No Country for Feminist Black Women: A Piece of Creative Nonfiction

trigger warning: rape, child abuse

I found feminism in college. I was living back home in Georgia and going to Augusta University. I had a boyfriend that made me feel like shit, and I couldn’t figure out why. One night, out drinking and being sad, I found myself having a long conversation with some women from the Women’s Studies department at my college. That was the beginning of my feminist education.

During the years that followed, I did my homework on feminism. Through research, discourse and A LOT of arguing I found my way towards a definition of what feminism was for me. Feminism also opened the door to a better understanding of white supremacy, and I finally began to confront the fact that my identity as black was tied to my identity as a woman. I learned about misogynoir and systemic racism. I learned about all the ways that the men in my life white, black (and latino) had marginalized me and abused me in our relationships.

Near the end of my time in Georgia, I began to speak out about all of these things. Finding social justice in the time of Ferguson was tough and incredibly emotional. Friends of mine I had for years were yelling at me telling me I was too feminist or that I talked about race too much. A white man I loved very much stood me up for a date because he couldn’t handle how “radical” I had gotten. I left Georgia at my lowest point, but I was hopeful.

I was coming to New York City. I was going to graduate school at NYU. The friends I had left back home were so hopeful for me. They told me I would find people as passionate about social justice as I was in the big “liberal” city. That cheered me up, but at the back of my mind I wondered if they were just relieved not to have such a caustic, confrontational presence stirring up shit around them all the time. Most of my friends were white, and though I’m sure they would never say so… I always felt like things would would be much calmer when I wasn’t around.

Here’s the thing: I am a black, queer, chubby, visually disabled feminist woman. I am a lot of things people don’t like or respect. And thing about racism, sexism, ableism or anything else and it’s not about good and bad. It’s not about monsters and saints. Most people just want to be around people like them. I was the black sheep of my friend group. I was the one that made it hard to be sexist or racist or ableist, even in joke form. I was the one that was always telling the white people in my life that they did fucked up things on a daily basis, and no one wanted to be around that. It’s not fun to be around that. That is something I understand. And I’m sure you’re sitting there reading this and feeling sad. Maybe you’re about to type a comment about how I shouldn’t talk about myself that way, but don’t. I’m being realistic. Most white people don’t want to know that they’re racist. They just don’t want to know. Most men don’t want to KNOW they prefer white women; they just want to date white women and not think about why they aren’t interested in women of any other color. People don’t want to know these things. And people like me are a constant reminder of shit they don’t want to know about themselves.

It doesn’t matter that I’m smart and “articulate”. It doesn’t matter what I love Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. My Beach House and Radiohead albums don’t matter either. I’m still who I am, and the moment I call attention to it I become the “other”. I don’t mind being that, but other people do. We have to be the same. Acknowledging differences would mean acknowledging inequality, and many people just don’t want to do that.

(I had also gotten raped by my roommate a few days after getting my acceptance letter from NYU and everyone, including some friends, were huge dicks about it. Because it made me EVEN more feminist and EVEN more of a pain in the ass, I guess. And it being a reaction to my trauma was my fault, I guess.)

So, obviously, I had my doubts. I didn’t feel as optimistic about moving to New York City as friends did. I was going into a Dramatic Writing MFA at New York University. I didn’t expect to be surrounded by people of color. I definitely didn’t expect people to be as into social justice as I was either. I had very low expectations.

As it turned out, I was one of maybe 7 black people in my 29 person MFA class. It was a higher number than I expected, and as I found out later, it was a high number for the program in general. I only met one person who cared about social justice and feminism as much as I did, and she was not one of the 7. So once again, it was just me and my white friend; both fighting the good fight, but I was seen as the “angry” one.

This made graduate school miserable for me. I was treated like an angry feminist by all my classmates, including the black ones. And that is not to say that I didn’t adore my classmates. I did. I even adored the ones that saw me as angry. Like I said earlier, none of this is about good and evil. It was never about that. Good and evil are for stories and superhero movies. I was treated like an angry presence because I was a black woman with opinions and EVERY RACE is guilty of being shitty to black women with opinions, including black people.

The frustrating thing about it was, I felt many of my classmates were given more room to express their emotions, especially the negative ones. They were catered to by classmates and professors, while I was just treated as this inhuman angry black woman who woke up angry and didn’t deserve sympathy. On top of the that, I was a rape survivor with a history of child abuse and terrible PTSD. My move to New York and pursuit of my writing career had at least 50% to do with the fact that I wanted to be as far away from my mother and my past as humanly possibly.

