Pamela Sneed has always been ahead of her time. When she took the stage at MOMA’s Salon 34 on anger, I was immediately drawn in by her aura. Sneed is tall with a shaved head, clad in black leather, thick black glasses around her eyes, and a stance that says, “I am here, deal with it”. Her performance was powerful, taking on the topic in a way only an experienced artist could. I felt momentarily like I was no longer in MOMA, but rather in a smoke filled bar on the Lower East Side, where Sneed got her start in the 1980’s downtown scene. Her work translates across spectrums, made to speak to the radicals and the institutions, the burgeoning artists and the veterans.
She was there with a group of her students and at the reception afterwards warmly prodded them to meet the artists and gallery representatives present there. Sneed is both a powerful artist in her own right and a shepherd of a new, young group of talents. There were no seats left when I arrived at the salon so I had awkwardly planted myself in the row of presenters at the very front, only feet from where Sneed performed. “I felt like we were vibing,” she said when I introduced myself. This led to a series of conversations where we talked about everything from her career beginnings to Olivia Pope’s character in Scandal. I was a little out of place as an art-world outsider, but Sneed was immediately down to talk to me.
Sneed is used to over-coming obstacles. One of her theater professors at Northeastern (Sneed eventually transferred to The New School) once said about an early play she directed, “There’s no way that you could’ve possibly directed this,” a refrain that Sneed heard throughout her early years as an artist. “When I was nine I wrote a short story and the teachers had a conference where they said there’s no way you could’ve written it; they didn’t believe me.” Sneed has always been ahead of her time, often being told early on that her artistic output wasn’t what the world needed at that moment, but they would certainly need it “soon.”
In recent years she’s begun to get the recognition she has long deserved. When I asked about her genesis as a writer she tells a story that only a rare kind of New York artist gets to tell, one that was around before the epidemic that wiped out much of the art-world in the 80’s and 90’s. ““One day I invited these lesbians from Harlem to The New School to play drums and they said they’d only come if I read poetry. The lights went on, I heard the music, and I was on. I remember getting a standing ovation. I feel like I stepped into myself at that moment.”
Sneed proudly identifies as a black lesbian and some of the most interesting moments of our conversation were when she discussed her time in New York City during the AIDs crisis.
“It was a very powerful time because we were in formation and these black queer identities were kind of being forged and all these pioneer kids came to New York City to kind of make themselves and then to go head first into the AIDs crisis” she stops and shakes her head. “A lot of my closest friends were black queer male writers and its interesting it has taken this long for a black queer woman to have a platform to talk about that era.” As a first hand witness to these events she’s able to give anecdotes on everything from Marsha P. Johnson (apparently she could be kind of a pain in the ass, a tribute it seems that Ms. Johnson would have enjoyed) to ACT UP (it still bothers Sneed that the history of that time is so uniformly focused on that singular organization). Her new book “Funeral Diva” covers her experiences during the era both as a survivor and one who mourns for the voices lost. It is forthcoming from City Light books in October.
A pop-culture junky myself, I draw Sneed into a conversation about guilty pleasures. She launches into an aside about why black lesbians are invisible in mainstream depictions of the genesis of Queer New York. “Why are there no black lesbians in the first season of Pose?” she asks at one point in our conversation. It’s a good question, and one that doesn’t have any easy answers. Black queer women have long been side-lined in the broader conversations about queerness and the era that has defined it in modern times. Sneed plans on changing all of that with her forthcoming book, a searing set of poems that breathe life into her lived experience of that time. I was lucky enough to get to read the title poem of the work “Funeral Diva.” As the Funeral Diva, she was often asked to perform poetic tributes, sometimes for young men she didn’t even know very well. She describes her role in vivid lines that slice the page with their blunt yet beautiful honesty.
“Later at a memorial and tribute to Black Lesbian poet Pat Parker
who died of cancer
Craig asked in vigilance, way ahead of his time, acknowledging women in a voice resounding over the auditorium at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center on 13th street,
In a poem about the massive casualties of AIDS and those left behind,
‘Who will care for our caretakers?’
a question that still resonates today as I think of Black women poets whose words like hands, shoulders, arms were used to uplift
Whose eyes like stars in darkness provided vision
Led us like runaways to freedom
Whose poems, songs and spirits were used to eulogize
Make sense of a senseless tragedy.”
When our conversations turn to questions about youth culture and “what’s next” Sneed balks a little at the question. “I’ve been recommending Victor Frankel a lot this week, he was a psychoanalyst and was incarcerated in the concentration camps.” Her unwillingness to praise youth artistic output exclusively is one of the elements of her view of the art world I found most refreshing. “I don’t believe in just focusing on youth culture. I curated an intergenerational platform, and it was really incredible, and it was on HIV/AIDs and a reviewer said it was really great, particularly the young people. It took a lot of courage to write to them and tell them everyone was great. I don’t think we should just focus on youth. On the one hand I teach, and I teach a lot of younger people, I also teach some older people, and all the kids coming out of these MFA programs- this is a really powerful generation, its political, so I say everyone I teach interests me and I’m excited by their work.”
We spend a lot of the rest of the time meandering about Sneed’s wanderlust and her spirituality. I had recently spent some time talking with a psychic in Tucson and the whole experience had put me into a spiritual mindset. Sneed sees herself as an intuit, a category I relate to. “I was talking to a tarot card reader years later and I hadn’t told her about Ghana, on one of your journeys your ancestors traveled back with you and they’re using you to speak. That was the most apt description of what had happened. I won’t go through the world talking about ghost and spirits, but they’re definitely a part of me. I’m definitely an intuit.”
We end the conversation talking about Olivia Pope and representations of black women in media. “I guess Olivia Pope was very powerful in certain ways, maybe it was sort of a Christy Love type of thing. We hadn’t had an Olivia Pope in forever. On a certain level she had some power, but the objectification and her going back and forth between these white guys…” Sneed is a wry observer of pop-culture trends and how even in seemingly powerful depictions of black women there is an under-current of the same racist-misogyny that has plagued portrayals of them for generations. In the chapbook Gift she writes:
Olivia Pope is supposed to be a powerful Black woman
Scandal fixer but her role
Like the help, is cleaning up
the messes of rich White people
She is also the object of not just one, but two powerful
White men she’s addicted to.
She’s abused, spied on, exchanged, goes back and forth
but its said it musn’t be interpreted this way
These shows like Scandal and Empire claim to lift us
Like Scotty, Kirk, and Spock into other dimensions
But when a character confesses murder or a profound family secret
Will still use a landline to communicate
although I know it’s for theatricality, I’m giving it
like Siskel &Ebert
a thumbs down,
also major Black woman side-eye asking Landlines, really?!
If Pamela Sneed has always been told her time is somewhere in the future, I believe that future has arrived. As we experience the cusp of a new pandemic, again slamming into New York harder than anywhere else in America, we are faced with the type of crisis that demands to be written about. Funeral Diva will be an important addition to the annals of queer history. In a time of chaos its always the artists who show us the way, I couldn’t think of a better guide than Sneed. Our conversations were a grounding experience in a deeply difficult time for our city. Pamela Sneed’s time is now, get ready.