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.

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.