Melissa Harris-Perry: Black.Queer.Rising. Here at The Takeaway, we're marking 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 Hansberry, the poetry of Audre Lorde 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 change makers are challenging injustice, breaking through barriers, and forging new pathways. All month long on The Takeaway, we're going to be bringing you these stories rooted in Black queer history and forging Black queer futures.
Our first changemaker is Andrea Jenkins. In 2017, she became the first Black openly trans woman elected to public office in the US. This year, she once again made history when became city council president in Minneapolis. Andrea Jenkins has been blazing trails for decades as a poet, writer, activist, artist, and above all, a humanitarian and a beacon of light within the Black transgender community. I sat down with Andrea and I asked her how growing up in Chicago informed the activist and the public officials she is today in Minneapolis.
Andrea Jenkins: It totally informs who I am today. I grew up around the corner from where Fred Hampton was shot. I worked on Harold Washington's campaign. One of my early mentors in high school was a poet named Haki Madhubuti, who is an institution-builder in Chicago. I grew up in-- 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, 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 this exact same age, but I left Chicago when he came to Chicago.
I left to go to college here and 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 and 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 Harris-Perry: Yes, Chatham. Yes.
Andrea Jenkins: I was at my grandmother's house every weekend. That's how we grew up, and so 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. Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. When you talk about Chatham, that is like 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 TheWarmth of Other Suns because it's my story. It's the story of my family that came from the deep south Alabama. We started on the west side and then migrated to the south side. It's truly an American story, Black American story.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You talk about institution building, but I will say the first time that you and I sat down for a conversation, I was like, "Oh, Andrea Jenkins is an institution." I mean--
Andrea Jenkins: Oh, wow.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Perhaps you are a building but 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 Harris-Perry: Yes. I just was so honored to come and have a conversation with you with that sense of like, "Oh, no. I don't think y'all understand this right here is Andrea Jenkins." Talk to me a bit about that, about institution building and being institution. In not only community that is the Black west side, Black south side Chicago, and now we'll get to Minneapolis, but also what you meant to-- I mean, these were some young women, some in their 20s who were living in the US South, or in very other kinds of places but were nonetheless looking to an experience 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. It's called the Sojourner Truth Leadership Development Program, and it was a cohort of like 12 Black trans women, as you mentioned, from all over the United States, but 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. [00:06:37] Rokill Willis is becoming a Melissa Harris-Perry in the making, a journalist.
Melissa Harris-Perry: No. She is her own force of nature.
Andrea Jenkins: Yes, yes. Truly she is. I think that experience help 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, "Okay, how do we build ourselves for the future?"
"Black Pearl, Black girl hiding behind the body of 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 Harris-Perry: That was Andrea Jenkins with her poem, 'Black Pearl' from her book, The T is Not Silent. I asked Andrea what it means to be an elective representative and how she made the decision to run for public office in the first place.
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--
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are you sure she voted for you?
Andrea Jenkins: Well, I think she did. She says she did and she says she's really proud of me, so I think she did.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mamas sometimes they can be hard.
Andrea Jenkins: Sometimes they can be hard, but I will say this last election, I got 86% of all the people who showed up to vote voted for me, and so I think my mom did. I don't think she was in that 14%, but 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 going to run. After three times she was going to do something else so it was an open seat, which rarely happens in politics, and then this orange nightmare got elected and, Melissa, the first essay I wrote after the election was Our Democracy is in Perilous Trouble. Now everybody's saying it, but literally that November, I wrote the essay, and it got published.
When that election happened, I said to myself, "If we're going to go to hell in a burning bus, I want to be driving it." That was the impetus. Plus, we believe Minneapolis 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, homeownership 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're working on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Minneapolis, we declared racism as a public health crisis to create the environment for us to begin to address an undue 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. Always remember this 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: We'll call it Andrea Jenkins' ban on don't be that.
Andrea Jenkins: Right. 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. This is a series we're going to be doing throughout the month of February, and we're calling it Black.Queer.Rising. I'm going to ask every guest we have in these segments the same question which is 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 concededly 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, in the forefront of the protests, 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 tough," is like saying, "I'm team KKK." Yes, 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're 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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