In response to these indignities, he used his physical presence — his formidable height, his confident bearing, his politicized skin tone and his pitch-perfect style — to rise above those who would insult his humanity.
Jordan — who died at his home Monday at 85 — was a civil rights activist, an NAACP supporter and a Washington insider. He worked on voter registration at the grass-roots level, and he agitated for diversity within corporate America. He was part of the Establishment at a time when that was an accomplishment rather than a character flaw. He was considered a credit to his race back when such an assessment was met with accolades rather than allusions to respectability politics.
Jordan was a power broker who sealed his deals with charisma and charm, who held secrets close and held the so-called race card even closer, not because it was the ace up his sleeve but because it was a badge of honor.
So much of what gave Jordan stature and influence both with presidents and everyday folks is among the tools and characteristics that today have become suspect. Certainly, circumstances have changed and some of the scandals and ethical lapses that this former Washington fixer might once have been called in to repair have been deemed not worth the effort or simply beyond mending.
Over the years, it was impossible to miss Jordan in a crowd. Often that was because he was the only Black person in it. But he was noticeably well-dressed. His suits were attentively tailored and he had a love for Turnbull & Asser shirts, Charvet ties and fedoras. His style was full of European élan, Adam Clayton Powell flair, Wall Street pinstripes and Sunday morning going-to-church polish. His aesthetic drew upon the collage of influences that make this country exceptional but that connect us on common ground. Years ago, after writing about his style — a story for which he did not return my messages — Jordan called to express his gratitude after it was published.
When I moved to New York for a new job, he called to congratulate me and we had breakfast. He talked about the racism he faced as a young man when he tried to find an apartment in the city. He told these stories even as he was regularly interrupted by a stream of the city’s powerful men, who all stopped at his table to seek his favor. He was patiently gracious to them and he wrote a letter of reference for me when I found my first New York apartment.
Jordan was from a generation that knew a kind of psychic pain that would probably crush their children and grandchildren today. He comported himself with intention when he was at the helm of the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund, and when he walked among the masters of the universe at Akin, Gump and Lazard Frères. To some degree, he performed when he was on these public stages. But his was often a calculated, internal dialogue. He wasn’t playing to the crowds.
In public, as an eminence grise, Jordan used charm to batter down doors. His style reflected the words of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
That attitude is a kind of armor, underscoring the wonders of one’s character, intellect and wit and looking with pity on those who fail to recognize all that they are missing. The victim in the American story of segregation and racism and prejudices is the country itself. How much excellence has been wasted? How much continues to be left to fade away?
There was a calm and certainty in the way Jordan moved through his world. So much of today’s common vernacular, when talking about personal achievement or personal pain, has undertones of battle, of an exhausting, nonstop, urgent fight. Challenges are slayed. Insensitive and unpleasant conversations are triggering. The gray area has become a place of toxicity and complicity because many Black and Brown people are at their wit’s end and no longer have the time or patience for nuance and modulation — two things that seemed to be among Jordan’s greatest gifts.
As a college student, he worked as a chauffeur and his employer regularly used the n-word. This elderly White man, after discovering that Jordan spent down time reading in his library, announced with condescending dismay to his family that “Vernon can read!” The phrase later became the title of Jordan’s memoir.
“When I have told this story to younger people, they often ask why I was not more angry at Maddox. How could I have continued working for him under those circumstances?” Jordan writes. “Each of us has to decide for ourselves how much nonsense we can take in life, and from whom we are willing to take it.” In other words, this small, old man didn’t matter. He was not someone to slay. Instead of fanning his racism with outrage, Jordan doused it with pity.
This man from the South was in the thick of the fight for racial justice, but he knew that some battles were best won by simply ignoring the protagonist. They weren’t worth the time. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is simply stand down.
In the halls of power, he was an unelected presence — one who was not bound by term limits — but he had an enormous constituency. He was a man of substance who used style as both an introduction and a post script. And, upon occasion, the entirety of the message.
In sum, Jordan’s enduring legacy was that he made being a Black man in America look effortless — and wondrously enviable.