I Can’t Breathe

I suppose I should place them under separate files
Both died from different circumstances kind of, one from HIV AIDS and possibly not having
taken his medicines
the other from COVID-19 coupled with
complications from an underlying HIV status
In each case their deaths may have been preventable if one had taken his meds and the
hospital thought to treat the other
instead of sending him home saying, He wasn’t sick enough
he died a few days later
They were both mountains of men
dark black beautiful gay men
both more than six feet tall fierce and way ahead of their time
One’s drag persona was Wonder Woman and the other started a black fashion magazine
He also liked poetry
They both knew each other from the same club scene we all grew up in
When I was working the door at a club one frequented
He would always say to me haven’t they figured out you’re a star yet
And years ago bartending with the other when I complained about certain people and
treatment he said sounds like it’s time for you to clean house
Both I know were proud of me the poet star stayed true to my roots
I guess what stands out to me is that they both were
gay black mountains of men
Cut down
Felled too early
And it makes me think the biggest and blackest are almost always more vulnerable
My white friend speculates why the doctors sent one home
If he had enough antibodies
Did they not know his HIV status
She approaches it rationally
removed from race as if there were any rationale for sending him home
Still she credits the doctors for thinking it through
But I speculate they saw a big black man before them
Maybe they couldn’t imagine him weak
Maybe because of his size color class they imagined him strong
said he’s okay
Which happened to me so many times
Once when I’d been hospitalized at the same time as a white girl
she had pig-tails
we had the same thing but I saw how tenderly they treated her
Or knowing so many times in the medical system I would never have been treated so terribly if I
had had a man with me
Or if I were white and entitled enough to sue
Both deaths could have been prevented both were almost first to fall in this season of death
But it reminds me of what I said after Eric Garner a large black man was strangled to death over
some cigarettes
Six cops took him down
His famous lines were I can’t breathe
so if we are always the threat
To whom or where do we turn for protection?

More by Pamela Sneed

Born Frees

I used to write about Assotto Saint

Slamming his hand down on the pulpit at Donald Wood’s funeral

when it was common to hide the cause of death of

young men who’d died from AIDS if they were buried at all

and weren’t abandoned

Someone told me about a thin boy

Thin with fear and death

played piano for the choir

no one touched him or talked about it

I know in my mother’s family

her mother’s sister said a parasite had killed

her son when he died suddenly

But I remember once him coming out of a Gay bar in Boston

all the white boys said, “How do you know her?”

I don’t know if he or I said cousin

I’m his cousin

He made me promise not to tell anyone in the family

I’d seen him there

So when they said parasite I knew something didn’t ring true

His mother a seemingly healthy woman died shortly after that

but I always felt their deaths were related

His mother either from the lies or repression

or a broken heart

having lost her young son

 

And I know everyone blames Jussie Smollett for his lies and staged attacked

but it makes me think there was something very toxic going on

that he didn’t feel he could talk to someone

Either that he was covering up an addiction or a hookup.

Watching Assotto stand up at Donald’s funeral and tell the truth

goes down in history as one of the bravest moments I’d ever witnessed

Either that or Audre Lorde spreading open the arms of her dashiki

the bravest woman we’d all witnessed

telling a crowded room of followers

I began on this journey as a coward

That or seeing a friend at the height of the AIDS era

at a bar his face covered in purple welts

refusing to hide

going out in public

That or Donald Woods being feeble

barely able to walk

accepting an award as a director of AIDS films

Or an ex-lover on a beach taking off her top and refusing

to hide her mastectomy scar

Or when Danitra Vance performed at The Public Theater

and danced naked revealing her mastectomy scars

and Audre refusing to wear a prosthesis

Or when Zakes Mokae in Master Harold and the Boys in the first Broadway play

that a cousin took me too

said to his white master, “Have you ever seen a Black man’s ass?”

and pulled down his pants and revealed himself to the audience

I was sixteen years old

Or seeing my mother beaten religiously

and still go out to work as if it hadn’t happened at all

Or even me surviving so many incredible tests

Once when I was talking to a doctor, I doubted my strength

He looked at me incredulously and said, “You are strong.”

Another doctor looked at me

my suffering

And asked isn’t anyone there for you?

