our official and popular judgments of verbal proficiency and correct, or incorrect, language skills, including speech. In contrast to India, where at least fourteen languages co-exist as legitimate Indian languages, in contrast to Nicaragua, where all citizens are legally entitled to formal school instruction in their regional or tribal languages, compulsory education in America compels accommodation to exclusively White forms of”English.” White English, in America, is “Standard English.”
This story begins two years ago. I was teaching a new course, “In Search of the Invisible Black Woman,” and my rather large class seemed evenly divided among young Black women and men. Five or six White students also sat in attendance. With unexpected speed and enthusiasm we had moved through historical narratives of the 19th century to literature by and about Black women, in the 20th. I had assigned the first forty pages of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and I came, eagerly, to class that morning:
“So!” I exclaimed, aloud. “What did you think? How did you like it?”
The students studied their hands, or the floor. There was no response. The tense, resistant feeling in the room fairly astounded me.
At last, one student, a young woman still not meeting my eyes, muttered something in my direction:
“What did you say?” I prompted her.
“Why she have them talk so funny. It don’t sound right.”
”You mean the language?”
Another student lifted his head: “It don’t look right, neither. I couldn’t hardly read it.”
At this, several students dumped on the book. Just about unanimously, their criticisms targeted the language. I listened to what they wanted to say and silently marvelled at the similarities between their casual speech patterns and Alice Walker’s written version of Black English.
But I decided against pointing to these identical traits of syntax; I wanted not to make them self-conscious about their own spoken language – not while they clearly felt it was “wrong.” Instead I decided to swallow my astonishment. Here was a negative Black reaction to a prize-winning accomplishment of Black literature that White readers across the country had selected as a best seller. Black rejection was aimed at the one irreducibly Black element of Walker’s work: the language – Celie’s Black English. I wrote the opening lines of The Color Purple on the blackboard and asked the students to help me translate these sentences into Standard English:
You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.
I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
Last spring after Little Lucious come I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She say it too soon, Fonso. I aint well. Finally he leave her alone. A week go by, he pulling on her arm again. She say, Naw, I ain’t gonna. Can’t you see I’m already half dead, an all of the children.5
Our process of translation exploded with hilarity and even hysterical, shocked laughter: The Black writer, Alice Walker, knew what she was doing! If rudimentary criteria for good fiction include the manipulation of language so that the syntax and diction of sentences will tell you the identity of speakers, the probable age and sex and class of speakers, and even the locale – urban/rural/southern/western – then Walker had written, perfectly. This is the translation into Standard English that our class produced:
Absolutely, one should never confide in anybody besides God. Your secrets could prove devastating to your mother.
I am fourteen years old. I have always been good. But now, could you help me to understand what is happening to me?
Last spring, after my little brother, Lucious, was born, I heard my parents fighting. My father kept pulling at my mother’s arm. But she told him, “It’s too soon for sex, Alfonso. I am still not feeling well.” Finally, my father left her alone. A week went by, and then he began bothering my mother, again: Pulling her arm. She told him, “No, I won’t! Can’t you see I’m already exhausted from all of these children?”
(Our favorite line was “It’s too soon for sex, Alfonso.”)
Once we could stop laughing, once we could stop our exponentially wild improvisations on the theme of Translated Black English, the students pushed to explain their own negative first reactions to their spoken language on the printed page. I thought it was probably akin to the shock of seeing yourself in a photograph for the first time. Most of the students had never before seen a written facsimile of the way they talk. None of the students had ever learned how to read and write their own verbal system of communication: Black English. Alternatively, this fact began to baffle or else bemuse and then infuriate my students. Why not? Was it too late? Could they learn how to do it, now? And, ultimately, the final test question, the one testing my sincerity: Could I teach them? Because I had never taught anyone Black English and, as far as I knew, no one, anywhere in the United States, had ever offered such a course, the best I could say was “I’ll try.”
He looked like a wrestler.
He sat dead center in the packed room and, every time our eyes met, he quickly nodded his head as though anxious to reassure, and encourage me.
Short, with strikingly broad shoulders and long arms, he spoke with a surprisingly high, soft voice that matched the soft bright movement of his eyes. His name was Willie Jordan. He would have seemed even more unlikely in the context of Contemporary Women’s Poetry, except that ten or twelve other Black men were taking the course, as well. Still, Willie was conspicuous. His extreme fitness, the muscular density of his presence underscored the riveted, gentle attention that he gave to anything anyone said. Generally, he did not join the loud and rowdy dialogue flying back and forth, but there could be no doubt about his interest in our discussions. And, when he stood to present an argument he’d prepared, overnight, that nervous smile of his vanished and an irregular stammering replaced it, as he spoke with visceral sincerity, word by word.
