Public Poetry: Junauda Petrus speaks out about race and gender equality despite a ban on her poem by the City of Minneapolis

Junauda Petrus (Courtesy Photo)

When Junauda Petrus was a little girl, she had two dreams: to become an astronaut, and to take care of everybody. The first one didn’t happen, but she’s been working on healing the universe her whole life. 

When the Minnesota Women’s Press put out a call to readers to recommend “rockstar women activists,” readers told us Petrus is not afraid to raise her voice about race and gender equality. 

Freedom of expression

As a young person, Petrus got involved in band and theater, eventually discovering circus arts after she graduated from college. Whatever form her artistic expression has taken, social justice issues lay in the forefront. 

“Art is a tenderizer for experiences,” she says. “People don’t want to look at shit that’s hard, or that makes them feel vulnerable, but art can allow you to be part of a narrative that doesn’t feel threatening, but humanizing.” 

An accomplished aerial artist, poet, playwright and performer, who is equally comfortable in the midst of a protest, a community festival, on stage or on camera, Petrus has little fear about what people think. Her unwavering voice, speaking sometimes painful truths, has made waves, even to the point of getting banned. 

In spring 2016, Petrus found out that one of the three poems she was commissioned to write for a public art project on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis had been censored. The poem was nixed because of its language. 

In 2015, Petrus had written a whole series of poems called “Prayers for Pussies.” “There are needs for many, many prayers obviously,” she says. 

When she got the commission, she realized an untitled piece she was working on needed to be another “prayer.” 

“The experience of creating poetry that is not going to be published but actually built and hung over the city was really a certain artistic responsibility,” she says. “And I thought, I’ll make this a ‘Prayers for Pussies’ poem.” 

Petrus felt another responsibility to capture this moment in response to Donald Trump bragging about grabbing a woman by her genitals. “The poem itself is its own work that’s just in conversation with the sacredness of women’s bodies that have for so long been an opportunity to establish power in our society.” 

She knew she’d get pushback, especially as a black woman writer, and she did. Petrus was told the poem would not be used and she would need to submit a new third poem. Petrus did submit a third poem, but not before writing an open letter describing the experience. “I am indignant to this censorship by the City of Minneapolis,” she wrote on Facebook, “especially when there is a renaissance of elected, emboldened, hate-filled and money-driven bigots who do not love this world like I do. I will not be silenced or confused while they are revered and bowed down to.”

Building up

Trump’s victory was a catalyst for Petrus, given that it revealed the internalized racism and sexism held by those who voted for the president. “The election made me think that I need to stop being as concerned about shifting white people’s thinking, and more concerned around how I’m going to establish resources and opportunities for people who will be disenfranchised,” she says. 

Right now, Petrus is focused on how she can nourish her community in tangible ways. Whether she’s selling “Prayers for Pussies” t-shirts, producing a video series called “Sweetness of Wild” about the complicated excellence of blackness, securing a publisher for her young adult novel, or starting up an Island cuisine business, Ingridients, with her mom, Petrus sees entrepreneurship as a way to build wealth not only for herself but for her family and community. 

“I’m a working and well-supported artist,” she says, “but as an artist you really do sort of sacrifice stability,” she says. So she’s trying to move away from doing arts as a side job and really taking ownership of it strategically. “For me, I’ve really been thinking about how I will use my gifts to make money so I can support myself,” she says. “Unless I’m doing the work for myself and community, we could end up in a more fragile and vulnerable situation.” 

FFI: To read more about Junauda Petrus and her work check out these websites: 
“Sweetness of Wild” videos
Free Black Dirt, an artistic partnership with collaborator Erin Sharkey:

A Prayer for Pussies

Grown women know that feeling. 
You a little girl under all that skin. 
All of that life and holding back. 
All of that gray coochie hair 
And planted placentas under the tree the kids climb, 
when hiding from spankings. 
Under piles of unpaid bills and expired lottery tickets. 
In your shadow sits that girl within. 
Wise and wild. 
Quiet and unforgiving. 
Indignant and quick. 
Clitoris driven. 
An emotional wreck with soulful perfection. 
Plotting on wildness 
You start thinking: 
Remember when I was all one hot heat? 
One red ferocious flash? 
One smooth sweet licorice? 
One free flying unknown?

– Junauda Petrus