By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Blogger Mikki Kendall is no stranger to controversy.
The Hyde Park native has made many Internet friends and enemies, tackling such sensitive topics as abortion, race and gender inequality with unapologetic candor. She has also achieved as of late a certain kind of fame on the web, which has spread her brand of racially-conscious feminism far beyond the confines of the neighborhood.
Kendall is a consummate “hashtag activist” — a neologism derived from the ubiquitous pound sign (a.k.a. “hashtag”) members of the Twitter community use to start a conversation anyone can join. Known as @Karnythia to her more than 15,000 Twitter followers, Kendall coined the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen last summer, leading bloggers and news outlets from Jezebel to NPR to question how inclusive the feminist movement has been of minority women.
“The great thing about hashtag activism is that people who are not in the room can still be in the conversation,” Kendall said, adding that “especially when you’re talking about the difficult topics, sometimes people are more comfortable speaking when they’re not in the same space.”
Years before Kendall began sharing her many ideas with the world, her family moved to Hyde Park, where she enrolled at Kozminski Elementary, 936 E. 54th St. It was here that a young Kendall joined a once-a-week writing workshop at Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave. “I wrote all the time. And I was a daydreamer. So the good thing about that program was I finally learned that if you write down your daydreams, that counts as a story.”
Kendall’s family moved to the suburbs when she was 14 and she graduated from Downer’s Grove High School two years later. A self-described “city kid,” Kendall decided to join the U.S. Army — without telling her family — to help pay for a college education.
“My stint with Uncle Sam was just long enough to do some traveling,” said Kendall, whose time in the Army took her to Panama, Germany, Texas and Virginia. While she served as a combat medic and mechanic, she says others often asked her for help with computers. “I was one of the few people who was regularly using a PC already.”
Now, after blogging for around a decade, Kendall has transitioned to a life as a full-time freelancer with a reputation of going where many tread lightly. “I always say that everything is a feminist issue,” said Kendall. “And race is always an issue.”
Kendall adroitly straddles the worlds of casual blogging and traditional print. In addition to contributing to her own blogs, HoodFeminism and Angry Black Woman, she has written for such popular websites as xoJane and ThoughtCatalog, as well as established print outlets including The Guardian and Ebony.
“I try to write at a tenth grade level, not because I can’t write at a level above that — I certainly do for academic papers — but because I notice that if you write at about that level, the most people can understand it,” Kendall said. “I think that might be the secret of some of my success.”
Kendall’s style generates a passionate reaction, from her detractors as well as her fans. In 2011, she published an article on Salon.com entitled, “Abortion saved my life,” in which she told the story of a doctor who wouldn’t perform a life-saving second trimester termination of her pregnancy. On top of the ire her story attracted from pro-life readers, its accuracy was challenged by anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek, with whom Kendall became embroiled in a Twitter feud.
“Before this point you could maybe not get published doing what I do, you could maybe not say the things that I do and expect publication,” Kendall said. “People keep asking me, ‘Aren’t you afraid that you’re cutting off opportunities this way?’ And I probably am cutting off some. But I’m opening up others, because social media means that I don’t necessarily need your platform to get my work out there.”
Armed with a devoted Internet following and the ability to stoke Twitter conversations on a whim, Kendall is now looking to parlay her online success into a book deal by pitching a non-fiction title to publishers.
In the meanwhile, Kendall continues to write about new subjects, such as food gentrification. “The topic of the conversation may change, but we’re still going to be talking about discrimination and bias and oppression,” Kendall said.
And Hyde Park has its own issues to grapple with, according to Kendall, a fierce critic of the University of Chicago Police Department, rising rents and the neighborhood’s ongoing development — which she calls gentrification.
“If you ever look at a lot of the progressive events here, tell me how many low-income people of color you see?” Kendall said. “Affording to live in Hyde Park is getting more expensive every year.”