Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey y'all, it's Melissa Harris-Perry here on The Takeaway, and we're revisiting a very special Black, Queer, Rising. conversation. Listen up and enjoy.
Black, Queer, Rising. Here at The Takeaway, we marked this past February with a reminder that queer history is Black history. The organizing genius of Bayard Rustin, the unflinching critique of James Baldwin, the plays of Lorraine Hansbury, poetry of Audre Lord, and the choreography of Alvin Ailey. The courage of Marsha P. Johnson and the strategy of Barbara Jordan. Black. Queer. Rising.
In politics, activism, science, sport, and culture, Black queer changemakers are challenging injustice, breaking through barriers, and forging new pathways. Let's discuss one of these changemakers, Andrea Jenkins.
Back in 2017, she became the first Black openly transgender woman elected to public office in the US, and this year, she once again made history when she became city council president in Minneapolis. Jenkins has been blazing trails for decades as a poet, writer, activist, artist, and above all, a humanitarian and beacon of light within the Black transgender community. I sat down with Jenkins and asked her how growing up in Chicago informed the activist she is today in Minneapolis.
Andrea Jenkins: It totally informs who I am today. I grew up around the corner where Fred Hampton was shot. I've worked on Harold Washington's campaign. One of my early mentors in high school was a poet named Hackey Malaguti, who is an institution builder in Chicago. North Lawndale is straight hood, Melissa. There's no other way to describe it. It is all of the challenges that we know inner-city communities face all over the country are present in North Lawndale. The liquor store, the church down the street from the jail. Also there's this rich, strong resistance in Chicago, this Black nationalist spirit, this political spirit that I think has shaped who I am today.
It's interesting, I think about Barack Obama, and we are the exact same age, but I left Chicago when he came to Chicago. I left to come to go to college here. I see some similarities in how Chicago has impacted him and has impacted me. I've always been willing to stand up for justice and to organize communities for righteousness. Chicago in that experience had a really, really significant impact on me. I'll share just a little bit more about that. My grandparents lived in a community called Chatham on the south side of Chicago.
Melissa: Yes. Chatham.
Andrea Jenkins: I was at my grandmother's house every weekend. That's how we grew up. Chatham is where you had middle-class, homeowner class families. All the professional Black athletes lived in the community, businessmen. I experienced all of Chicago from the deep poverty to the striving middle-class Black Chicago, and that has deeply informed my life.
Melissa: When you talk about Chatham, that's aspirational Black middle-class community in such a crucial way, just literally holds such a position within the whole history of the migration and everything else.
Andrea Jenkins: It really does. I literally cried when I read The Warmth of Other Sons because it's my story. It's the story of my family that came from the deep South, Alabama, and we started on the west side and then migrated to the south side. It's a truly American story, Black American story.
Melissa: You talk about institution building, but I will say the first time that you and I sat down for a conversation, I was like,"Andrea Jenkins is an institution."
Andrea Jenkins: Oh wow.
Melissa: Perhaps you are building. We were together in a group of all Black trans women, you all had been doing work together over the course of I think an entire year, right?
Andrea Jenkins: An entire year, yes.
Melissa: I just was so honored to come and have a conversation with you with that sense of, "Oh no, I don't think y'all understand this right here is Andrea Jenkins." Talk to me a bit about institution building and being institution in not only community that is Black west side, Black South Side Chicago, and now we'll get to Minneapolis. These were some young women, some in their twenties who were living in the US south or in very other kinds of places, but were nonetheless looking to an experience what you had trailblazed as a Black trans woman. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that institution building as well.
Andrea Jenkins: Sure. That was a leadership development program sponsored by Auburn Seminary, and it's called the Sojourner Truth Leadership Development Program. It was a cohort of 12 Black trans women, as you mentioned, from all over the United States. A large proportion of the women were from the south. I'm just so deeply proud of that experience because so many of the women have gone on to literally build institutions. The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, is what it's called, was developed out of that. Raquel Willis is becoming a Melissa Harris-Perry in the making, a journalist.
Melissa: She is her own force of nature. [laughs]
Andrea Jenkins: Truly she is. I think that experience helped to pull these young women out of that victimhood status that a lot of trans and gender nonconforming people find themselves in and really say, "How do we build ourselves for the future?"
