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Black History Representation Matters in Arts Activism and Civic Leadership: by Andrea Jennings

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Andrea Jennings

As a child, my beloved mom, who worked in entertainment law for major law firms, encouraged me to use my voice, and she told me that my voice was powerful. My mom made sure that I was aware of Black history and the contributions that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) individuals contributed to the U.S. She demonstrated the different ways Black people have used their voices. We would speak about entertainment, the arts and law often at the dinner table. We talked about what I know today as artistic activism and artists who used their artistic platforms to advocate, such as Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Billie Holliday, Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane,  Eartha Kitt, Stevie Wonder and The Staple Singers. The list goes on. These subjects became second nature to me. However, as my mother encouraged me to use my voice, I noticed that my voice and the voices of people who looked like me were not being heard or respected. Remembering what my mother had instilled in me, I knew I had to continue to go around the hurdles before me, especially after adding disability to my identity. I was proud to be a disabled, Black woman, however, the biases were more limiting than my disability itself.

I acquired my disability via a motor vehicle accident en route to work for a top fortune 500 company. One of the residual effects from the car accident was my limited mobility, which resulted in me using a wheelchair. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act had passed in 1990, I was shocked to find out that the law was not adhered to in many situations. This resulted in me experiencing many barriers to returning to work, finding accessible housing and transportation and reintegrating into the community to return to being an independent and productive citizen.

As a wheelchair user, constantly hearing microaggressions that were racist, sexist and ableist caused me to recognize a need for social change. One of the worst statements that I had heard was, “Because you are a woman, Black and disabled you are the lowest type of person.” I thought to myself because I am a woman, Black and disabled, I will use my voice, knowledge of the law and love of the arts to help amplify other marginalized voices. Ever since then I have been passionate about helping others, as I realized that many marginalized individuals hear these types of microaggressions that I have heard daily. The most marginalized hear these types of microaggressions several times a day.

I also learned that people advocate differently. We should never shame a person for how they use their voice. This is important because people with disabilities may not understand how to use their voice in a world that is not so accessible. Using your voice can mean writing a letter, posting on social media, having one-on-one conversations, or educating people through music or the arts. Using your voice can mean showing up and using your presence as your voice, such as Anita Cameron, a disability rights activist, did at the “Capitol Crawl” movement. It saddens me that disabled individuals had to leave their mobility equipment behind and crawl up the Capitol steps just to make a point about accessibility. However, it also makes me proud that these individuals stood up to their oppressors and made a change. Using your voice can also mean having the right to feel like you have endured enough trauma, and that it is time for your oppressors to take accountability.

Fifty-three years after Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisolm’s historic House victory of becoming the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Kamala Harris was elected the first Black female vice president of the United States. Although Kamala’s victory is a historical moment, it is also a bittersweet moment. Fifty-three years later Black women in significant political positions make history in small strides because of the same barriers of racism and sexism that Shirley Chilsom had to battle. The intersectionality of race, gender and disability add another complex layer to the battle that I know all too well as a Black woman with a disability.

I formed Shifting Creative Paradigms, a movement and production company focusing on producing and creating inclusive media content after realizing that I should merge my love for diversity, equity and inclusion and entertainment in general. I thank my mom for instilling in me to have faith and to use my voice. I am thankful that she took the time to educate me and expose me to some of the great Black art activists’ music and films. She had prepared me and helped me to be confident in myself and my abilities and to not be dismayed by biases and microaggressive comments. In 2020 I was elected vice chair of my city’s Accessibility and Disability Commission. I listen to the voices in my community, especially the most marginalized and muted voices, and use my voice to make suggestions and recommendations on behalf of the disabled community. I hope that by me serving my community in this way others who live at the intersection of being Black and disabled will also be encouraged. As my mother exposed me to my Black history, I carried on the tradition to teach my daughter, who is also a civic leader in her community, to use her voice. I want her to know that her voice is important and that her voice matters, even when people tell her that it doesn’t.

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Andrea Jennings
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