That was how I met Willie Jordan. It was in between “In Search of the Invisible Black Women” and “The Art of Black English.” I was waiting for departmental approval and I supposed that Willie might be, so to speak, killing time until he, too, could study Black English. But Willie really did want to explore contemporary women’s poetry and, to that end, volunteered for extra research and never missed a class.
Towards the end of that semester, Willie approached me for an independent study project on South Africa. It would commence the next semester. I thought Willie’s writing needed the kind of improvement only intense practice will yield. I knew his intelligence was outstanding. But he’d wholeheartedly opted for “Standard English” at a rather late age, and the results were stilted and frequently polysyllabic, simply for the sake of having more syllables. Willie’s unnatural formality of language seemed to me consistent with the formality of his research into South African apartheid. As he projected his studies, he would have little time, indeed, for newspapers. Instead, more than 90 percent of his research would mean saturation in strictly historical, if not archival, material. I was certainly interested. It would be tricky to guide him into a more confident and spontaneous relationship both with language and apartheid. It was going to be wonderful to see what happened when he could catch up with himself, entirely, and talk back to the world.
September, 1984: Breezy fall weather and much excitement! My class, “The Art of Black English,” was full to the limit of the fire laws. And in Independent Study, Willie Jordan showed up weekly, fifteen minutes early for each of our sessions. I was pretty happy to be teaching, altogether!
I remember an early class when a young brother, replete with his ever-present porkpie hat, raised his hand and then told us that most of what he’d heard was “all right” except it was “too clean.” “The brothers on the street,” he continued, “they mix it up more. Like ‘fuck’ and ‘motherfuck? Or like ‘shit? ” He waited. I waited. Then all of us laughed a good while, and we got into a brawl about “correct” and “realistic” Black English that led to Rule 1.
Rule 1: Black English is about a whole lot more than mothafuckin.
As a criterion, we decided, “realistic” could take you anywhere you want to go. Artful places. Angry places. Eloquent and sweetalkin places. Polemical places. Church. And the local Bar & Grill. We were checking out a language, not a mood or a scene or one guy’s forgettable mouthing off.
It was hard. For most of the students, learning Black English required a fallback to patterns and rhythms of speech that many of their parents had beaten out of them. I mean beaten. And, in a majority of cases, correct Black English could be achieved only by striving for incorrect Standard English, something they were still pushing at, quite uncertainly. This state of affairs led to Rule 2.
Rule 2: If it’s wrong in Standard English it’s probably right in Black English, or, at least, you’re hot.
It was hard. Roommates and family members ridiculed their studies, or remained incredulous, “You studying that shit? At school?” But we were beginning to feel the companionship of pioneers. And we decided that we needed another rule that would establish each one of us as equally important to our success. This was Rule 3.
Rule 3: If it don’t sound like something that come out somebody mouth then it don’t sound right. If it dont sound right then it aint hardly right. Period.
This rule produced two weeks of compositions in which the students agonizingly tried to spell the sound of the Black English sentence they wanted to convey. But Black English is, preeminently, an oral/spoken means of communication. And spelling don’t talk. So we needed Rule 4.
Rule 4: Forget about the spelling. Let the syntax carry you.
Once we arrived at Rule 4 we started to fly, because syntax, the structure of an idea, leads you to the world view of the speaker and reveals her values. The syntax of a sentence equals the structure of your consciousness. If we insisted that the language of Black English adheres to a distinctive Black syntax, then we were postulating a profound difference between White and Black people, per se. Was it a difference to prize or to obliterate?
There are three qualities of Black English – the presence of life, voice, and clarity – that intensify to a distinctive Black value system that we became excited about and self-consciously tried to maintain.
1. Black English has been produced by a pre-technocratic, if not anti-technological, culture. More, 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. Our language devolves from a culture that abhors all abstraction, or anything tending to obscure or delete the fact of the human being who is here and now/the truth of the person who is speaking or listening. Consequently, there is no passive voice construction possible in Black English. For example, you cannot say, “Black English is being eliminated.” You must say, instead, “White people eliminating Black English.” The assumption of the presence of life governs all of Black English. Therefore, overwhelmingly, all action takes place in the language of the present indicative. And every sentence assumes the living and active participation of at least two human beings, the speaker and the listener.