Melissa: We'll be right back with more of my discussion with Andrea Jenkins right after this quick break.
Andrea Jenkins: Black pearl, Black girl hiding behind the body. I'm a little boy. You knew you were different from the start. Deep in your heart, you would always stand apart from those who were normal.
Melissa: That was Andrea Jenkins with her poem Black Pearl from her book, The T Is Not Silent. Andrea, the first openly transgender city council president in Minneapolis history, was the first change agent we spoke to for our series, Black, Queer, Rising. I asked Andrea what it means to be an elected representative and how she made the decision to run for public office.
Andrea Jenkins: I do want to just acknowledge the tremendous feeling of voting for oneself. It's unlike anything you can imagine, Melissa. My mother lives two blocks from me, and so I got to take my mother to the polls, and we both voted for me. That was just--
Melissa: Are you sure she voted for you?
Andrea Jenkins: Well, I think she did. [laughs] She said she did. She says she is really proud of me, so I think she did.
Melissa: You know mamas, sometimes they can be hard.
Andrea Jenkins: Sometimes they can be harsh, but I will say this last election I got 86% of all the people who showed up to vote, voted for me. I think my mom did. I don't think she was in that 14%. I came to run for office honestly, for a long time, because of the things that you mentioned. The arrows, the bullets, the stones and rocks that you have to endure in public life had really kept me from thinking that I would ever run for public office. In 2016, my council member that was representing the area and a good friend of mine and actually was my former boss decided that she was no longer gonna run.
After three terms she was going to do something else. It was an open seat, which rarely happens in politics. Then this orange nightmare got elected. You know, Melissa, the first essay I wrote after the election was Our democracy is in Perilous Trouble. Now everybody is saying it but literally that November I wrote an essay and it got published, and so when when that election happened I said to myself, "If we are going to go to hell in a burning bus I want to be driving it." That was the impetus. Plus Minneapolis, as a city, is almost a tale of two cities. There is this tremendous amount of wealth and just quality of life for our white Minneapolitans, some of the highest incomes in the country.
Home ownership is over 80% in Minneapolis but the exact opposite is true for Black Americans in this city. Equity was one of the main reasons that I wanted to try and create some level of change, create some institutional changes. We are working on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Minneapolis. We declared racism as a public health crisis to create the environment for us to begin to address and undo racism in our city and in our city structure. Part of that comes from my growing up in Chicago, like in the '60s and '70s Haki Madhubuti who was one of the founders of the Black Arts movement. The message was Black people have a responsibility to stand up and fight for justice.
I always remember the statement, "To whom much is given, much is expected, much is required." That has been my motto. I had the good fortune to go to college, to get a college education and to be in these spaces where decisions and power was being granted and made about our communities. Even with all the vitriol and hatred that comes with being in public office, it is an honorable job. It's an honorable way to try to help build our communities. As a Black trans woman who also is a sex educator, I am the very person that these people are trying to ban all over the country.
Melissa: Well call it the the Andrea Jenkins ban on don't be that.
Andrea Jenkins: Exactly. I wanted to just stand up and say, "Hey this is the antithesis of that."
Melissa: My very last question for you is this. When you hear Black, Queer, Rising, those three words together or separate, what does it mean to you? What does that evoke for you?
Andrea Jenkins: Black, Queer, Rising evokes Andrea Jenkins is the Minneapolis City Council President. I don't say that conceitedly, or facetiously. Black, Queer, Rising is what brought me to this place today. Black, Queer, Rising was the impetus for Stonewall Revolution. Black, Queer, Rising was the initiation of the Black Lives Matters movement. Black, Queer, Rising was in the leadership and the forefront of the protest marches against George Floyd. When Dave Chappelle tried to write off Black trans women, I don't know if he recognized the contributions that Black trans women have made to the equality, the equity, the racial injustices that he speaks about in his act.
The equivalent of saying I'm Team Turf is like saying, "I'm team KKK." Black, Queer, Rising, it just makes me feel amazing. Black, Queer, Rising. Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan, the list can go on and on and on, Melissa. Black, Queer, Rising is Black history, is American history, and we are going to keep rising.
Melissa: Andrea Jenkins is the City Council president of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thank you for joining The Takeaway.
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