A Conversation with Janet Mock:   Writer and Trans Rights Activist Visits Smith

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Andrea Schmid '17

Assistant News Editor

Smith College welcomed writer and transgender rights activist Janet Mock on April 6 in John M. Greene Hall. Sponsored by the senior class, Conversations with Janet Mock, was moderated by Kevin Quashie, professor of Afro-American studies. When introducing Mock, Milanes Morejon ’15 and Jasmine Poteat ’15 concluded the impressive list of her accomplishments and credentials by stating, “In other words, Janet Mock is brilliant, and we are truly honored to have her on campus.”

In 2011, Mock came out as a transgender woman in Marie Claire, where she currently serves as a contributing editor. Last year, she published her first memoir, “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More,” which feminist writer and activist bell hooks described as a “lifemap for transformation.”  Mock launched the hashtag #GIRLSLIKEUS in 2012 as a campaign to promote awareness and celebration of the diversity of women and womanhood. She also joined the board of the Arcus Foundation, a global organization dedicated to the advancement of social justice and conservation issues.

Quoting different sections of “Redefining Realness,” Quashie brought up a few themes that Mock touches on in the book. When asked what she meant by her use of “realness” in the title, Mock discussed how deeply rooted this word is in the trans community as something that “people of color and trans people of color of struggle with as a result of the dominant societal culture that tells them what they should be and look like.” Mock also shared her perspective as a marginalized writer and the consequent burden. Her book was not only one of the first memoirs of a trans person, but it was also the first memoir of a trans woman of color.

“Walking into a room as myself,” Mock said, “is impossible.” Rather, she said she walks in with people who have come before her every time she represents herself. Mock said she also does this in her memoir, making it, in many ways, a “collective personal narrative.” Quashie noted how well she achieved this by continuously narrating her memoir with sentiments like, “This is my story...This is our story, but also this my story.”

After Mock referred to “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Sula” by Toni Morrison and “The Velvet Work” by Janet Jackson as “blueprints” for the self-reflection in parts of her book, Quashie asked Mock about her identity as a black writer. Quashie said the reason he believed she was writing with the identity of a female black writer was because her book began with a message of self-worth. He told Mock, “Your book doesn’t begin with an argument; it begins with worth.”

Mock said she had not sought to write primarily with this identity, but it appeared her conversation with Professor Quashie gave her new perspective and insight into her work.

Mock also discussed the role pop culture has played in her life. She continues to center discussion on and awareness of social justice, activism and political debate around pop culture and media, which she particularly focuses on in her current show “So POPular!” on MSNBC.

Mock read aloud her favorite section from her memoir in which she discusses the impact popular culture had on her when she was a child who spent a significant amount of time watching television. Receiving a wave of applause, she noted the profound impact that Beyoncé Knowles had on her when first saw her sing in a music video of Destiny’s Child, and the amount of hope, inspiration and comfort that it gave her to see women she related to and resembled on mainstream television. Mock emphasized the importance of pop culture and the way she centers it in order to be an activist and promote the cultural debates she finds most important to her audience.

The conversation ended with a standing ovation from the audience. After Mock left the stage, students lingered and talked among themselves. The conversations included an emphasis on the enormous amount of awareness, compassion, insight and, as Professor Quashie said, the “grace, love and integrity” that Mock brought to the Smith community.