Here’s something I keep thinking about:
It’s last year, a Saturday night, and I’m at a poetry slam. There is the glare of a theater bar light overhead, a microphone stand on a stage, and a waiting audience. I’ve reserved this time for reading words to strangers, and for the rest of my life, I’m going to think of Jonah Hill screaming “CYN-THI-A” when I hear the words “poetry slam” because it’s funnier than confronting how much I want my words to mean something when I go to these things. But it’s the audience’s gaze I remember most. The power of a couple strangers looking at you, creating you in a single glance, drawing on all their preconceived notions to try to understand who you are and what you’re going to read to them. They do that when you aren’t white. That gaze always seems heavier for some of us than others. When I’m part of the audience, I notice how people around me gather themselves a little differently and wait with bated breath when a minority stands on stage. When I stand up in front of them, I imagine them ticking off physical identifiers like skin colour, or my hijab, wondering which aspect of trauma my political identity is going to give them today. That gaze is expectant. It goes on forever in eyes belonging to peers and friends and people on the internet.
I quietly scroll through the notes section of my phone and speak into the dusty silence of that microphone.
“I didn’t want to write this,” I say, the signpost of all important and too-close-for-comfort creative endeavors. “But I felt I had to.”
The poem I read is the last poem I ever write and read aloud. It’s borne of not being able to ignore 2017’s political tragedies, and it condenses the trauma of feeling other into a paragraph. It’s a poem I’ve written for my community. I’ve written for them before, though. I’ve read poems about my grandma’s cardigan, and praying, and Ashton Kutcher. Everything is about being brown and being Muslim and feeling tired. Even the Ashton Kutcher one. But they’re not what the audience is waiting for. The poem I read that Saturday sounds like the news, points at the obviously political aspect of my identity (though I’ve never hidden it; that seems impossible), and conveys the title, “Millennial of Color.” It’s in a vocabulary people can congratulate themselves for knowing, and it’s full of sentences they can finish in perceptions of my identity in their head.
I feel too sensitive for the applause I get when I’m finished. This is what the audience is waiting for. A validation of their constructions of my identity and me. The combination of my keen sense of responsibility to write about being Muslim and their want to bear witness, to make use of, what I have to say. Hasn’t it always been the way for marginalized groups, to suddenly find themselves to be educators? Even when they don’t intend it?
In that moment, we engage in a call and response, initiated by the vocabulary of an identity they can only really recognize when it’s politicized, loaded with trauma, and filtered through think pieces and news reports that use stereotypes or half-truths to provide the audience with what becomes an expected, and sometimes inaccurate, narrative. I use my words with the insistence that they are a testament to my life and my experience. But as the night goes on, there seems to be a wrongness to the interaction and this demand for sad stories, angry stories, stories with bleeding, beating hearts; for millennials of color to deliver to those who ponder them in plush seats and from a distance. There seems to be a wrongness to the vocabulary, not because the words are inaccurate, not because we aren’t hurting and often desperately angry, but because they are consumed so easily by those who won’t always understand them; who don’t recognize how these words are limited; who expect more of the same show and tell with little consideration of the cost.
And, like a lot of people who feel and write and speak about the trauma of our current political period and of the exhaustion of inhabiting a certain kind of body, I step off the stage feeling a kind of tired that I at least know I’m not alone in. People carry on clapping. I imagine their perception of people like me grows wilder, their demand for anger-made-consumable peaking, the same few things they know about Muslims circulating in their heads. My mouth is dry.
A year later, I begin to wonder who this rehearsal of things and terms and feelings I know by heart is for.