Men’s Work, White Work, Trauma, And Never Ever Surrender: An Interview With Slam Poets Lauren Whitehead And Ashley August

by Lisa Markuson

When was the last time you asked someone if they were okay? If you could do something to help them? Did you mean it?

As a white woman, it’s too easy to let my life be, well, too easy. I have to push myself to do uncomfortable work and not cower from vulnerable and difficult situations. We all have our own work to do.

I sat down with two stunningly fierce black poets from the Bowery Slam Team, Lauren Whitehead and Ashley August, to learn more about how their female identity, their feminism, and their race inform their work and their ability to survive in a society plagued by toxic masculinity. The following are some enlightening anecdotes and pieces of wisdom they shared with me, all of which brought us back to similar conclusions: Do your own work, offer genuine help to victims of trauma and oppression, and never, ever surrender to the universe.

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LA: Ashley, you’re the only female teammate on the Bowery Slam Team, and Lauren, you’re co-coaching with a man — you’ve both stepped up to fill a space in what otherwise would have been an all male team. How did you give yourselves that permission and fill that calling?

A: We’re dealing with poets who would ideally be more woke to these issues — the lack of a female voice, for instance. We started to realize that if it were an all male squad, it would be easy for them to fall into a loop of this acknowledgment of their male privilege. That isn’t helpful to women. Hearing them step up and say, “I have privilege” onstage…it is still hurtful to me and to other women. Without a female voice, the work wasn’t doing the work.

L: Here’s a story that really defines that issue, told to me firsthand by a man that would self-define as a feminist — it’s the pinnacle of men trying to do good but not doing enough. He told me about a woman wearing a form-fitting outfit to the corner store. He said she had to push her way out of the store through a crowd of objectifying men, then walk away with men following her verbally harassing her. I said to him, “What did YOU do to help in this situation?” and he said, “What could I do, I was on the losing team.” I was furious and said, “No, YOU weren’t losing, the only person losing was her. You should have stepped up.” This hypothetically well-meaning man is silently blocking the liberation of the female, just like the well-meaning white liberal who is in the way of black liberation. Danger is everywhere in that scenario.

unnamed 2 copy copy copy copyAshley August

LA: So this danger you’re talking about — trauma from so many angles. What do you do to protect yourself from it?

A: Protect myself? I just go out and expect it. I’m at the point where I just bark back. I feel I  should be able to respond to men who harass me in the same way that they speak to me — but somehow when I do, then my life gets threatened.

L: If you’re kind to them, it goes from zero to one hundred. You respond civilly, then all of a sudden they’re telling you they’re going to lick your whole body.

A: And if you tell them to back off, or ignore them completely, it goes from “Good morning… I said good morning…” to “I’ll kill you.” This masculinity is so fragile.

LA: You’re absolutely right, of course, and that’s what I’m thinking about — how can feminine spectrum people bring that energy into toxic masculinity and dissolve it? Is that possible?

L: In a word, no. It’s men’s work to go deeper in feminism. It’s the work of the white ally to figure out how they can combat this culture of racial oppression. I get way too many texts from white friends after these murders, while I myself am in trauma and in grief. I can’t teach you while I’m grieving. Women, especially as women of color, we do emotional labor that we don’t get paid for. I’m not going to help you unpack your fragile masculinity, or your big white feels. I teach  syllabi on this — American studies, mass incarceration, “that other theater.”

A: White allies, they still just don’t get it sometimes.

L: I’m working on a play with a white collaborator. The word n***** is used — it’s meant to be in a black person’s mouth. Running lines with him, he said that word, twice. Something you will never know as a white person is that when we hear that word from your mouth, the reaction happens in our bodies. It is a physical bodily response. And in that moment we have to do extra work, just to get through that trauma. Then, afterward, I had to explain to him why it was wrong. What my silence meant. If I didn’t bring it up to him, he would’ve never apologized. He thought it was my job to bring it to him, even though he knew it was wrong.

A: You hear it and can’t help but think, that word doesn’t sound new to your mouth.

L: Our silence in the presence of that becomes an act of violence against ourselves.

A: My best friend Tim and I are doing work together, talking about sexual violence that might not look like “traditional” violence. For instance, if I’m not responding to you, you need to know that that’s not okay. You need to work on that yourself.

unnamed 1 copy copy copy copy copy copy copy copy copyLauren Whitehead

LA: So what if every man said something like a simple “are you okay” to the females in his life? When you think about it, when does a male ever just check in like that with a female? Would that be a start at least?

L: My grief is one heaping mound of shit to sift through. When you’re in a trauma response, you feel like no one is witnessing your distress. You feel completely invisible. It would feel really great for someone else to clock my distress. Same as sexism is for men and women, racism is traumatic for white people and for people of color. Nobody is okay in these systems. Everybody is in trauma. So yeah, do ask me if I’m okay, but don’t ask me if you don’t really care.

A: We’re taught to suppress because our emotions are too big — it’s an automatic response for me to repress and just say “I’m okay” every time someone asks. If I’ve said I was okay too many times in a day, and I was lying every time — then there is an explosion.

L: Essentially, men, white people, if you don’t want me to have negative assumptions about you, go do some work with your boys. Go do some work with other white folks. Transfer responsibility to the people who are responsible for it. The work doesn’t need to happen to me, it needs to happen to YOU.

A: White people, when you want to know what these murders are like for us, just take every single one of these deaths as if they were a personal death in our family. They are all deaths in our family.

L: Ask me if I want to talk, respect me if I say no, and offer me something to help me heal.

LA: I couldn’t agree more, and I want to do more to rise to the occasion. I agree so deeply with something Kimberle Crenshaw said recently, that “the time just feels right for something big to happen, something new, something profound, something meaningful to turn our world around.”

Maybe that world turning process is set in motion every time people in positions of power — males, whites, those with privilege — look hard at themselves, do their own work, and offer the genuine question to the people suffering. If we all go outside of ourselves and the ease of that privilege and offer genuine help, none of us will need to surrender.

The Bowery Slam Team just returned from the National Poetry Slam in Decatur, Georgia. Stay up-to-date and come see them perform at Bowery Poetry in New York City.

Photos by Max Stossel & Peter Eliot Buntaine

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