And another said you deserve to be taken care of

Today once more I am nursing my broken heart

Caused by someone who betrayed

was not honest

That and attending an event and asking white people to give up

their seats to Black people who couldn’t sit down

And seeing social justice in action

Yes I often think of Assotto for the important place

he resides in my history

But today I am examining his tactics

pulling the tools off the shelf

dusting off the weaponry

in an exhibit

because today I need to use what he taught me.

 

Today I feel that puff of rage

That continuous assault

And I want to stand up and testify

though I too haven’t been asked

I want to interrupt all the proceedings

all the places Black lesbians have been erased

and silenced

Like looking down at a manuscript

seeing that they asked a young white woman to write about

Black queer history

when it’s been my area of expertise

forever

Or only attributing ’80s and ’90s AIDS activism

To ACT UP

I want the point of outrage now to not only the historicizing of AIDS

But the fact that women and Black lesbians

have been erased from the dialogue

When there were so many organizations like GMAD

Other countries ADODI

Men of All Colors Together

Salsa Soul/Arican American lesbians united for Societal Change

Las Buenas Amigas

and more

Or asking where are all the Black lesbians on Pose

because certainly they were on the piers and part of that history

And why are white men constantly at the helm

to tell our stories

And why don’t white queers recognize this

That and seeing panel after panel being organized on history and art

all things important to the world and no one thinking or noticing

it might be important to have a Black lesbian present

Just like they kicked Stormé out of

the Stonewall narrative.

And what about the people who weren’t on the streets

but in jobs

fighting the system

The dykes and queers

meeting each other forming community

and connections and families

and love

Just like in South Africa where they prevented intermingling

but ways were found

And each time we touched or loved

found each other in darkness and light

It was resistance

Each time we told each other You’re beautiful

You’re not wrong

It was resistance

When we stood up to the parents and families

and courts and those that shunned us

It was resistance

Wore what we really wanted

It was resistance

Yelled at doctors and drug professionals

It was resistance

Every time we wrote and read poems

It was resistance

Every time some queer kid

stays alive because they saw us

read us

discovered the archive

We’ve won

 

Every war is fought on our bodies

And one day after the gender racial

sexual orientation wars are over

in America

there will be a new generation

just like in South Africa called

the Born Frees.

 

—2019


Watch Pamela Sneed read a version of this poem at the 2019 Stonewall 50 reading.

Never Again

At the end of every holocaust film I’ve seen and there

are not that many

they show real life survivors and the lines are

Never Again

and some of us like me/stare into these films

down long tunnels of history

wondering how it could have ever happened at all

that a leader and his minions could be so toxic, poisonous

you’d turn against your neighbors

and you could be so oblivious, brainwashed, scared

desperate to be superior or to survive

you’d do anything-or almost.

They say never again

but it is again

as I look at the deportations

round ups

I’m reminded of Idi Amin when he cast out foreigners

and Forest Whitaker in the film The Last King of Scotland/when he played him.

And to see it is again

at rallies, at protests, they show the coat hangers and crude instruments

women were forced to use in back alley abortions

We say never again but taking away women’s choice

and Planned Parenthood it is again.

Today started out in an argument with a so called fan

who didn’t understand why I mentioned race so much in my new book

and that white man is not the first/a black woman

asked too.

I wanted to scream HELLO haven’t you seen the news?

Didn’t you see what happened to Stephon Clark?

unarmed and shot in the back six times by police

And no one even cares what happens to women/

Black lesbians or lesbians of color

There’s no public outcry.

A student once wrote to me in an academic paper

that a parent forced her to stop playing sports

because they said sports made her more of a dyke

It murdered my student inside because she was an athlete

Yeah so the white guy I argued with about my book

said he was just giving me some good advice

from his experience as an empath

I said I don’t need your advice

I have reasons for talking about race and gender in the interpersonal

He said he was just trying to help me.

I’ll offer this non-sequitur

Winnie Mandela died a few weeks ago

She had great impact on me

I read she was nobility

But then of course the difference between her and say

how Princess Diana was treated

Everyone accepted and loved Diana’s silent/passive status

She was allowed to be gorgeous

No one ever associated her with that dirty colonial stain

There are moments in that recent Winnie Mandela doc that stand out to me

where she buried her face in her hands and screamed out

as I have so many times, “I’ve been betrayed”/the other moment

was when she said she was the only ANC member

brought to TRC and made to testify

Also that Nelson Mandela forgave a nation

but he could never forgive her.

I think what was done to Winnie

is also done to other Black women and working artists

Black women fighting to give language/resistance

but it only matters when a celebrity says or does it.

