Sriram Shamasundar (left) with June Jordan (right). Photo courtesy Sriram Shamasunder.
I remember being a kid with shaky confidence. I entered the University of California, Berkeley, as a freshman, a child of Indian immigrants, keeping my head down and taking primarily science classes. To fill a humanities requirement, I meandered into a class called Poetry for the People, a course taught and conceived by June Jordan, the great poet and activist.
Even though I fulfilled the requirement in just one semester, I stayed in the class for two years, not so much because I thought I was a poet, but because June—as I later came to call her—made me feel that even a young person like me might have something to say.
June was both tender and fierce. At first, she was mostly someone I admired at a distance in the classroom. This changed during my last few weeks at UC Berkeley, when we studied Arab and Arab American poetry. A disagreement between Jewish students defending Zionism and those supporting Palestinian liberation grew from a murmur to a rumble over the course of the semester. In one of our last classes, a teaching assistant publicly accused June—in front of a class of 250 to 300—of failing to stand up on behalf of Palestinian people. She didn’t show up for class the following week.
The weekend after, I went over to her house in North Berkeley. She was surprised to see me, but she let me in. The morning sun lit up the kitchen and made specks of dust visible. We all knew she had breast cancer, but we didn’t know the extent of her struggle. About 20 bottles of medications were laid out on the kitchen counter—to treat cancer and fight nausea and pain.
We sat at her kitchen table. I tried to find the words to encourage her to come back to class. I stumbled as I tried to convey that the whole class knew of her commitment to the Palestinian struggle. June remained unmoved. She was worn down. The endless stream of medical appointments and chemotherapy and array of medications on her countertop had made her reflect more on questions of her legacy and impact.
She began to talk. She said her entire career had been brought to a halt in 1982 by the political stance she took in The Village Voice when she wrote a poem titled “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon” about the Israeli military’s massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila. That same year, she wrote the poem “Moving towards Home” with those iconic words that pushed so many of us to extend ourselves beyond our demographic to make common cause with the most vulnerable, the most persecuted peoples:
I was born a Black woman and now
I am become a Palestinian
June paid significantly for taking a pro-Palestinian stand. In some ways, she received the kind of backlash that congressional representative Ilhan Omar (a Democrat from Minnesota) gets when she stands up for Palestinians, except June didn’t have a social media platform to fight back as Omar does today. And so, she was effectively ostracized. She told me her bibliography shows a gap between the mid-’80s and mid-’90s and revealed that publishers refused to work with her. This may in part be the reason she is not as widely read as her contemporaries like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
That afternoon in her sunlit kitchen, I listened to her. June was 65, and tired and sick. I was 23. She had already paid a huge price for her solidarity with the people of Palestine. Her willingness to risk status for solidarity had been questioned by her student, a woman from a younger generation, who seemed to be unaware of her personal sacrifice. All of it was hard to stomach.
That afternoon, as June stood up and moved about her house, cleaning up and doing chores, we continued to talk. When I played with her beautiful black puppy, he climbed on me and left muddy paw prints all over my white kurta.
I had a T-shirt on underneath, so she insisted on keeping the kurta so she could clean it and bring it back to me at our next class. I was hopeful she would return to our class.
The next week, she returned to class with a new poem and my kurta. She read the poem to the class, “It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean.” The poem’s central metaphor grappled with committing to certain values and visions when, inevitably, the original ideal is sullied by the messiness of life. To be in the world rather than an observer of it required a pact with the not-perfect—the profound wedded to the practical. Even when we clean ourselves off, none of us is the same as we were, or can claim purity.
Soon after Jordan wrote that poem, I moved to New York for medical school. My first years in medical school—2001 and 2002—were the last years of her life. We ended up speaking on the phone a couple of times a week across coasts. June navigated the world of oncologists, chemotherapy, and MRI scans as I started slowly wading into that same world, but as a student of medicine rather than a patient. It was bewildering to both of us. During our conversations, she recounted her life. I asked questions, and she expanded, seemingly grateful to reflect on her experiences.
