When I was a child, a little Black girl just learning to articulate, I said, “I want to be a stewardess when I grow up.” I imagined wearing a form-fitting suit with the winged signature pin of Pan Am airlines on the lapel. Pan Am was popular then and that was the line of work and the glamorous future offered to little girls. Through a program at Northeastern’s African American Institute, I learned about poetry and Black consciousness. Black professors spoke nostalgically of the ‘60s and of an Africa where there were Kings and Queens. On the plus side, the Institute and Project Ujima held many variety shows and art events that I became involved in. I became sort of its star. I remember a packed auditorium where I sat on the edge of a stage with my legs crossed. I had written a poem for Black History Month and I said, “Come follow a dream to a mountaintop,” referencing Martin Luther King, Jr. On the downside, the Institute was homophobic. I wrote a story once but have since lost it, about the time the Black Student Union brought Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam to speak. The hall was packed with more Black students than I had ever seen on campus. He said, specifically, after imitating a Gay man, “If you’re Gay, you won’t get into the kingdom of heaven.” He then did something theatrical and wiggled around and pranced on stage, his rendition of a Gay man. The room erupted, stood on its feet and clapped wildly. At the time, I was far from myself and can’t recall if I stood and clapped too.
So, I had an early sense of my identity, but as an adult I began to reject myself, reject my person, my goodness, my worth.
As an adult, my rejection manifested in overworking, hiding, and tremendous fear—fear of being seen. For years, I trembled uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. I’m thinking about Audre Lorde, here. The paradox she expressed about how each of us human beings so desperately want to be seen, while visibility is often our greatest fear. Oh fear. Oh fear. I could write volumes about fear, about the time I was working on a play and the director said, as if cutting to the chase and all the monologues and rehearsals couldn’t solve it, “Your greatest obstacle is fear.” I think for some reason about the AIDS crisis in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, watching friends die, and there it was in their eyes—FEAR, the most horrible and barbaric fear. It had talons and wings and bore its fangs into each of us. It bled out veins. It was parasitic . . . I haven’t mentioned all the work it took to get here, all the therapy, writing, teaching, performances, and the tremendous failures. It’s like a prisoner who chisels through a wall for years with only a small tool or icepick, like a slave who makes years and years of attempts to run away, and finally, if her spirit or body hasn’t been completely broken, succeeds.
I’m a great believer in therapy, have done it for years, and that’s had its ups and downs—like the one time I needed a therapist and met a woman who took my insurance through the Screen Actor’s Guild. She asked at the first meeting, “How long have you been a man?” I said, “I’m not a man.” She asked me another time, “When do you want to talk about your transition?” Sadly, I really needed to talk with her because I was being harassed at an MFA program I was attending. I stayed for a while, even though sometimes she fell asleep when I was talking, or when I would get long-winded, she’d say, “Hurry up.” Another time in therapy, I started seeing a White man who kept asking me about coming out as a Lesbian when that wasn’t what I had gone to talk about. He then asked me about my sexual practices, “Any bondage? Sadomasochism?” I was aghast. I had a Black female therapist for ten years and had never talked about intimate sexual practices. After all the many therapists, I’ve finally met Natasha, a White Jewish woman who is the mother I never had, who believes in me, listens, encourages me. And when I’m sometimes desperate to know the outcome, she offers the one thing I’ve always longed for but never received from a lover or friend: “We’re in this together.” It’s as if after having suffered something like a stroke or paralysis, she stays with me on the long road to recovery, applauds each step, helps me walk. In 1992, when I last saw Audre Lorde alive at the “I Am Your Sister” conference in Boston, she walked out onto the stage, spread the wings of her dashiki to embrace and engulf us all, we seekers of knowledge and justice. Of her battle with cancer, she declared, “I began on this journey as a coward.”
I see the transformation of my own cowardice into strength. I know when you conquer fear, it’s like being on a mountaintop. You can see everything. It’s like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film Blood Diamond, about the corrupt diamond trade in Sierra Leone during the 1990s civil war. DiCaprio plays a white mercenary and Djimon Hounsou plays a Black fisherman. Both men’s lives are transformed when Hounsou finds a rare diamond. DiCaprio, a grifter, tries to steal it. Blood Diamond reminds me of a film called The Defiant Ones made in 1958. It is a black-and-white film starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, both fugitives who escape a chain gang. They are on the run but shackled together. It is a dance and a deep allegory about race, on how the fate of one race depends upon the fate of the other. It is like Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot written at the height of apartheid where two brothers, one Black and one White are engaged in a struggle but linked inextricably by blood. At the end of Blood Diamond the two adversaries have become friends. DiCaprio’s character is fatally wounded. Symbolically, he lies on a mountaintop, dying. Through his journey, his eyes have been opened. Perhaps he sees Hounsou now as a brother. He hands back the rare pink diamond he has tried to steal. Seeing DiCaprio giving up, his body giving way, Hounsou offers, “I can carry you.” DiCaprio responds, “No,” and then says, resonant of the battle between races, of the blood spill, of the part he’s played as a White man stealing, “No More.”
It echoes and resounds like the sermons of the preachers I grew up with, who shouted of sorry and pain and suffering and a day when there is and will be “No More.” I wrote as an adult a poem and performed it in the voice of a preacher delivering a sermon, a person who has transcended fear, from the perspective taking of a plan ride, “Passing over tumultuous water, from the sky, mountains look like ant hills and cities torches of candlelight.”
Oh, oh, there is something I remember Harry Belafonte said. He was friends with Martin Luther King. I’m paraphrasing, but he said Martin Luther King had a small twitch in his eye for a long time. One day it was gone and Harry asked him, “Martin what happened? Why has your eye stopped twitching?” And Martin replied, “Because, I no longer fear death.”
There is a story I’ve always kept in my heart by Reverend Zachary Jones who preached in New York at Unity Fellowship. He was speaking of flying and transcendence and said to the congregation as inspiration, “An eagle has a wing span of 30 feet. I said, an eagle has a wing span of 30 feet, so what are you doing on the ground with chickens?!”
I was working on a play once with a dancer and she looked at my long arms outstretched and she said, “My God, Pamela, your wing span.”
I heave tears as I write this.
Self-rejection and self-battering.
At the New School, in my first fiction class, I wrote about a Black dyke who sang blues, cross-dressed like Big Mama Thorton and, before that, like Annie Lennox, wore men’s clothes and, in essence, was a runaway slave.
In the beginning, in the prologue, I wrote:
I was at a party talking to a random stranger. “Hi, I’m Pamela. Pamela Sneed. I remember you from back in the day.”
“Hi, YOU’RE NOT Pamela Sneed.”
“Yes, I AM.”
“No, YOU’RE NOT.”
“I AM Pamela Sneed.”
“No, YOU’RE not Pamela Sneed.”
“I AM,” I insisted.