All these little bits about me, make good (and often cheap) dramatic devises. Especially the rape part.

So on top of ALL THAT I found myself feeling re-victimized every time some guy (and sometimes woman) decided to throw rape into his script. Which was A LOT. Writers are obsessed with throwing rape into their work for cheap drama. And most of the writers that do this aren’t even survivors themselves, and admit as much. They just think it’s good drama.

It’s actually just gross.

So graduate school was not going great for me. During my time in school I was raped 3 times. Once by a coworker. Once by a friend. And once by a date. And each time I had to come into school and get treated like I was angry or I had to deal with reading some script with rape in it and I was falling apart. To add more to the madness, after the third time I was raped, my on-off boyfriend from Georgia came to live with me in New York. He thought him coming would fix everything. I knew that wasn’t the case, but I wanted to believe it. We got engaged. We didn’t tell anyone. I was the one that proposed.

Surprise, surprise: It didn’t work out. He went back to Georgia, and I started stand-up comedy.

I was running again. Another scene. Another group of artists. Many other physical locations. And this time it didn’t cost nearly as much to do it.

At first it was great.

No, I’m lying, actually.

At first I thought it was great, but it was more of the same. Men being shitty to me. Me feeling out of place. Men being sexually predatory. Me feeling respondible for that.

One early incident I remember vividly. I was at a comedy club. It was actually the one where I did my very first open mic. At the time, I thought that place was my home. (It was not.)

Anyway, I was there, at the bar. I saw a comic I knew and tried to talk to him. He was talking to another comic who visibly didn’t like me. I tried not to let it bother me. I kept talking to this guy that I thought was a my friend and his friend kept taking shitty digs at me. Finally, I asked the guy what his problem was, and he proceeded to lay into me.

He told me that I was stupid. He told me I hadn’t said an intelligent thing all night. He told me that he couldn’t believe I was in a Masters program because I was such a fucking idiot. He told me that I wasn’t funny based on a set I did at the open mic earlier that night (I was only a few months into comedy at this point, remember). He was speaking to me with such disdain that spit kept flying out of his mouth and hitting me in the face.

And so, being the stable person that I was, I swung at him. It didn’t connect. I didn’t get a scratch on him. Didn’t even touch him. Then my “friend” told me that I didn’t deserve defending and said it was shitty I would try to hit someone. And then I got kicked out of the bar (for the night). Actually the entire night, the bartender was the only person who treated me as a person. I came back and personally apologized to that bartender later, and things were squashed.

Fast-forward to the summer after graduation. I finished my degree (after considering quitting many times) and I was still doing comedy, and getting much better at it. I had also found a comedy club I loved.

The Experiment Comedy Gallery.

It was a place that called itself feminist, so I believed it. It called itself social justice friendly. It called itself a safe space for women. I believed all of it.

But the truth was, I never felt comfortable there.

I spent all my time there. I often waited until closing to leave there. I ran a weekly open mic and later a weekly show. I ate, drank and breathed that place. I would show up sometimes just to hang out and eat a sandwich and chat with people.

And yet, every time I would go home, I would feel like shit. The next day, I would rationalize it to myself. I would remind myself that it was a safe space for women. I would remind myself that it was social justice friendly. It was like I was brainwashing myself to continue thinking it was a good place. I would let people be shitty to me and condescending and I would let myself get pushed around by the owner. And I just kept telling myself I was being dramatic and that these people were the good guys.

Even though that same guy who called me stupid and unfunny was always there, and he was friends with the owner, I would tell myself “well, people have all kinds of friends” and leave it alone.

It was like Stockholm Syndrome.

The spell broke for me one night when I was hosting my open mic without my female cohost. I had a male comic fill in for her and it was okay at first.

The thing was, I was working on a dry schtick and my male cohost was doing a high-energy kind of dopey schtick, and together it just made me look like a shrill bitch. I was honestly okay with that.

Until the room turned on me.

A comic got onstage and talked about how much the mic sucked and how much he didn’t like my schtick and then he encouraged the other comics (all male) to turn on the room. That was fucked up enough. Then, some drunk guy who wasn’t a comic got onstage and yelled for 5 minutes about how dumb Trump was. He told no jokes. All he did was yell. Right into my face.