2. A primary consequence of the person-centered values of Black English is the delivery of voice. If you speak or write Black English, your ideas will necessarily possess that otherwise elusive attribute, voice.
3. One main benefit following from the person-centered values of Black English is that of clarity. If your idea, your sentence, assumes the presence of at least two living and active people, you will make it understandable, because the motivation behind every sentence is the wish to say something real to somebody real.
As the weeks piled up, translation from Standard English into Black English or vice versa occupied a hefty part of our course work.
Standard English (hereafter S.E.): “In considering the idea of studying Black English those questioned suggested-2′
(What’s the subject? Where’s the person? Is anybody alive in here, in that idea?)
Black English (hereafter B.E.): “I been asking people what you think about somebody studying Black English and they answer me like this:”
But there were interesting limits. You cannot “translate” instances of Standard English preoccupied with abstraction or with nothing/nobody evidently alive, into Black English. That would warp the language into uses antithetical to the guiding perspective of its community of users. Rather you must first change those Standard English sentences, themselves, into ideas consistent with the person-centered assumptions of Black English.
Guidelines for Black English
- Minimal number of words for every idea: This is the source for the aphoristic and/or poetic force of the language; eliminate every possible word.
- Clarity: If the sentence is not clear it’s not Black English.
- Eliminate use of the verb to be whenever possible. This leads to the deployment of more descriptive and, therefore, more precise verbs.
- Use be or been only when you want to describe a chronic, ongoing state of things.
- He be at the office, by 9. (He is always at the office by 9.)
- He been with her since forever.
- Zero copula: Always eliminate the verb to be whenever it would combine with another verb, in Standard English.
- S.E.: She is going out with him.
- B.E.: She going out with him.
- Eliminate do as in:
- S.E.: What do you think? What do you want?
- B.E.: What you think? What you want?
Rules number 3, 4, 5, and 6 provide for the use of the minimal number of verbs per idea and, therefore, greater accuracy in the choice of verb.
- In general, if you wish to say something really positive, try to formulate the idea using emphatic negative structure.
- S.E.: He’s fabulous.
- B.E.: He bad.
- Use double or triple negatives for dramatic emphasis.
- S.E.: Tina Turner sings out of this world.
- B.E.: Ain nobody sing like Tina.
- Never use the -ed suffix to indicate the past tense of a verb.
- S.E.: She closed the door.
- B.E.: She close the door. Or, she have close the door.
- Regardless of intentional verb time, only use the third person singular, present indicative, for use of the verb to have, as an auxiliary.
- S.E.: He had his wallet then he lost it.
- B.E.: He have him wallet then he lose it.
- S.E.: We had seen that movie.
- B.E.: We seen that movie. Or, we have see that movie.
- Observe a minimal inflection of verbs. Particularly, never change from the first person singular forms to the third person singular.
- S.E.: Present Tense Forms: He goes to the store.
- B.E.: He go to the store.
- S.E.: Past Tense Forms: He went to the store.
- B.E.: He go to the store. Or, he gone to the store. Or, he been to the store.
- The possessive case scarcely ever appears in Black English. Never use an apostrophe (‘s) construction. If you wander into a possessive case component of an idea, then keep logically consistent: ours, his, theirs, mines. But, most likely, if you bump into such a component, you have wandered outside the underlying world view of Black English.
- S.E.: He will take their car tomorrow.
- B.E.: He taking they car tomorrow.
- Plurality: Logical consistency, continued: If the modifier indicates plurality then the noun remains in the singular case.
- S.E.: He ate twelve doughnuts.
- B.E.: He eat twelve doughnut.
- S.E.: She has many books.
- B.E.: She have many book.
- Listen for, or invent, special Black English forms of the past tense, such as: “He losted it. That what she felted.” If they are clear and readily understood, then use them.
- Do not hesitate to play with words, sometimes inventing them: e.g. “astropotomous” means huge like a hippo plus astronomical and, therefore, signifies real big.
- In Black English, unless you keenly want to underscore the past tense nature of an action, stay in the present tense and rely on the overall context of your ideas for the conveyance of time and sequence.
- Never use the suffix -ly form of an adverb in Black English.
- S.E.: The rain came down rather quickly.
