Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Jenise Miller: I always like summertime the best. Water balloon fights and getting wet under a garden hose. You can run with your bare feet on the cool, wet concrete and be sticky sweet from an icy melting down your arm, and mommy's cooking platanos and rice and peas and chicken curry, listening to salsa and R&B. My name is Jenise Miller and I'm a writer, poet and urban planner from Compton, California. You can dry off in the sun, shining on stone-studded steps, and eat Lemonheads and barbecue corn nuts and Polly seeds with vinegar in it, until one by one mama's call you all inside, and your names make the streetlights come on.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jenise Miller here is reading from her 2019 work, The Blvd. In 2021, she was named a California Arts Council individual artist fellow and a Pen America Emerging Voices Fellow. The Compton-based Panamanian American writer is a creator, a teacher, and an interlocutor. Her work is centered in the specificity of place, while it explores themes of the universal. Her latest piece, Tending a Remnant of Home, was published last month in High Country News magazine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've been spending a lot of time with the essay that you wrote about your parents Tending a Remnant of Home. Tell us a bit about that piece.
Jenise Miller: Well, that piece was inspired by grieving the loss of my parents. My mother passed away in March of 2020, and then my father unexpectedly also passed away the following year in May of 2021. It just really shook me to the core just losing my parents so close together. Writing really was a way for me to process that grief. As I was writing, these different memories would come up. My parents are from Panama, and I actually grew up in a community of Black Panamanians in the Los Angeles area, in Compton and Watts and Long Beach in Los Angeles.
This piece was just me thinking about that grief and just going where it was taking me. It made me think about this place where we lived called the Boulevard, which was a apartment building off of Long Beach Boulevard in Compton, where I lived with Panamanian families and families who were African-American. Not only was I missing my parents, I was really missing being a part of that community. That's how this essay came about and making the connection between where I grew up in my parents home. I got the opportunity to go to Panama. I just felt led to go there and I visited a museum there. It's called the Museo Afroantillano, which is the West Indies Museum.
That museum displays the history of the Black Panama Canal workers, which many of them came from the Caribbean during the construction of the Panama Canal, including my great grandparents. I noticed there some furniture pieces which was very similar to a glass shelf that my mom had in our apartment where I grew up. That's where I ended up writing about that cabinet and the glass shelf and those connections.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You have a narrative so grounded in space. Is this the urban planner in you? I feel like in just a first response, you've taken us to these multiple different spaces. You've grounded us there. You've explained why these places matter.
Jenise Miller: Yes, it definitely led me to urban planning. What's interesting is that when I was in high school, we settled in Watts. From Watts, I went to college and I studied Black Studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara. I enrolled in a class with a professor, Dr. Cedric Robinson. I learned that where I was living in Watts, we were living in a housing development, actually. That housing development was planned by artists after the 1965 Watts Rebellion. I did this research, I found out all of this information about the place where I lived and making this connection to place and art and Black culture.
When I was presenting my work in our class, Dr. Robinson, he said, "That's a field and it's called urban planning. It's called community development." I was like, "Oh, okay." Then I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to study. It was very much centered in my community and the place where I lived and the art that I would walk by.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're talking with poet and writer Jenise Miller. More with her right after this.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back with poet, writer and urban planner Jenise Miller. I appreciate that you drop the name of the late Cedric Robinson so casually like, "Oh, yes I was in this guy's class. That's the single most important Black intellectual in the Black radical tradition. Yes, I did"
Jenise Miller: Yes. That's how it was for me, I had no idea.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go back to the glass cabinet that you mentioned. Tell me what was in your mother's glass cabinet.
Jenise Miller: My mother, she didn't have a cabinet, she had a shelf. I'm not exactly sure the reason. I think it could have been a space, issue of space, or maybe a shelf was more affordable, but it still had glass shelves and it was still just a piece of furniture that no one could touch [chuckles]. It was like her shelf had invisible doors. It didn't have the real doors, but it had invisible doors. It just had trunk up elephants and they had to be facing coming in so they're bringing the good luck in, that's what she said. They had wine glasses, a decanter, just glasses that were never used.
It was just fancy things she had collected and she put on the shelf and it was just this piece of furniture that held these things that were just hers. No one else could come close, could wonder, why are these things here? She had a space that was just hers, that no one else could touch and that wasn't defined by her being a mother or a laborer or a worker or anything, but she defined it in her way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are you willing to share what your version of the glass shelf is or maybe where you do carve out that place that is just you, not you in relationship to others?
Jenise Miller: No, I don't have my version of that. I think I might not have the shelf, but I can find other things in other ways to have something that's just for me. Thinking about my mother's glass shelf made me think about that, that, yes, we all need something that is just for us and that's beyond all of the roles and responsibilities that we have to other people. I have thought about, "Do I need a glass shelf in my home?" [laughs]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, Jenise Miller, you need some version-- I was about to go 50-year-old Black lady on you and be like, "Okay, look. You can't love space as much as you love space and not have some kind of physical space that is yours." That is my assignment to you. This is my old lady, professor, auntie self telling you, go find it. Make it.
Jenise Miller: Okay. I receive that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jenise Miller is a writer, poet and urban planner, and soon she's going to be a space maker for her own wonderful self. Jenise, thank you for talking with us.
Jenise Miller: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure and an honor.
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