After his set I got on stage and said I didn’t appreciate being yelled at, especially when there were no jokes being told. Then, directly after I got off stage a male comic stepped on and said “anyone who didn’t like what that guy did is a fucking idiot”.

I got pissed and left. On my way out I told the venue owner that I didn’t want that guy coming to my mic anymore. When I went home, I banned him from the mic. It wasn’t a proud moment, but I wanted to make a point about hwo toxic the room was and how unsafe I felt and how I felt like it had do with the fact that I was a black woman trying to control an open mic full of mostly white guys who didn’t respect me.

Later, that guy made an attempt to “apologize” to me, but he mostly just talked about me being wrong and overreacting. He didn’t admit fault at all.

I just walked away, not accepting the apology.

Later on the owner of the venue made a post on facebook about how no one who runs mics is allowed to ban anyone and then encouraged everyone who was banned to return to the mics that they were banned from.

That is the moment when I realized that the Experiment Comedy Gallery was not a safe space.

So I decided then and there to cancel my mic. My co-host wasn’t super invested in it, so it didn’t seem like a big deal.

I still had a show running there and I decided with my other cohost that I’d keep running it for a while and then we w0uld change venues, because I didn’t feel comfortable at that venue anymore.

I made a post ending the mic and what followed was a very nasty argument with the runner of the venue who felt like I had “disrespected him” by ending my mic.

And he laid into me just like his friend did that night at the bar:

He told me I wasn’t anyone. He told me all the other venues hated me. He told me most other comics didn’t like me. He told me I wasn’t that talented and that the only reason I was doing okay was because he took a chance on me.

He basically yelled at me like an abusive boyfriend. He tried to isolate my perspective to make me think that I needed him and would never survive without him.

I suddenly realized why him and that other comic who yelled at me were such great friends.

And then he dropped the bomb: He told me that if I didn’t get myself in line and start respecting him, he would replace me on my own show.

And here is the thing about my show: He always tried to manage it over my head. He would book people without telling me, referred to it as “his show” and undermined me at every turn. ANd whenever I or my cohost try to call him out on it he would have a tantrum.

So it didn’t surprise me one bit when he strong-armed me out of my show. He told me the show belongs to the venue and everyone I booked was booked by the venue, and not me. He also told me he was going to replace me on the show with another comic who he knew didn’t like me.

So I walked. And I heve never set foot in that place again.

This space that billed itself as “safe” was everything that I had run away from. It was just another place where I was disrespected, treated as angry, marginalized for being a black woman with opinions and ultimately ignored for demanding some form of respect and autonomy.

I made a few very public posts on Facebook explaining the situation and trying to warn people about the way that he treated me. Barely anyone paid much mind. People sent me private messages telling me about experiences they had where the owner of the venue had been scary and sexually aggressive, but no one admitted anything publicly.

Friends of mine, including my mic cohost and show cohost as well as another comic who worked at the venue, criticized the way I handled the situation and essentially abandoned me. One of them even told me that they didn’t think I was funny, just to throw salt in the wound. This person had never seen me do an official spot, even when I would invite them to shows I was booked on. They just heard a tape I did from when I first started and looked at my hosting and decided I wasn’t funny, and had apparently always felt that way. I was crushed.

This person who worked at the venue and both of my cohosts were all women, by the way. Which just makes it even sadder.

All of this, on top of everything else I’ve been through, sent me into the deepest depression of my life. And, as fate goes, during all of this madness I fell in love. With a great guy. A guy who became my confidante.

And after hearing about everything that had happened in comedy and school and my life in Georgia, he posited a question to me:

Why keep doing comedy?

So I stopped for a while, out of depression and fear and a gnawing feeling that he might be right and maybe I’m just not cut out for comedy.

It’s hard being in love and also going through your darkest period. I had all this rage I didn’t know how to express. I couldn’t put it all on him. That would be unfair. I was afraid of causing anymore drama too, so I just decided to throw my experiences and depression into one singular piece of artwork-

A play.

I stopped performing and instead wrote a play about comedy. It was cathartic and really helped me heal. By the time I finished it, I almost felt alright.

Then, the Experiment Comedy Gallery shut down and a friend and colleague bravely came forward about being assaulted.

Suddenly, people were ready to listen. They want my opinions. They want my insight. They were listening and they were apologizing and they were growing.

I am very happy about that. I really am.

But as everyone collectively sees the light and starts working to make comedy a better place for women, I can’t help but wonder:

Does anyone respect me or my voice? Will they ever?

And why should I keep trying?

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