- B.E.: The rain come down pretty quick.
- Never use the indefinite article an in Black English.
- S.E.: He wanted to ride an elephant.
- B.E.: He wanted to ride him a elephant.
- Invariant syntax: in correct Black English it is possible to formulate an imperative, an interrogative, and a simple declarative idea with the same syntax:
- You going to the store?
- You going to the store.
- You going to the store!
Where was Willie Jordan? We’d reached the mid-term of the semester. Students had formulated Black English guidelines, by consensus, and they were now writing with remarkable beauty, purpose, and enjoyment:
I ain hardly speakin for everybody but myself so understan that. – Kim Parks
Samples from student writings:
- Janie have a great big ole hole inside her. Tea Cake the only thing that fit that hole….
- That pear tree beautiful to Janie, especial when bees fiddlin with the blossomin pear there growin large and lovely. But personal speakin, the love she get from starin at that tree ain the love what starin back at her in them relationship. (Monica Morris)
- Love a big theme in, They Eye Was Watching God. Love show people new corners inside theyself. It pull out good stuff and stuff back bad stuff . . . Joe worship the doing uh his own hand and need other people to worship him too. But he ain’t think about Janie that she a person and ought to live like anybody common do. Queen life not for Janie. (Monica Morris)
- In both life and writin, Black womens have varietous experience of love that be cold like a iceberg or fiery like a inferno. Passion got for the other partner involve, man or women, seem as shallow, ankle-deep water or the most profoundest abyss. (Constance Evans)
- Family love another bond that ain’t never break under no pressure. (Constance Evans)
- You know it really cold/When the friend you/Always get out the fire/Act like they don’t know you/When you in the heat. (Constance Evans)
- Big classroom discussion bout love at this time. I never take no class where us have any long arguin for and against for two or three day. New to me and great. I find the class time talkin a million time more interestin than detail bout the book. (Kathy Esseks)
As these examples suggest, Black English no longer limited the students, in any way. In fact, one of them, Philip Garfield, would shortly “translate” a pivotal scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, as his final term paper:
Nora: I didn’t gived no shit. I thinked you a asshole back then, too, you make it so hard for me save mines husband life.
Krogstad: Girl, it clear you ain’t any idea what you done. You done exact what I once done, and I losed my reputation over it.
Nora: You asks me believe you once act brave save you wife life? Krogstad: Law care less why you done it.
Nora: Law must suck.
Krogstad: Suck or no, if I wants, judge screw you wid dis paper. Nora: No way, man. (Philip Garfield)
But where was Willie? Compulsively punctual, and always thoroughly prepared with neat typed compositions, he had disappeared. He failed to show up for our regularly scheduled conference, and I received neither a note nor a phone call of explanation. A whole week went by. I wondered if Willie had finally been captured by the extremely current happenings in South Africa: passage of a new constitution that did not enfranchise the Black majority, and militant Black South African reaction to that affront. I wondered if he’d been hurt, somewhere. I wondered if the serious workload of weekly readings and writings had overwhelmed him and changed his mind about independent study. Where was Willie Jordan?
One week after the first conference that Willie missed, he called: “Hello, Professor Jordan? This is Willie. I’m sorry I wasn’t there last week. But something has come up and I’m pretty upset. I’m sorry but I really can’t deal right now.”
I asked Willie to drop by my office and just let me see that he was okay. He agreed to do that. When I saw him I knew something hideous had happened. Something had hurt him and scared him to the marrow. He was all agitated and stammering and terse and incoherent. At last, his sadly jumbled account let me surmise, as follows: Brooklyn police had murdered his unarmed, twenty-five-year- old brother, Reggie Jordan. Neither Willie nor his elderly parents knew what to do about it. Nobody from the press was interested. His folks had no money. Police ran his family around and around, to no point. And Reggie was really dead. And Willie wanted to fight, but he felt helpless.
With Willie’s permission I began to try to secure legal counsel for the Jordan family. Unfortunately, Black victims of police violence are truly numerous, while the resources available to prosecute their killers are truly scarce. A friend of mine at the Center for Constitutional Rights estimated that just the preparatory costs for bringing the cops into court normally approaches $180,000. Unless the execution of Reggie Jordan became a major community cause for organizing and protest, his murder would simply become a statistical item.
Again, with Willie’s permission, I contacted every newspaper and media person I could think of. But the Bastone feature article in The Village Voice was the only result from that canvassing.
