Kenyon Farrow: Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. So excited to talk to you! To start the conversation about your new book, Funeral Diva: Why this book? And why did you write and publish this book now?
Pamela Sneed: Well, one, I mean, it’s been a long journey. The title piece, Funeral Diva, I started like, 20 years ago, and it’s changed over time. I always had the instinct to want to document Black lesbians and gays in the early 1990s and the impact of AIDS and cancer, and I felt like that documentation wasn’t happening. And so I had this vision that I wanted to do this as part of my life’s work. And it’s taken till now for people to be interested. I kept telling people that we have to talk about the AIDS crisis and stuff like that. And I guess maybe in the last, like, five years it’s become a hot topic and mainly white people, white men held that discussion. And there hasn’t been any adequate documentation of all the poets during that time.
And so I’m saying all of that to say that I thought to bring this book to fruition over a long journey. It started taking shape, like a couple of years ago. The prose pieces were started a long time ago. But then they’ve all been revamped, remodeled, reshaped. But then the other stuff has been written in the last two or three years. So I’ve always had this vision, but I think maybe, you know, people weren’t ready for it.
KF: And it’s something I have to say that I have personally been very frustrated by, in the last, you know, roughly 10 years. I’ve been excited that there’s been a kind of a public reckoning with the AIDS epidemic in the country in a way that it hadn’t before. But a lot of that, as you know, has focused on ACT UP and a handful of players there. It’s focused on Larry Kramer, and it really wasn’t until the show POSE that there was any sort of storytelling about Black and Brown folks in the context of the AIDS epidemic.
But you knit some things together. You’re dealing with the loss of folks to HIV/AIDS, and at the same time there were just so many Black lesbians who were also dying of breast cancer at the same time, and people—we will sort of talk about the individuals: June Jordan, Audre Lorde, or Pat Parker—but not actually as another kind of health crisis that had impact on so many women’s lives at the same time. We lost many others who maybe were not as famous as those three, but we don’t talk about that as another kind of twin epidemic that was happening alongside HIV. And to see your book bring these things together was really interesting, and important.
In a lot of poems about that era, you really talk about your friends; Donald Woods, for instance, where you really talk about the specifics. The peculiarities of some of those people that we now only read about. You give us some real insights into who some of these folks were beyond the pieces of activism and writings that still exist. And you also illuminate the dynamics of their funerals and memorials, sometimes things that were fucked up in terms of family members wanting to deny the person was either gay or that they had HIV or any number of those things. Did you have to do a lot of remembering and recalling some of the specificity of some of those instances, you know, in those funerals and memorials?
PS: Well, it was just in my bones—you know what I mean? Some interviewer called me, like a white woman, called me a fag hag. And she asked me if that was appropriate for me. And I was like, “Well, not really.” I have had an identification with gay men, with Black gay men; they were really important to me. So I was very much immersed in that community, as well as the lesbian community. It was just sort of like, we were a big family, you know what I mean? And so in that regard, it wasn’t even like having an effort to remember, it was just so much a part of my DNA, so it was more just documenting my experience. And I think Black lesbians haven’t had a voice—the story of AIDS was primarily told from male perspectives. And then white male perspectives, and nobody even thought to think, “Oh, yes, there’s an epidemic in terms of cancer and how it impacted women.”
And so in that regard, women were shut out of telling those stories, or to not acknowledge our roles, which is really problematic. Queer history is very segregated. So it’s like, ACT UP was downstairs [in New York City’s LGBT Center]; we were upstairs having the poetry readings and writing workshops. So it was upstairs, downstairs. And the only story that really got told was the downstairs story. And so, I want to end that kind of segregation, and then also that kind of gender segregation.
This is my complaint. There’s somebody doing a really comprehensive history of AIDS activism. And they’re a person of color, and they were only interested in ACT UP. And they couldn’t wait to get off the phone with me. And I was just really offended. Yeah. And then I spoke to a friend of mine, who is a white guy, and they were on the phone with him for hours. So our activism, a women’s activism, just isn’t that important. That’s what I felt.
KF: Yeah. And I have personally been approached by a few white male academics who are working on dissertations or books about HIV activists or Black gay men or whatever. Sometimes it’s a weird position to be in, because sometimes I’m like, I almost would rather be left out of the history, than for my story to only be picked up and kind of used to make a career for like another white gay academic to tell Black people’s stories. I just won’t do it, even if it costs me.
PS: Right. And then we’re sort of peppered in, you know, it’s like that token. But nothing comprehensive—we’re really not allowed to narrate or take control of it. It was really funny because something happened a little while ago, where POSE had decided to reenact the ACT UP action at the church. I didn’t see it, but I did hear about it. And like every white lesbian I know has been asked to consult on that show, you know, white lesbian activists. I was at Hetrick-Martin [an organization for LGBTQ youth] and all this stuff, and no one’s ever asked me my story, and I’ve been immersed in that community. Why haven’t they gone to activists of color and looked at our tradition of fighting back? It had to be different, we couldn’t get arrested, you know what I mean? I’m saying you can’t be Black, queer, and have a record, it doesn’t work like that. And so basically, the ways that we resisted were different, but to glorify, to consistently glorify, white activism is really problematic. And not to say that their work wasn’t valued. But I think it just kind of reinforces the same old race and sex dynamics, and it makes it seem as though trans people of color basically are looking for traditions of white activism.
KF: Yeah, you’re basically speaking my critique of that POSE episode. I get, obviously, some sort of reference or thinking about ACT UP on the show POSE because of it taking place in New York at that time in history. But that show’s only imagination in terms of resistance would be to kind of retool a couple of actions that ACT UP did and to have these characters immersed in them, as opposed to so many other things that would have been far more likely for those characters. Like, what would it have been to show Billy Porter’s character going to an Other Countries meeting? Or [Gay Men of African Descent], which was founded a year before ACT UP? Right? Because Pray Tell or any of those young men on the show most likely would have been at GMAD more than anywhere, right?
