Tarell Alvin McCraney as Ms. Joan Jett Blakk

PoliticsRaceSex & Gender

the story of a black drag queen who ran for president

June 12, 2019
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The average life expectancy for transgender Black women in the United States is 35, which also happens to be the age one has to be in order to be eligible to run for president. That sobering intersection represents the mammoth space in terms of visibility, care and resources afforded to the LGBTQ+ community at large and the trans community specifically. That intersection depicted a path of resistance taken by a groundbreaking Chicago drag queen, Ms. Joan Jett Blakk, who ran for president at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1992. Ms. Blakk announced her candidacy at her 35th birthday party and made her way all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden.

The unbelievable and under-shared story of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk (the drag persona of Black gay activist Terence Allen Smith)  gets its time in the sun once more thanks to award-winning screenwriter/playwright and Terell Alvin McCraney who will be playing the enigmatic drag queen in the play Ms. Blakk For President, reports The Grio. Yes, McCraney, on top of being an Oscar-winning screenwriter for Moonlight (based off his semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), he also acts and is an ensemble member at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre along with the co-author of the play and longtime collaborator Tina Landau, who is directing the piece.

“If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?” McCraney says.

Ms. Blakk had already run for Mayor of Chicago against the incumbent Richard M. Daley in 1991. It was unheard of. It still is. As a member of Queer Nation Chicago, Smith was encouraged to be the face of the movement to take the fight for queer visibility and AIDS advocacy all the way to the White House. The night of Smith’s birthday party/running announcement is where McCraney and Landau introduce us to this unbelievable, almost forgotten queer icon. “It was amazing to me that a person from a disenfranchised community — a community that was hit hard by HIV and AIDS, and really feeling ignored by the government — found a way to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to make them listen. We’re gonna get heard somehow,’” he said later on. “And that that part of our history, as Black people in this country, is buried. It felt like a disservice that we didn’t know about it; it felt like a disservice that it hadn’t been something that we’re taught.”

McCraney is correct. Ms. Blakk should be a mandatory part of the Black history curriculum, alongside other political trailblazers like Shirley Chisholm. A drag queen ran for president for goodness sake and it’s not common knowledge? A tragedy, considering her campaign slogan was “Lick Bush in ’92.” Legendary. The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots take place this year and in the spirit of handing out flowers long past-due, the mothers of that revolution, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will finally receive some of the recognition they deserve with a monument being erected in New York. Johnson is paid special tribute in the play as the trans activist passed away due to mysterious drowning a mere week before Ms. Blakk crashed the DNC and demanded to debate frontrunner Bill Clinton. If the world was anywhere near fair or just, that debate would have happened and Ms. Blakk would be our actual “first Black President.” We need to stop calling Clinton that, by the way.

Smith is still alive, which is a blessing the queer community can still enjoy by listening to stories and learning from an elder and former soldier of the queerdom. Stories about relentlessness. Stories about fearlessness. Stories about the kind of PRIDE that had the Johnsons and Smiths strapping on a pair of heels and getting the job done, in spite of the immense danger they faced on a daily basis. There is nothing quite as contagious as audacity and it is crucial that the queer youth be reminded, again and again, that they stand on the backs of giants who marched their way into the white liberal political establishment and demanded a microphone and a one-on-one with the man of the night. That is PRIDE. What’s more delicious is that revered artists like McCraney and Landau get to bring this story to the people, and listen, it’s about to be a party by the looks of it. I can already feel it in my soul, this show will get the national run it deserves. The country desperately needs a dose of Ms. Joan Jett Blakk — two ks, two ts, all fight.