Again, with Willie’s permission, I presented the case to my class in Black English. We had talked about the politics of language. We had talked about love and sex and child abuse and men and women. But the murder of Reggie Jordan broke like a hurricane across the room.
There are few “issues” as endemic to Black life as police violence. Most of the students knew and respected and liked Jordan. Many of them came from the very neighborhood where the murder had occurred. All of the students had known somebody close to them who had been killed by police, or had known frightening moments of gratuitous confrontation with the cops. They wanted to do everything at once to avenge death. Number One: They decided to compose a personal statement of condolence to Willie Jordan and his family, written in Black English. Number Two: They decided to compose individual messages to the police, in Black English. These should be prefaced by an explanatory paragraph composed by the entire group. Number Three: These individual messages, with their lead paragraph, should be sent to Newsday.
The morning after we agreed on these objectives, one of the young women students appeared with an unidentified visitor, who sat through the class, smiling in a peculiar, comfortable way.
Now we had to make more tactical decisions. Because we wanted the messages published, and because we thought it imperative that our outrage be known by the police, the tactical question was this: Should the opening, group paragraph be written in Black English or Standard English?
I have seldom been privy to a discussion with so much heart at the dead heat of it. I will never forget the eloquence, the sudden haltings of speech, the fierce struggle against tears, the furious throwaway, and useless explosions that this question elicited.
That one question contained several others, each of them extraordinarily painful to even contemplate. How best to serve the memory of Reggie Jordan? Should we use the language of the killer- Standard English- in order to make our ideas acceptable to those controlling the killers? But wouldn’t what we had to say be rejected, summarily, if we said it in our own language, the language of the victim, Reggie Jordan? But if we sought to express ourselves by abandoning our language wouldn’t that mean our suicide on top of Reggie’s murder? But if we expressed ourselves in our own language wouldn’t that be suicidal to the wish to communicate with those who, evidently, did not give a damn about us/Reggie/police violence in the Black community?
At the end of one of the longest, most difficult hours of my own life, the students voted, unanimously, to preface their individual messages with a paragraph composed in the language of Reggie Jordan. “At least we don’t give up nothing else. At least we stick to the truth: Be who we been. And stay all the way with Reggie.”
It was heartbreaking to proceed, from that point. Everyone in the room realized that our decision in favor of Black English had doomed our writings, even as the distinctive reality of our Black lives always has doomed our efforts to “be who we been” in this country. _
I went to the blackboard and took down this paragraph dictated by the class:
WE THE BROTHER AND SISTER OF WILLIE JORDAN, A FELLOW STONY BROOK STUDENT WHO THE BROTHER OF THE DEAD REGGIE JORDAN. REGGIE, LIKE MANY BROTHER AND SISTER, HE A VICTIM OF BRUTAL RACIST POLICE, OCTOBER 25, 1984. US APPALL, FED UP, BECAUSE THAT ANOTHER SENSELESS DEATH WHAT OCCUR IN OUR COMMUNITY. THIS WHAT WE FEEL, THIS, FROM OUR HEART, FOR WE AIN’T STAYIN’ SILENT NO MORE:
With the completion of this introduction, nobody said anything. I asked for comments. At this invitation, the unidentified visitor, a young Black man, ceaselessly smiling, raised his hand. He was, it so happens, a rookie cop. He had just joined the force in September and, he said, he thought he should clarify a few things. So he came forward and sprawled easily into a posture of barroom, or fireside, nostalgia:
“See; Officer Charles enlightened us, “Most times when you out on the street and something come down you do one of two things. Over-react or under-react. Now, if you under-react then you can get yourself kilt. And if you over-react then maybe you kill somebody. Fortunately it’s about nine times out of ten and you will over-react. So the brother got kilt. And I’m sorry about that, believe me. But what you have to understand is what kilt him: Over-reaction. That’s all. Now you talk about Black people and White police but see, now, I’m a cop myself. And (big smile) I’m Black. And just a couple months ago I was on the other side. But it’s the same for me. You a cop, you the ultimate authority: the Ultimate Authority. And you on the street, most of the time you can only do one of two things: over-react or under-react. That’s all it is with the brother. Over-reaction. Didn’t have nothing to do with race.”
