This essay about safe spaces (or lack thereof) is a reaction to a rather unpleasant experience I had at an open mic, and features a poem by the same title.
Last night I went to an open mic at Busboys and Poets, a venue I thought was committed to creating feminist and queer-friendly spaces. Safe spaces that are free of violence and bigotry, especially with quotes from the likes of Langston Hughes and Alice Walker on their walls (accompanied by their portraits). Imagine my surprise when the host, a queer Black woman whose two poems were about HIV/AIDS awareness and advocacy, opened the night with an anti-sex worker joke. At Busboys’ open mic nights, everyone with a talent is welcome to the stage: comedians, dancers, poets, singers, everyone. As long as your set is five minutes or less. And as long as “you don’t strip. We don’t do strippers.”
Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted… a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul… a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide… we believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.Busboys’ website, “Our Story“
It was a relatively harmless joke meant to pull the audience in, garner a few chuckles here and there—and it did. The audience loved it. But I wonder if the host herself, or anyone else in the audience recognized the glaring hypocrisy of forbidding strippers from the stage, without so much as a critical analysis of why their talent isn’t accepted in performance spaces, all while proudly parading this space as one committed to social change “where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted.”
The joke rubbed me the wrong way—because no one seemed to “consciously uplift” the experiences of sex workers in that moment or after—but I put it to the side to see what the rest of the show had in store. Little did I know, it would be more misogynistic, but widely-accepted rhetoric.
Of the many performers last night, three stood out to me and not in ways that were at all flattering. The first performed a five-minute stand-up routine, and the majority of his set chronicled time spent in a Baltimore strip club that didn’t meet his standards. This particular night was “all you can eat crab night. And when the stripper opened her legs, I knew I smelled something fishy.” I’m not here to tell anyone stick to their day job but I am disappointed that such thoughtless, tasteless jokes can be made in a self-proclaimed safe space, and that Busboys wasn’t in a position to vet their performers. I rolled my eyes and sat through the set. After all, I paid money for this, and there was a beer coming to my table soon. The set ended with more anti-sex worker jokes from the comedian, and a few sympathy chuckles from the audience.
The next guest shared his poetry with us, a performance that is reminiscent of 2004 Eminem. He used his five minutes to detail gruesomely murdering the woman who cheated on him, and then yelling about his unsuccessful romantic ventures—despite his being a nice guy. I thought Busboys was feminist? If not explicitly stated on their site, it was by our host who promised to slow-clap people off stage if they either 1) ran over time, or 2) made the space unsafe for any group of people.
In a time where social awareness is misconstrued as censorship, or over-sensitivity to “harmless jokes” that at one time were the norm, I am glad for spaces that commit not only to quality art but to uplifting the voices and experiences of marginalized people in ways that hegemonic entities simply won’t. So, where trans-and-homophobic jokes were once the hallmark of Black standup comedy, we as a community have [presumably] become more aware of the fact that queer people consume the content we create, so it makes no sense to alienate them and their allies with bigotry disguised as “harmless jokes.” We have [presumably] learned that heterosexuality isn’t the norm—queer folks are not the faceless butts of poorly-constructed jokes. I appreciate spaces that don’t allow hate speech and intolerance to have a platform.
I know Busboys is one of these spaces. I’ve seen the community that Busboys creates. In a six-week span they will have Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange as guests. They frequently host open-mics and spoken word events, both African American oratory traditions. And it was my understanding that Busboys is not like SNL—progressive when it’s profitable. Saturday Night Live has capitalized on a market built on anti-Trump rhetoric but allowed Kanye West a time slot as the musical guest mere weeks after he came out as a MAGA-fanatic. The hypocrisy was glaring on TV, and in the room last night when the messages being given platform ran contradictory to the stated purpose of the space.
The last guest performed his poetry as well. Of the two poems he shared, the one I remember best was about needing “stimulating conversation” from women. This realization occurred to him while on the phone with a romantic interest; she wouldn’t stop responding to her family members who were in the house with her. “F*ck all that.” He needs thought provoking interaction, not “females with McDonald’s, junk food convo.” He wants nothing to do with women who idolize “Instagram hoes” with fake bodies and stereotypical, vapid personalities.
At this point, it was clear to me that Busboys did not vet these performers and would not use the open mic to push a political agenda. Busboys would not lean into the legacies of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange and demand that men not be given a platform to fantasize about killing women and demean us for entertainment. So, naturally I took it upon myself to make my thoughts heard.
I wrote and performed the following poem:
Misogynistic men are more like glass than they’d ever care to admit
See through, fragile things whose broken shards will cut you,
Spill your blood and lie in it
Leaving them to
Bathe in your elixir
Lavishing in your agony
On unprecedented notions of themselves
They do little more than hold you—
Confine you to tight spaces
Delegate you to still, lifeless vessels
Never letting you spill yourself from their hard
They do little more than keep you
And when they break
They break easily
Walls built so high, and so heavy they drag the world with them
When they come crumbling down
Be wary of men who see niceness as a vehicle towards entitlement
Those that can only build themselves
Atop the vertebrae of your spine
The work of your body
Such fragility is dangerous
It is often violent
Inking pain into hands that have been trained to hold it all
Onto bodies already shouldering the weight of the world
The best way to avoid it
The only way to save a flame from being stomped out
Is never to bend to the will of fragile men
Whose entire identities are wrapped in poisonous ego
Don’t become consumed by the pressure to gratify
To satisfy then beg and beseech forgiveness when your end-of-life efforts, seem not enough
Wear sensitivity like the armor it is
Be shielded in love
Sheathed in warmth
For fragility, broken glass and words cloaked in daggers only serve to hurt us all.
© Ama Akoto (2018)