Today, and increasingly these days, I find myself turning to June Jordan, Jamaican, American, feminist, essayist, activist. I read and re-read her, but today I turn to Jordan’s poem written for and dedicated to (activist) South African women, first read in 1978, first published in 1980.
“we are the ones we have been waiting for” is the final line of this poem. African American women working in other artistic genres returned to Jordan’s words: Sweet Honey in the Rock turned the phrase into a song. Alice Walker wrote a book with that title. An on and on, with the attribution eventually disappearing (yes! appropriation).
In my country I hear it used against the very people Jordan wrote it for, by some who claim revolutionary Black political stance but act hatefully and violently against women and gender non-conforming people. Black radical, feminist, bisexual Jordan must be turning in her grave.
The poem is hopeful and I think we need to see this vision of ourselves, and the women we come from, more urgently now than ever, as South African women. We can be the change. As a South African woman and as a feminist at that, I think we are up against some tough times. The backlash is more virulent than ever and we urgently need new tools – and re-energising – to deal with the insane percentages of femicide, battery, sexual harrassment, rape and other sexual assault. I think the increasingly brazen, theatrical and spectacular expression of violence against women in South African society is directly linked to how many legal and occupational gains South African women have made. The backlash is only as strong as the feminist successes it seeks to obliterate.
Yet, in the last few months, as I speak to various people engaged in feminist work across the spectrum of South African society, I hear despair and frustration. The SA feminist movement will not collapse, but I know that we need to urgently re-craft our tools. I often feel these days that I am being metaphorically bludgeoned with a phallus on my head, to paraphrase feminist poet genius Lebogang Mashile.
Here it is, from her collection Passion, published by Beacon Press in 1980, June Jordan’s
Poem for South African Women
Commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who,
August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against
the “dompass” in the capital of apartheid. Presented at The
United Nations, August 9, 1978.
Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world
The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire
And the babies cease alarm as mothers
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea
we are the ones we have been waiting for
It’s Black History Month in Jordan’s country this month, so we have a fitting set of confluences.