Andrea Jenkins Brings Poetry To The Political – And It Is Beautiful
By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
Andrea Jenkins is a poet who carries her poetic licence wherever she goes. As she sits down in my office, she sees the Rumi biography on my table and asks “Who did the translations?” going to the heart of the question around Rumi’s current status as one of America’s favorite poets. She sees the biographer (who happens to be my husband) also wrote a book about the poet Frank O’Hara. She tells me that O’Hara is one of her favorites — “The Beats” she exclaims, explaining that O’Hara wrote about what he saw.
Jenkins does the same. “Poetry is my way of distilling and expressing what’s around me,” Jenkins says, and in her bracing and beautiful poetry she tells the stories of those whose lives are too often ignored or silenced. People like herself.
Jenkins was in New York City in her role as an advisor to the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle, a fellowship program at Auburn Seminary whose mission is “to make the ordinary care of the bodies, minds and spirits of black women a priority within their own lives and within the social justice spaces where black women leaders disproportionately serve.” This year’s Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle was comprised of eight trans, black women who had met throughout the year and had gathered at Auburn for a final celebration of the cohort’s year together and their commitment to one another and their own well being.
The public commissioning included a conversation between Ms. Jenkins and Dr. Melissa Harris Perry, moderated by the program’s founder, Lisa Anderson. The program culminated in a final blessing done by Jenkins to all of the women in the cohort in the form of one of Jenkin’s poems from her book The T Is Not Silent. She spoke and sang the poem, and as the audience stood up and applauded, she turned to each of the women of the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle and told them, one after another, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
“I’ve always been in love with words,” Jenkins tells me in my office the next day. “I read all the founding father biographies when I was young.” Her early reading may have been what set her off on her road to becoming a politician. Ms Jenkins is running for office for City Council member in Ward 8 in Minneapolis, and her campaign website shows endorsements from Congressman Keith Ellison and the Democratic Farm Labor Party, with an election tagline that speaks to the needs of this moment: “Leadership. Access. Equity.”
Jenkins’s political roots go back to her early childhood. She was born in 1961 in Chicago and experienced as a young person the tumultuous 60s. In 1968, she was being bused to a school in the suburbs, and when Dr. King was shot, they left school early on that day and never went back to that school again. “They were like, we can’t take the black kids anymore.”
Jenkins’s first foray into politics was in 1983 at the age of 19 when she worked “dropping lit” for the mayoral run of Harold Washington, who became the first African-American mayor in Chicago’s history. After completing graduate school at the University of Minnesota with a degree in Community Development, she met Robert Lilligren who was running for City Council. She was, as she describes herself, “a ‘smarty pants’ always mouthing off on issues and providing solutions to questions.” Lilligren promised to make Jenkins his policy aid if he got elected, which he did. And that was the beginning of over 20 years of work that Jenkins has racked up in City Council politics. “I was effective with the community while also earning the respect of my colleagues inside City Hall. I know the issues of my community and I know my neighbors and what they are concerned with and I have been on the front lines of addressing those issues for a very long time.”
The issues Jenkins lists are, as she is the first to explain, the same issues facing every major city in America, including gentrification and affordable housing, police accountability and reform, climate change and more green jobs and sustainable energy, and providing different modes of transportation. But the number one issue that prompted her to run for office is that Minnesota is the second-worst state for African-Americans to live in the country.
“This is abhorrent not because of the stain that this places on the state but because my people are suffering. So, if we are on the bus on the highway to hell, I want to be driving that bus and turn it around. I want Minneapolis to be a model and a beacon for other cities that want to work on racial equity. I want to bring a quantifiable equity lens to the issues we are making decisions about that impact people’s lives.”
I asked Ms. Jenkins how being a transgender woman had informed her work as a politician. But then I backtracked: “I didn’t meant to insult you by calling you a politician.” Jenkins told me that while some people think that is an insult, she doesn’t. “I know people who are elected for public office who then say ‘I’m not a politician.’ To me that person is naive. If you are in an elected office and you are not thinking politically, why are you there? I wear the title as an honor. A lot of our friends in DC have given the term politician a bad name, but most of the people I know in elected office are very good people, working hard and trying to do what’s best for the people, and that includes Republicans…some Republicans.”
She went on to explain: “Being African-American is being a political statement in our society, certainly being transgender is a political statement. Wearing my hair locked, has become a political statement. So if my body is political, if my identity is political, if my hair is political, then I must be engaged in politics for my survival, I need to be able to operate in that oppressive environment. Personally, I’ve been able to manifest a lot of goodwill and support for my family and community and colleagues, but that’s not the reality for most black trans women. So that pushed me into a sense of giving back, reaching back, making space for the people who don’t get to sit at those tables, to bring their issues to the forefront and advocate.”
To end our discussion I brought the conversation back to poetry, and the intersection between truth-telling and how Ms. Jenkins taps into what gives her strength on a spiritual level. Jenkins told me she doesn’t talk about that too much. She was raised in a Baptist family in Chicago, which she explained is like Alabama brought up to the north, and she had many ministers in her own family. She has always known about her gender identity, but for a long time she tried to deny, conceal, conform, and participate in the world as someone she was not, she explains:
“I had some real challenges around organized religion. For a while I became a deeply religious person because I thought I wanted help to overcome this, but that was not the case. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the church, and a lot of the people are causing destruction in our world are these corporate leaders, they go and sit in these churches and synagogues and places of worship every single Sunday and then they pay low wages, pollute our environment, and don’t pay taxes. And I can’t reconcile that. I’m not sure how other people do it. If you can show me how, I’m interested.”
However, Jenkins does embrace spirituality and a poetic vision that informs her political life:
“I express gratitude every single morning when I awake. I journal every day, which for me is a spiritual practice. I take long walks in nature, around bodies of water. And bask in that realness; in that mystery of the universe. I try to see the humanity in every person that I encounter and recognize that we are part of a universe. As a poet, a universe is one line in a poem: Uni-Verse. So we all have the exact same lineage, we are all part of the exact same verse.
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself. So first you’ve got to love yourself. So my spiritualness is about loving myself and recognizing what I call the ‘Creator’. I know that deep spirituality is in each of us, and so if I love myself then I am loving the Divine Spirit and recognizing that that Divine Spirit is in each and every one of us.”