She recalled sitting next to Malcolm X in Harlem as a young woman, and described how he schooled her on how best to convey a message. When he finished answering a reporter’s questions, he would turn to June and quiz her on what was asked and when, and how he had responded to guide the conversation down a path that best served his message.
She spoke about her friendship with Fannie Lou Hamer, the great civil rights leader who put her body on the line to register Black folks to vote throughout the South. June at the time had a deep aversion to all white people—a hatred, even. Hamer apparently said to Jordan, “Ain’t no way, no how you can hate anyone and hope to see the face of God.” That shifted her. She realized it was that bedrock belief that enabled Hamer to face vicious threats and murderous hate and respond with love—first and foremost for her own salvation.
June recounted her experience with the acclaimed writer Ralph Ellison when she was in her 20s. Ellison had become disenchanted with the power of words to change anyone’s life and publicly taunted a group of luminary poets, including T.S. Eliot, that their life of words did not make one iota of difference against the violence of the mid-20th century. When June was in her 20s, she didn’t have the words to say directly to Ellison that the reason she wrote was for the victims to redeem possibility in their lives rather than for the perpetrators of violence or oppression. She came to that clarity later in her life. Some years later, I found that she had described the experience in her book of essays, Technical Difficulties.
Each conversation with her unveiled a different time of her life, and the arc of purpose and love that lives at the center of a life worth living. I was struck by the quality of her listening and her capacity to be loving or indignant or vulnerable.
As June got sicker, our conversations became less frequent until she passed as I entered my second year of medical school. Now, when I reflect on what she showed me in that year of conversations, I realize it was the revealing of a committed life, as well as the passing of a torch. She did the same for many of her other students.
We look to our elders to demonstrate another way of being in this broken world, another way of extending our circle of commitment to the person in front of us, or to a group of people, like she did with Palestinian people. June taught us it is important to practice self-love, and to show commitment to your community as well as to extend that care to those struggling for justice around the world. We don’t need to choose between caring for ourselves and caring for the world. There is no dichotomy or inconsistency in this orientation to the world. And and both. Jordan gave us that.
Today, over 15 years after I graduated medical school, I run HEAL, an organization I founded that trains and transforms frontline health workers from nine countries around the world, including Indigenous communities in the United States. We worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic of 2014, and in Navajo Nation for eight years, including through COVID-19 surges. Mostly, we work on the non-glamorous task of building the capacity of local health professionals to serve their communities. I see this as a form of international solidarity, inspired by the example of June’s life.
From time to time, I get asked why we work internationally when there is so much need in the U.S. There is no “the United States or abroad,” I answer. We do both. June taught me that.
Those quiet conversations with June so many years ago have very much shaped my own life. I had a daughter seven years ago whose middle name is June, a nontraditional name for an Indian girl. The name reminds me consistently to live life with enough personal risk to grow the circle of who I might stand up for, and to bring the next generation (and the next) into that commitment.
This article is syndicated from YES! magazine. YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, we outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world. Sriram Shamasunder graduated from University of California, Berkeley and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Harbor UCLA Medical Center. He obtained his Diploma in Tropical Medicine & Hygiene in 2013. Throughout the last decade he has spent several months out of every year in underserved settings around the world including South Los Angeles, rural Liberia, Haiti, Burundi, and rural India. Sri is an Associate Professor of Medicine at UCSF, and co-founder and faculty director of the HEAL Initiative, a health workforce strengthening fellowship working in Navajo Nation and 9 countries around the world. HEAL currently has over 160 fellows, over the last five years, half of whom are Native American and from low and middle income countries(LMIC). He was awarded the Young Physician of the Year in 2010, by the Northern California Chapter of the American College of Physicians. In 2016, he gave a Berkeley Ted X talk entitled "Whose Suffering Matters Less, and Why"?
On Feb 15, 2023 LorraineWatts wrote:
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