Every other month a couple of friends organize a poetry event called Black Voices Matter. It’s been going on for over a year and its intent is to lift up and put a spotlight on black poets and performers that might not have a space they feel they can share their art. As a black man who has been going to A LOT of open mics, I have often felt the need to censor myself. Something like 8% of the population of Colorado Springs is black. Something like 13% of the population in America is black. What this usually means is that it’s not uncommon to go to an event and feel like you’re an island. What this means to me specifically is that I feel like I have to censor myself. Speaking just for me, the content of most of my poetry is directly related to how I navigate my life as a black man. This, very often, makes white people uncomfortable. This, very often, can make me seem like I’m a spokesman for black people and this poem is speaking for all of us. This, very often, can lead to conversations that I really don’t want to have. Some from spaces of empathy, some from spaces that make me want to cry and avoid opening up.
So every other month, we have an event specifically for black voices. All people are welcome, of course, this is not a segregated event. There is a workshop for the first hour where anybody can write from the prompt given and share what they’ve created. Anybody. White, Black, Asian, Latinx…anybody. After that is the open mic for black performers only. It is a space where, speaking for myself, I have felt the most comfortable sharing my poetry. It is a space where, hopefully, other people (white, black, Asian, latinx…anybody) can come to hear, learn, empathize, and grow with the pain inherent in being black in America, since that is often the topic of poetry the artists share.
As I said, there are many open mics throughout Colorado Springs, and since there are so few black people in Colorado, they are almost by default white open mics. But white people have a way to get all up in their feelings when they see spaces marked for black people. And they always have something to say. These are a few real things people have said and a response to them.
- “Sorry. I’m white. I’ll just throw the room off. I’ll leave it to the included.”
I see this one all the time and there’s just so much wrong with it that I’m going to have a bulleted list within my numbered list.
- Black people are used to seeing white people, Mark. Your presence doesn’t throw us off. On the contrary, you could be like the woke af white dude at a barbershop. Your presence in a space dominated with black bodies would let us know that you are at least interested in hearing us, learning about us. In a space where black voices are given priority, it would make us think that there are white people out there that might give a fuck about what’s going on in this country, in this state, in this city, and in this county. In short, this is projection of the highest order where the white person in question is actually thinking about how THEY would feel in a situation surrounded by blackness and thinking that the black people in the room would feel the same. But, you know, that’s our lives every. single. moment. But that you’re saying these things, Mark, says you haven’t thought about it.
- “The included” is very problematic. Do you need to be part of a demographic to attend an event? Do you not have black friends that you’d want to support? I don’t have cancer, but I support Susan G. Komen. I’m not gay or bi, but I support Queer open mics and spaces. The thing people don’t realize is that when you’re a straight white dude (or woman) you are expected to be in places. These are the default. They are the norm. This in itself creates stress on marginalized people’s lives. So when you say something like, “Pumpkin Spice Latte Day” at Starbucks, that is going to be an inherently white space. Straight white people don’t need spaces dedicated specifically for them. It’s why America has History and Literature and in order to learn about people who look like me, I need to take specific classes about us like African American Literature and Black History. Saying that you need to feel included in every event is the very height of privilege. Not everything is for you, and when language puts a spotlight on others, instead of thinking about the circumstances that might arise that create such an event, you jump to, “Welp, not for me.”
- All of this ignores the fact that this open mic DOES have a space for other voices within the workshop. It ignores that there are often many white people who are apparently comfortable with being “excluded” for one or two hours during an open mic because when they leave, they’re probably at least a bit cognizant of the fact that they are included everywhere else.
2. “I will just find other events that won’t judge me by the color of my skin.”
We ain’t thinking about you. We don’t care that you’re there. We got other shit to worry about than some white dude or woman that’s at a coffee shop trying to get something to drink or hear poetry while we’re dropping that fire. Again, stop projecting. I often walk into a place and think, “Damn, I’m the only black person in here…” because it can be a matter of survival. Just look at the news with white people calling the cops on black people for existing in a space with white people.
3. “Having a space for black voices only is retaliation for discrimination. The goal should be to not need these spaces and having them is stooping to the level of ignorant people and disregarding the ‘good people.'”
I almost can’t even with this. I actually couldn’t even, and then I gave myself a couple days. I still couldn’t. This ties into what a lot of liberal and moderate white people are telling many people of color. That we have to be civil, because if we are not civil, then we will run allies off into the hands of our enemies. These people will often quote the late and great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Probably this picture here:
White people love to throw MLK around, as if he wasn’t a radical. As if he wasn’t upsetting the peace. As if everybody during the Civil Rights Era loved this man. As if he didn’t have approval ratings with white people about the same as Trump does with black people. People love to forget that he died. Not that he died. That he was assassinated. People forget that what he was doing for black people was so reviled, so disgusting, that it was worth his life. They were so angry that they killed him for it. Shot him until his life and blood seeped from him to be cleaned up by the (no doubt by a black employee) housekeepers of the hotel he died the next day. Leaving black people with a legacy, a memory, and loss. But most importantly, a reminder. No matter how much love you throw around, no matter how well-spoken, how articulate, how well reasoned our arguments. No matter how much we know we’re human, deserving of love, happiness, and equality, there will be white people out there who disagree. I think it’s guilt. I think it’s because deep down almost all of them know how wrong white people have done black people, and to acknowledge those wrongs would be like dominos. It’s like a big game of Jenga. You take out that piece and you’re left with unstable ground, you’re left with shitty logic, and poking at it all is just going to make it all fall. And once it falls, I think those white people wouldn’t be able to stand with it all. They wouldn’t know how to rebuild.
So you can miss me with that. Because we have so many reasons, every day to be angry. But it’s not us shooting up schools and voting racist people into office who destroy legacies and separate families. We don’t have time for your misplaced guilt and projection.
I’ll see you all at the next open mic.
Well, some of you.