Pamela Sneed’s Sweet Dreams Book Party
Wednesday, September 19, 2018, 8:00 pm
Lauren and I lived platonically on Peterborough St. behind Fenway Park, the famous home of the Boston Red Sox, a conservative baseball team. Lauren didn’t consider herself to be a Lesbian. Pop-star Annie Lennox had just released the song Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. There was a huge life-sized poster of her album cover at the bus stop near our house. Her hair was cropped, dyed orange/fire engine red. She wore red lipstick in contrast to pale skin. She wore a pinstriped men’s suit. In today’s terms she’d be a drag king or cross-dresser. She held a pointer as if in school and a teacher. Again it was the early ’80s and there was freedom in her style. It was radical then to see a woman on a bus stop in Boston publicly dressed as a man as much as it was seeing a Black woman with a shaved head. It was this pop star, these moments, and all of these people who paved the way for me to leave Boston and transfer from Northeastern. I knew I’d wanted to write, and I’d heard about a school in the West Village. It was Sonya, a Northeastern friend who told me about The New School over dinner one day. “It’s a small school and you can write.” At that time, writing sounded like magic and I was drawn to it.
At the New School I was sitting with a woman professor who taught War and Women’s Writing. Another famous woman professor sat in on our meeting. At that time, The New School was still famous for liberalism and housing intellectuals in exile, those who spoke out against governments for certain unpopular ideals. Without much language to express it, I felt frustrated by the ideas of White middle class feminism at the New School. I couldn’t see myself or anything like me in stories by much heralded heroines Tillie Olsen or Doris Lessing. Also, there were only two other Black students besides myself, and one rarely attended class. For my first year at The New School I didn’t speak. I realize now it was shock. Mainly, the students at The New School were white, upper middle class, and they spoke to me in a language I imagined then as hieroglyphics. They ate sushi and brown rice. It wasn’t until Sekou Sundiata declared in class one day “Black people speak two languages” that I understood my dilemma, and it freed me. I started to speak.
I wrote a paper about what I imagined Black feminism to be. I had moved to a poor neighborhood/the projects in Harlem; after the high-rise, that too was shocking. I had never experienced the dense poverty. I stayed with a Black woman with three kids. It was a friend’s mother from Northeastern. Every day there were smells of piss and feces in the hallway. There was glass on the playgrounds. I talked about a Black woman who had to raise her children in poverty and endure these things. I talked about her youngest daughter, Naima, with long black braids and deep brown skin whom I often babysat, who was 8 or 9 and never allowed to play outdoors because it was too dangerous. I talked about myself, how walking amongst the idle boys in an isolated part of Manhattan en- route to the subway, at 6ft 2½in with a shaved head, was like walking a gauntlet. I also wore vintage and thrift store glamour influenced by my Boston days. Every morning I was hazed by those idle young men with words like faggot, skinhead, dyke. I was never sure if those threats would end in violence. I can only imagine my determination and my style acted as some sort of bulletproof vest, because I never changed to fit in. AIDS had just begun to emerge then. It was at the apartment in Harlem, I opened up the Daily News and saw an ominous headline in black letters announcing “A Gay Plague” described as “God’s curse on Homosexuals.” They were closing bathhouses to stop men from having sex. At that time, I didn’t recognize myself fully as a Lesbian, but it was there, with this new plague and the hatred of homosexuals hovering over us and in the background like fear. I never talked about it.
My paper on the Black woman in Harlem had been late, so I ending up reading to the two famous White feminists in a conference. After I read, one got up and danced around the cubicle and spoke/sang in the most melodious voice, “She’s a writer! She’s a writer!” In a tiny office on 12th St. with a library of books against the wall, those two women squatted and gave birth to me. Another pivotal moment came through an internship. I met two Women of Color drummers. They were Lesbians. I invited them to The New School to perform. “We will come to perform, only if you recite poetry,” one of the drummers said. I went on stage with them and recited poetry. The lights went on. I received a standing ovation. I was born, would never again go back to the girl I was from Boston. I was a poet and performer who was 6ft 2½in, brazen and outspoken with a shaved head.