That morning Officer Charles had the good fortune to escape without being boiled alive. But barely. And I remember the pride of his smile when I read about the fate of Black policemen and other collaborators, in South Africa. I remember him, and I remember the shock and palpable feeling of shame that filled the room. It was as though that foolish, and deadly, young man had just relieved himself of his foolish, and deadly, explanation, face to face with the grief of Reggie Jordan’s father and Reggie Jordan’s mother. Class ended quietly. I copied the paragraph from the blackboard, collected the individual messages and left to type them up.
Newsday rejected the piece.
The Village Voice could not find room in their “Letters” section to print the individual messages from the students to the police.
None of the TV news reporters picked up the story.
Nobody raised $180,000 to prosecute the murder of Reggie Jordan.
Reggie Jordan is really dead.
I asked Willie Jordan to write an essay pulling together everything important to him from that semester. He was still deeply beside himself with frustration and amazement and loss. This is what he wrote, un-edited, and in its entirety:
“Throughout the course of this semester I have been researching the effects of oppression and exploitation along racial lines in South America and its neighboring countries. I have become aware of South African police brutalization of native Africans beyond the extent of the law, even though the laws themselves are catalyst affliction upon Black men, women and children. Many Africans die each year as a result of the deliberate use of police force to protect the white power structure.
Social control agents in South Africa, such as policemen, are also used to force compliance among citizens through both overt and covert tactics. It is not uncommon to find bold-faced coercion and cold-blooded killings of Blacks by South African police for undetermined and/or inadequate reasons. Perhaps the truth is that the only reasons for this heinous treatment of Blacks rests in racial differences. We should also understand that what is conveyed through the media is not always accurate and may sometimes be construed as the tip of the iceberg at best.
I recently received a painful reminder that racism, poverty, and the abuse of power are global problems which are by no means unique to South Africa. On October 25, 1984 at approximately 3:00 p.m. my brother, Mr. Reginald Jordan, was shot and killed by two New York City policemen from the 75th precinct in the East New York section of Brooklyn. His life ended at the age of twenty-five. Even up to this current point in time the Police Department has failed to provide my family, which consists of five brothers, eight sisters, and two parents, with a plausible reason for Reggie’s death. Out of the many stories that were given to my family by the Police Department, not one of them seems to hold water. In fact, I honestly believe that the Police Department’s assessment of my brother’s murder is nothing short of ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT, and thus far no evidence had been produced to alter perception of the situation.
Furthermore, I believe that one of three cases may have occurred in this incident. First, Reggie’s death may have been the desired outcome of the police officer’s action, in which case the killing was premeditated. Or, it was a case of mistaken identity, which clarifies the fact that the two officers who killed my brother and their commanding parties are all grossly incompetent. Or, both of the above cases are correct, i.e., Reggie’s murderers intended to kill him and the Police Department behaved insubordinately.
Part of the argument of the officers who shot Reggie was that he had attacked one of them and took his gun. This was their major claim. They also said that only one of them had actually shot Reggie. The facts, however, speak for themselves. According to the Death Certificate and autopsy report, Reggie was shot eight times from point-blank range. The Doctor who performed the autopsy told me himself that two bullets entered the side of my brother’s head, four bullets were
sprayed into his back, and two bullets struck him in the back of his legs. It is obvious that unnecessary force was used by the police and that it is extremely difficult to shoot someone in his back when he is attacking or approaching you.
After experiencing a situation like this and researching South Africa I believe that to a large degree, justice may only exist as rhetoric. I find it difficult to talk of true justice when the oppression of my people both at home and abroad attests to the fact that inequality and injustice are serious problems whereby Blacks and Third World people are perpetually short-changed by society. Something has to be done about the way in which this world is set up. Although it is a difficult task, we do have the power to make a change.”.
-Willie J. Jordan Jr.
EGL 487, Section 58, November 14, 1984
It is my privilege to dedicate this book to the future life of Willie J. Jordan Jr. August 8, 1985
1 – Black English aphorisms crafted by Monica Morris, a junior at S.U.N.Y., Stony Brook, October, 1984.
2 – English Is Spreading, But What Is English. A presentation by Professor S. N. Sridhar, Department of Linguistics, S.U.N.Y., Stony Brook, April 9, 1985: Dean’s Convocation Among the Disciplines.
3 – English Is Spreading.
4 –New York Times, March 15, 1985, Section One, p. 14: Report on Study by Linguists at the University of Pennsylvania
5 -Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 11.
Originally published in On Call: Political Essays by June Jordan (Boston: South End Press, 1985). Copyright © by June Jordan. All rights reserved.