For the Living and the Dead: Funeral Diva by Pamela Sneed

Leslie-Ann Murray
| Reviews


Sneed weaves collective memory and public history—the AIDS crisis, police brutality, the impact of hurricane Katrina, and other historical events bring black voices to the center. It’s not a coincidence that the first essay in her book is titled “History.” Sneed shows that history is not static, but a social construct that is active and devisable. Seeing the word history  strikethrough focuses on the question: Who gets to write history? Who determines what history is written? Who determines what history is sidelined? According to Sneed, everyone who has been left out of the “great dragon called America” should be included in history.
History” is a jam-packed episodic essay where Sneed chronicles her path as a writer, the physical and emotional abuse she has endured, and her healing. She also explores the influence of fictionalized black women characters—Cora, in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s Beloved—on her own story:

Reading Sula, my feelings came alive, all those that I’d repressed, and I started to cry. I thought of Baby Suggs, in Beloved, an aged grandmother who is also an unofficial preacher. In a clearing in the woods, she tells slaves, in efforts to heal them, “I want you to cry now, for the living and the dead, just cry.”

These fictional characters’ stories are a direct reflection of Sneed’s lived experiences, and they give her a language to dwell in, to feel seen. This representation by writers like Whitehead and Morrison help Sneed to carve out her own future, instead of accepting the model that was given to her.
The book’s title essay/poem, “Funeral Diva,” is a eulogy to “Black men who like babies or children had begun to articulate, voice thoughts, ideas, and desires,” struck down in their prime by AIDS. This sentiment is captured in the first few stanzas of the poem:

...while changing the society we knew,
we were oblivious and unprepared when in the mid-’80s
a devastating and unexplained phenomena struck, eventually called AIDS
like new homeowners watching a whirlwind tornado
destroy dreams of home, camaraderie, and friendship
Like the recent Black populous of Katrina and Haiti
through hurricanes and earthquakes
saw pillars, foundations, and platforms they’d built washed away

What do Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti have in common with a generation of young Black men who died from AIDS? Sneed answers: Trauma. The last line’s “washed away” highlights how each traumatic event affecting people already brought down by racism, economic marginalization, and health care disparities, creates a further erasure of black progress.
With so many deaths and memorials as a result of the AIDS epidemic, the Gay and Lesbian community needed an element of the phantasmagorical diva to uplift them, and Sneed became just that. She writes:

Because of my stature, writing, outlandish outfits, and flair for the dramatic
I became a known and requested presence operating throughout the crisis
as an unofficially titled, “funeral diva,” called for
at memorials, readings, wakes and funerals to speak
give testimony and credence to men’s lives... accurately portray and pay homage to the spirit of someone
who’d lived only for a short time on this planet.

Being a “Funeral Diva” was glamorous, but it was also emotionally grueling. Sneed had to rebuke the homophobic attitude from “doctors and families who blamed us” while simultaneously she bore witness to lives lost through poetry. Remaining present in this duality was hard work, especially given the scapegoating and rejection patients experienced at this time. When her friend Don was dying of AIDS, instead of visiting him at the hospital, she ran away:

...some of us in the AIDS crisis
did terrible things to survive.
Never made it down aisles of the hospital wards
of Bellevue and St. Vincent’s.
Couldn’t bear brown shit-stained walls and
terrible wretched smells of death…
Some of us were so grief soaked and waterlogged
we couldn’t take one more step
having seen and experienced things in our young lifetimes that
no human being or citizen should.

Leslie-Ann Murray is a writer, a Trinidadian, a New Yorker, and your tour guide to literary diversity. She is the founder of Brown Girl Book Lover, a newsletter and social media platform that reviews and interviews diverse writers.

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