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The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue
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Diversity or Blaxsploitation

When I teach students writing or when I go around to visit schools as a poet and performer, I often ask students to look around the room and to imagine being able to read and access literature as diverse as the people in the room. I ask them to imagine stories from every different background, continent, experience, age, gender, race, and class. I also speak about African American literature and being asked to consider the same stories from the same few authors time and again, in particular during Black history month, which isn't a dis but I really want to see the list of classics evolve and grow. I'm pulling from the experience too of going with my mother to a bookstore in a small town and seeing a tiny tiny selection of Black books and maybe two or three books in Gay and Lesbian literature and poetry—if there's even a section at all. My mother asks keenly at 84 years of age, "Is your book there? Your book of poems?" And I shake my head, and say, "No."

I find this exercise with students very eye-opening and powerful. Many still have an attitude toward literature as some do about the bible, that it came from the Gods, the sky, is chiseled in stone and can't be adapted and changed. They haven't been taught yet that they could be creators, makers, authors, or informed consumers with a voice. Very often many have not seen their own experience reflected in literature. So, my intent is to make literature more accessible. I often do this with poetry too in the beginning, show students simple structures, the lyric poem or the uses of repetition, and language that they actually use, to again make a form that they though foreign and unreachable, attainable. I also fill my syllabi in college with as much diversity as I can. I want to show that not only can they create, they can also demand that industries be accountable to them.

Of course this arises out of my own frustration and experience as a Black Lesbian poet and writer who has rarely seen my own experience reflected in poetry, literature, or film or television or music. For stories like mine, I have had to look to the underground, alternative presses and self publishing, feminist collectives to see my own experience reflected. And I want to say books like This Bridge Called my Back, by Kitchen Table press saved my life, as did Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, originally published by Firebrand Books. In a recent chaplet with Belladonna I say, "It's been more than 30 years since a prominent out Black political lesbian has been published in the mainstream, so where's the progress?"

I often find myself saying out loud that the only industry that has failed to adapt to the times is poetry and literature. I feel like contemporary film, television, and music has had to adapt and to recognize diversity, lest it become extinct, but literature has moved more slowly. There have been some breakthroughs in the mainstream like the literature of Roxane Gay, and African literature, but then literature returns to its image of an ivory tower. In poetry I experienced two schools: one is the Emily Dickinson type of school, and the other is the spoken word or performance poet which is considered a more lowly form of poetry, the ghetto so to speak in the industry. I experience this in the feedback I get, sometimes not even from the industry but from peers in academia. I've written poems or short stories, works that I did not write with the intent of performance, and people insist that they be performed. "Don't you want to stage it?" "No," I respond, "I don't." I have written works for theater and performance and other works I haven't and I'm clear about the difference, but there's an insistence that I must stay in the realm of performance and leave publishing to the academics or "serious" poets. This way of pigeon holing discounts that many of the early masters including Shakespeare were multi-disciplinary and worked in hybrid forms before it was called that.

Recently, I've been excited by the success of the Black Panther film, and I pray that it will have an impact on the publishing industry, the kind of stories we get to see and tell. That film too experienced some of the same issues I've heard expressed by the publishing industry, "There isn't an audience for Black films," or "the world isn't ready," and each time a Black artist with grit and determination and a vision, proves that there is in fact an audience, think Tyler Perry and Terry McMillan. As more and more LGBTQI literature and poetry gets published, it's proven once again that there is an audience. When I perform poetry or go to readings and see the rooms lined with people, standing room only, it proves there is an audience, a very hungry one full of diversity. I pray that Black Panther affects more diversity in films we see, literature we read, and will not just lead to a new era of Blaxploitation flicks that pander instead of lead.


Pamela Sneed

Pamela Sneed is a New York-based poet, writer, performer and visual artist. She is author of Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery, KONG and Other Works, Sweet Dreams and a chaplet, Gift by Belladonna. She has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Time Out and Bomb. She appears in Nikki Giovanni's, “The One Hundred Best African American Poems.” A new chaplet, Black Panther, was recently published by Belladonna.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues