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Activist Andrea Jenkins speaks on poetry, transgender rights

| Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Writer, performance artist, poet and transgender activist Andrea Jenkins shared her poetry and essays with the Saint Mary’s community March 28 as the keynote speaker for Saint Mary’s Student Diversity Week.

Jenkins is the first African American, openly transgender woman to hold office in the United States. Currently, she is city council Vice President of Minneapolis Ward 8.

Jenkins began her presentation by acknowledging the privilege one has as an American. Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31 and the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death on April 4 are two important days she said she wanted the audience to recognize throughout her speech.

“I want to acknowledge that we stand on stolen land, indigenous and native land, built by stolen labor, by Africans brought to America,” she said. “We must always keep this understanding in mind, because history gives context to the issues that we face today.”

Jenkins said she got involved with politics because she wanted to devote herself to helping those in need.

“I’ve been working all of my adult life trying to help and improve people’s lives,” she said. “Politics is about improving people’s lives.”

Much of the poetry Jenkins writes is inspired by the art, culture and stories she encounters, especially those related to the early days of hip hop music.

“Hip hop music was a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “I have been shaped, formed and informed by the music of the urban community all my life … Back then, Chicago had its own distinct musical sound. Chicago was perfectly suited to embrace the music that came out of the Bronx. It was gritty, grimy, cold and fast. Everybody had a hustle in Chicago.”

The rappers she grew up with, Jenkins remarked, brought the realism of black neighborhoods and the black community to the forefront.  

“They described the stark reality of black neighborhoods all around the country,” she said. “Broken glass everywhere. Roaches, rats, junkies in the alley with baseball bats. So much pain. So much realism. Everybody in the hood knew what they were talking about, but no one had ever put it out there like that before for the entire world to see.”

The music industry also reflected the bitter reality of life in inner city communities, Jenkins noted.

“All of this was taking place in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic that was ravaging inner city communities across America, and black rappers were not immune,” she said. “In fact, they were some of the most vicious perpetrators. The Notorious B.I.G. said ‘either you’re slinging crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot.’ That was the sentiment of many black youth in America, and unfortunately, some thirty-five plus years later, that proclamation still reigns.”

Even so, hip hop was able to endure hardships and become economically successful and bold enough to inspire Jenkins to be true to who she was inside, she said.

“But along with the economic success comes this attitude of, I can do what I want, say what I want and be who I am,” she said. “And that sentiment was not lost on me. I always knew in my heart that I was destined to be a woman. You see, I was born in this obviously male body when I had this heart of a woman, but for a long time I was afraid to admit it. I tried to conform to society’s expectations of what I thought a man should be. Hip hop indirectly provided me with the courage to fully express myself.”

Jenkins said she found a new way to express herself through spoken word poetry, which is often considered an offset of rap and hip hop. 

“I had found my community,” she said. “I began to hang out with local spoken word artists and poets and writers, and I found myself writing about the identity that I had for so long hidden deep within my psyche. And people responded. So I gradually began to outwardly express myself. And quite to my surprise, I didn’t receive the mass rejection I thought I would.”

She read openly from her book of poetry and spoke of being oppressed and those who oppress.

“If there is such a thing as the oppressed, then there must be an oppressor,” Jenkins said. “This has weighed heavy on my mind for a long time … If there is such a thing as an oppressor then there must be the oppressed. It is a mutually accepted relationship. Why do we strive for the same ideals as the oppressor?”

We should not be afraid to love who we want to love, she said.

“Are we afraid to let real love shine?” Jenkins said. “Afraid to say, I’m in love with a big, black, transgender goddess and she loves me back?”

We must strive to not let ourselves become the oppressors, she concluded.

“If we are the oppressed, then it is imperative that we not become the oppressors,” Jenkins said. “We got to love every color in the rainbow. Respect the beauty that lives in each and every one of us. When your blues become my blues, we can sing ‘Oh Happy Day.’”

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

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