PS: Right! And then it’s like, a lot of people were in [Audre] Lorde’s poetry workshops, like Donald Woods was in class with Audre. And so, the bottom line is even about who was coming to voice. You know, Sapphire, Jewelle Gomez, Cheryl Clarke, all these people were around and coming to voice—and then also because a lot of people were dying, they started making all these zines and all this literature. And so this was the activism, all these gatherings where we made community and we made poetry, and we came to voice. Or on the [Christopher Street] piers. There’s something that I wanted to write about it. It’s been documented, like once, but I think Craig Harris was at some big health organization meeting, and he stormed the stage. And he said, “I will be heard.”
KF: Yeah, it was at the American Public Health Association annual conference.
PS: Right. And so it’s like, what about that? You know what I mean, right? Not just like what Larry Kramer did. But what about what this Black queer man [did] in front of this conference? I’m glad we’re on the same page about that.
KF: I mean, there are things in Funeral Diva you tell about this history that we haven’t touched on, but I’m curious to know—what do you feel like are the other things about AIDS history that have been largely missed or under-represented?
PS: Well, there’s something really important in Funeral Diva that was written in the last couple of years. And that was a section when I say, you know, some of us did terrible things to survive. And some of us were not always noble. You know, the narrative gets reduced, right? And it’s always portrayed as though we were all suffering at the bedside. And yeah, that’s part of it, but also, we were forced into the most terrible war-like circumstances. And some of us did things that we wouldn’t normally do—you know what I mean? And I guess I wanted to throw a wrench into that, “Oh, we were all so noble.” I wanted it to be complex in the way that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie depicts in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. There’s a boy character that we really, really like, and it’s during the Biafran war. And basically he participates in a gang rape, and he’s kind of forced into it, but the bottom line is to show how dehumanized we all get in certain circumstances. And that some of us didn’t do the noble things. There are people who abandon their lovers. There are just horrible, horrible stories underneath everything. And so I kind of wanted that to come out. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, where in order to survive, you’ve got to choose one thing or the other, when both choices aren’t good and in some ways it’s not really a choice. And those are the circumstances of war. And so that, for me, was really important.
KF: Thank you for that. The later pieces in the book are really dealing with current crises, whether we’re talking about COVID-19 and its impact particularly on Black folks, or the various police and vigilante murders of Black folks in the United States. This book is ostensibly about history, but how do you see what we’re kind of grappling with right now, in conversation with that history? What does that look like?
PS: Well, all those COVID poems were written last year, when the pandemic first kicked off, and I did the National Poetry Month challenge. I never do, but during the pandemic I was like, “Oh, I want to try that.” I got a partner in poetry, and basically, we decided to write a poem every day for 30 days, which is actually really transformative. It’s really powerful. And so one of the things that really happened for me is when people were like, “Oh, shocking inequities in the health care system that is not prepared to treat people of color,” I was certainly not prepared and not surprised.
I don’t like people that are quick to make the comparison to the AIDS epidemic. There are places where things kind of overlap and echo, and certainly those of us who’ve been through one epidemic are much more practiced in understanding exactly what’s going on. I mean, nobody could even understand the type of scorn and the type of neglect that we experienced in the ’80s and ’90s. So I don’t really want to make an equal comparison or anything like that. It’s just that there are places where we can certainly learn from the AIDS epidemic. I know Dr. Fauci was in conversation with ACT UP and all that stuff for a long time. So, you know, he’s very versed in terms of pandemics. So there are places that overlap and echo, but, you know, I don’t want to make direct comparisons.
KF: What in 2021 are you hopeful for?
PS: I’m hopeful that Trump is on his way out. I’ve been around for a while, and I have to say I never ever anticipated we’d see the Klan rise again. For the next four years, I am hopeful to feel some relief. I’m hopeful that there’s some new energy in the White House. Let’s just say that. I’m hopeful about my art. I find myself growing a lot. I’m hopeful about my students. I don’t know how to write a praise poem, but I want to write a praise poem for artists, because I really feel like we’ve carried this pandemic. The amount of generosity that artists have given of their work and their time, and the classes and everything, donate, donate, donate, to help people through this. And so, really, we’re healers. I’m pretty proud of that, to be part of that. And I feel like that’s hopeful.
And also, I feel like there’s a new generation coming up, and I feel that they’re doing the right thing. And that’s hopeful, but I don’t just believe in the youth, I believe in everybody. There is a lot of transformation of every age. I was really offended by, during [Black Lives Matter] taking off a few years back, a picture going around on Facebook or whatever. And there was some young, fair-skinned woman, and she’s saying, “We’re not our ancestors, we will fuck you up.” You know, people thought that was just so brilliant. I was like, “Miss Thing, the only reason why y’all did that whole thing is because your ancestors did some fucking up. How do you think you’re standing here?” So BLM was really powerful, but it was also intergenerational. I’m hopeful about intergenerational conversations and platforms and activism.
KF: Thank you. In closing, just in general, thank you for all your years of art and activism. I think the first time I saw you was in the ’90s, on the PBS show In the Life, and I think that you might have even used the phrase “funeral diva” on that show. I have a weird memory. But I remember seeing you on one of those episodes when I was probably in my late teens/early ’20s, in Ohio. And I think that your work and the work of a lot of folks that you write about in Funeral Divas is important. It helped make me. So I just want to say thank you for your work over all those years. And the work that you continue to do for us. Thank you.
PS: Thank you. Thank you, too.