Open Mic Night: Enter At Your Own Risk

by Racialicious special correspondent Latoya Peterson

I always wonder why the hell white people go to open mic nights at Busboys and Poets.

Busboys and Poets is “a restaurant, bookstore, and gathering place for people who believe that social justice and peace are attainable goals.” Their website neglects to mention that they are one of the hottest intellectual chill spots in the U Street corridor, with comfy couches, free wi-fi, and a bookstore full of provocative titles. Combine that with sexy and eclectic people, good music, and a decent food and drink menu, and you have my home away from home.

Every time I take a seat in the Langston Room (the venue for events), I find myself scanning the crowd to check out the racial mix.

Neo-bohemians of varying shades of brown flow in, dreds bouncing, blue jeans and hoodies melding with city couture and drab business casual. Snatches of spanish float through the air, but are largely drowned out in the cacophony of voices talking about politics, social movements, classic novels and new media. I take my seat, order a mug of fruit-flavored tea, and sip quietly waiting for the show tonight.

Now, sometimes everything goes fine. The night is a mix of revolutionary poetry, tearful odes to lost love, humorous erotic pleas, and classic poetry interwoven into the frenetic pace of the evening. Poetry nights can be mixed affairs, featuring soulful poems and poignant reflections about society in general. But on other nights, well…

Let’s take my last visit to Busboys as an example. I sat, clicking away on my laptop between sets, waiting for the next poet to start. Then I hear:

“THE WHITE MAN THINKS HE’S GOD!”

The poet, one of my favorites, takes a decidedly antagonistic tone that evening.

After railing against war-mongering, the destruction of the environment, and the systemic eradication of native peoples, he closes the poem, last lines dripping with contempt:

“THE WHITE MAN THINKS HE’S GOD!

Spelled backwards is DOG!”

He abruptly departs the stage, leaving the mic reeling in the stand.

The white people in the audience shift uncomfortably in their seats. Quietly, after the sets finish, they begin to slip out of the wooden doors. By 10:30, the venue consists solely of people of color.

In the arena of political poetry, white people would be wise to tread lightly. While every evening does not feature verbal missiles lobbed at white privilege and a racist society, it can quickly become that evening’s theme. And that common theme, the bonding over shared outrage at a racist and oppressive society, can unite some poetry lovers and alienate others.

One mid-last-summer night at Busboys, I had managed to a convince a whole slew of my friends to live la vie Boheme and attend one of the poetry nights I had come to adore. It was a balmy evening, and I lured them with the promise of a pineapple mojito and a side of good conversation. Picking at our nachos, we dominated the back of a very large booth. As the venue began to fill, two young white girls came to share our space, excited to attend the increasingly popular open mic night. Then the open mic began.

A girl took the stage, and spoke beautifully about trying to find a lost love. Another person took the mic, and talked about the latent potential of the black community. The next three poets took the stage and raged against white people. Gentrification, and the loss of the neighborhood to “blue-eyed interlopers” was the subject of the first poem. The next poem revolved around experiencing racism at work, and trying to “break free from the plantation.” The white girls sitting next to us sat stiffly in their seats, cringing a little bit at the rowdy peals of applause coming from the audience.

The third act was a string of unintelligible mumbling, punctuated by self-righteous statements about “the WHITE man.” The girls spoke quietly among themselves until the set ended. Then, one of them turned towards me.

“Is it always like this?”

I answered honestly. No, the poetry nights tend to vary based on who takes the stage.

My explanation was interrupted by a loud throat clearing from one of my friends. The other friend stated, to no one in particular, “If they want to be here, they need to deal with it. I’m not apologizing.”

The white girl blushed. She and her friend quickly paid their check and left mid-way into the next set.

It has almost been a year since that night, and the memory of the fleeing white girls has never left me. I have since explored other poetry nights at Busboys, like Sarah Browning’s Sunday Kind of Love, which features a mixed audience and poems about love and loss, and the Nine on the 9th event, which emphasizes featured and published poets from around the globe. Still, the normal Tuesday open mic remains a venue for people of color to vent their frustrations about love, sex, life – and of course, the ruling class. And while I see the same brown faces each week, all too often the white kids who I encounter in the Langston Room do not return, preferring to hang out in the Busboys lounge or bookstore, discussing politics and knocking back drinks.

I wonder why more white poets don’t take the mic and rail against their treatment. If I were white, I would want to. I would write a poem about having to atone for the sins of others, or choosing to be conscious of my whiteness, to claim it, rather than to just pretend my race does not exist.

Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe white poets don’t want to write about their whiteness, or can’t find the words express their truth without putting a very intimate part of the self up for public comment. I’ve wanted to write a poem for so long, in response to all of the poets who climb on stage and insinuate that they are more comfortable with their blackness than I am because they wear their hair in a natural style. I want to write a response poem, but the only line I’ve come up with in twelve months is “Do I need afro-centric hair to think afro-centric thoughts?”

[Gratuitous Boondocks reference: "You can't be a revolutionary without capri pants!"]

So, maybe it isn’t so easy to claim your space from someone who is telling you you have no right to be there. It takes a lot of courage to find your voice in a wave of hostile dissenting opinion.

After the white girls left that night, the mumbling man returned to the stage. He had forgotten his poem mid set and took a few minutes to recover. He stepped back on stage and resumed mumbling, still talking about “the WHITE man.” He then threw out an analogy – that the Washington Monument was “the white man’s great big white dick,” an homage to the raping of people, culture, and politics by someone else’s “pencil dicked agenda.”

The room fell out at that analogy – as native Washingtonians, we would never be able to look upon our two-toned monument the same way again. After a few more pointed comments, the mumbler ended his set grousing he was tired of looking upon the penis in the capital.

The next poet was called to the stage.

A shy white man blinked in the light. He climbed the stairs and cleared his throat nervously. He adjusted his papers, and took a sip of water. He stared into the sea of black faces, all of whom waited to see how he would chose to follow three straight acts of anti-white sentiment.

He took a deep breath, and with lightly accented voice, he offered this opening statement:

“I would like to state for the record…that is NOT my penis on the capital.”