Brett Cook: Choosing Power through June Jordan

“Is it possible to imagine that power might be defined by presence of mind; that the more one is no longer controlled by compulsions, addictions, patterns, habits, the more power one has to act in service of wisdom and compassion? What if we said that power is internal freedom, that power is the capacity for choice?”

–  Just Power, Helen Tworkov

Poet, activist, teacher and essayist June Jordan passed away on June 14, 2002.  As selections of her writing appeared in emails from friends, I began to recognize her legacy and inspiration. The might of June Jordan’s poetry moved me to find other prose, interviews, and speeches that I had overlooked.  Discovering the life of June Jordan left me staggered by both the eloquence of her articulations and the embarrassment of my own ignorance to this example of humanity.

Energized, I sent a mass email inviting folks to send me materials related to June Jordan.  From the many submissions, I compiled a notebook with samples of her writing and materials related to June Jordan’s legacy – from statistics of breast cancer deaths in the US to Ntozake Shange’s poem ego (for June Jordan).  I installed a copy of the notebook as part of a striking devotional monument in Harlem, the place of June Jordan’s birth. The notebook of submissions and documentary photographs from the original installation in Harlem were subsequently exhibited at memorials and exhibitions across the United States.  

My first perception of June Jordan’s power was her outward force, the fierceness of a bisexual of color yelling back at imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.  Like the legions of young spoken word poets who have launched from her legacy, her voice demanded to be heard.  As an agitator making a gesture without permission, funding, or institutional support – my project aimed to follow in her footsteps, a black lives matter protest before #blacklivesmatter

June Jordan Collaborative Community Project  127th Street and St. Nicholas/8th Avenue, Harlem, NYC July 2002

June Jordan Collaborative Community Project
127th Street and St. Nicholas/8th Avenue, Harlem, NYC July 2002

Through the experience of making the work, and since its birthing, my perception of June Jordan’s quote has transformed and broadened.  Power persists through June Jordan’s “simple and daily and nightly self-determination.” This internal action of awareness shrivels discrimination and intolerance with mindful resistance.

“With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on in our bodies, our feelings, our minds and the world, and we avoid doing harm to ourselves and others. Mindfulness protects us, our families and our society. When we are mindful, we can see that by refraining from doing one thing, we can prevent another thing from happening.” 

– The Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thich Nhat Hanh

By being mindful we can prevent ourselves from losing that one sock in the laundry, or resisting imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but whatever we are doing it is done with purpose, aware of consequences and that we determine our own present moment. June Jordan reminds me of power in the capacity for choice.

About the contributor: Brett Cook is an artist and educator who uses his creative practice to transform outer and inner worlds of being. For over two decades, Cook has produced installations, exhibitions, curricula, and events widely across the United States, and internationally. His museum work features drawing, painting, photography, and elaborate installations that make intimately personal experiences universally accessible. His public projects typically involve community workshops and collaborative art, along with music, performance, and food to create a more fluid boundary between art making, daily life, and healing. Teaching and public speaking are extensions of his social practice that involve communities in dialogue to generate experiences of reflection and insight.