Eleanor Igwe ’17
Students and community members crowded into the jam-packed TV Lounge in the Campus Center lower level on Nov. 3 as the campus community rounded out this year’s Otelia Cromwell Day. The featured performer, Jasmine Mans, is a poet and multimedia artist whose work has graced stages at the Kennedy Center, the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion and the Sundance Film Festival. She has opened for and performed alongside artists ranging from Goapele to Mos Def to Pharrell to Janelle Monae. Mans is also a former member of the poetry collective The Striver’s Row. As if that weren’t enough, Mans makes time to mentor younger artists through a creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin.
Mans’ performance style was distinct, as she stood in front of the audience, barefoot with her taupe Converse All-Stars to the side. She also had two quotes from her poems written on white canvas in black ink on the ground in front of her. Mans’ work as a multimedia artist was very apparent, as she was intentional about crafting the space before the performance. Mans’ presence was such that the audience tuned in to her immediately.
One of the poems she performed was “Birmingham,” a reflection on the Birmingham church bombing told from the perspective of a little girl who was killed, thus indirectly addressing Martin Luther King Jr. and the direction of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. One of the most poignant lines was “I ain’t never asked for his dream!” The little girl in Mans’ imagination “never asked for integration or to play with the white girls [but wanted] roller skates and maybe an extra piece of cake” instead.
As she continued her set, religious and political themes regularly resurfaced. One topic that came up was the election. Raising a perspective that I personally had never heard before, she asked how desperate for fulfillment a seventy-year-old billionaire must be to feel he needs to run for president. During the course of the evening, she asked the audience to close their eyes and participate in a visualization activity which segued into another poem. More of her poems touched on police brutality, death, street violence and what it means to build identity as a black person and as a black woman. “I Know You Didn’t Mean to Kill Him” displayed her incredible skill as a poet as she inhabtited the role of a mother who lost a vulnerable child to street violence.
Her next two poems, “Footnotes for Kanye” and “Gardenia,” were in a similar style to her best-known poem “Nicki Minaj.” In this poem she confronts and questions, but also empathizes with and quotes an artist who is pro-women in interviews but also ensnared by an industry that hardly has respect for women at all. “Footnotes for Kanye,” along with some of Mans’ other poems, brings to mind how women’s lives are often yoked to men’s, regardless of our own preference. It also reflects on what it means to be authentic and what it means to be loyal to a community.
“Gardenia” is a poem that addresses Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer who was troubled by heroin addiction. In it Mans explores themes of loss, isolation, self-destruction and self-creation. The last poem she shared was “Dear Ex-Lover,” a poem that’s almost universally relatable regardless of the kind of heartbreak that the listener has suffered. Overall Mans’ work is truly universal in its specificity and her performance was a valuable experience for her audience, especially on this night.