At Cape Coast Castle in Ghana after you’ve passed

the door of no return

there is a plaque donated to the Castle by Black tribal elders/it reads:

May we never sell ourselves into slavery again...

But it is Again.

Twizzlers

Size color class I was never allowed to be little

And by little I mean innocent

By little I mean allowed to play

make mistakes

If anything occurred in whatever setting

I was always blamed

I was mistaken constantly for being older than I was

At 6 when my stepmother came she refused to

allow me alone time with my father

If a moment occurred she asked

What were you doing with him?

As if I at 6 were molesting my father

I was caught once through an open bathrobe

trying to see my father’s penis

My stepmother never forgot

You were trying to look at him, she said.

I was not given toys books anything

Stuffed animals

Bows ribbons anything that may be attached to a little girl

I was also my mother’s sounding board for her adult problems

with my Dad

Constantly instructed to call the police

when he hit her

The only thing my parents could figure out to do together

for some small infraction was to give me punishment

2 weeks

So I never knew the nurturance

that girls got

My adult life has duplicated this

always to blame

always outside

refusing to see my little girl

On occasion my mother sent me to the store to get candy

Things that she liked

Fire balls

Reese's peanut butter cups

Kit Kat bars

Black licorice

Sometimes red which I liked

Twizzlers

I remember once chewing a pack of red Twizzlers as an adult

the red stem hung out of my mouth

A friend at the time exclaimed

You're such a little girl …

And once when I was with a woman

Someone looked on and said oh

Your little girl is out

In relationships too I was never

the little girl

In fact in most of them I rescued radically immature women

I was their mother caretaker

the one with all responsibility

And of course when it ended I was always to blame

Everything to me lies around class race gender lines

Even in so called evolved communities

Even with people of color

I always know no one would treat a white skinned woman or a man the way I've been treated

In colleges where I teach

I'm always aware of the hierarchy

People screaming about diversity

I moan complain

How the Aids narrative only belongs to men

They never ask women

Black women

As if Aids didn't happen to us

Our fathers brothers sons nephews

Cousins acquaintances

The black gay boys in the choir

became our disappeared

I remember a pair of black gay men

who were spiritual

would act as ministers

and bury the dead black boys

families wouldn't recognize

These men showed up as the priests

and gave last rites

And what of the women

A mother nursing a grown son

returned to a baby

ravaged by Aids

Me being young myself going into sick wards

like leper colonies

seeing those abandoned by society

I never forgot

Even my era did not allow me to be little

innocent

A threat if I spoke up

A competitor for middle class white girls

who had the world handed to them

And resented me/you for surviving

thriving despite all odds.

Related Poems

A Small Needful Fact

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

Heartbeats

Work out. Ten laps.
Chin ups. Look good.

Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.

Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.

Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.

Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.

Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.

Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.

Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.

Don’t cry. Take charge.
No sex. Eat right.

Call home. Talk slow.
Chin up. No air.

Arms wide. Nodes hard.
Cough dry. Hold on.

Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

No air. Breathe in.
Breathe in. No air.

Black out. White rooms.
Head hot. Feet cold.

No work. Eat right.
CAT scan. Chin up.

Breathe in. Breathe out.
No air. No air.

Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone.

Six months? Three weeks?
Can’t eat. No air.

Today? Tonight?
It waits. For me.

Sweet heart. Don’t stop.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Caution

The news comes like a stone:
cancer devoured his upful locks
and a sister collected the clumps
of carefully nurtured holiness
in a plastic bag to be matted
into a wig like a crown for the
bald Natty Dread in his casket.

He fell so low and the chemo seemed
like treachery. It all turned
worthless, this fighting, this
scramble for a cure, a way out;
this confession of mortality:

O Jah, O Jah, why has thou
forsaken thy son? O Jah,

the veil is black like this night,
black like the treacherous road;

when it wet it slippery,
see me sliding, tumbling down;

see how this sickness make my soul
black as jet, caution, caution,

and my brothers, all they can say
is walk, walk, walk, walk, walk,

like the bubbling syncopations
of the synthesizer’s left-hand jumps.

But who will walk with me,
who will carry the lamp on this path,

whose breathing will reassure me
of a company waiting on the other side?

My brethren will forsake me,
I walk into so many dark places
while I wait for the coming of light.

Reggae rides the airwaves
and this island sound dark
for the passing of a song.