Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kong and Other Works by Pamela Sneed

We were never really meant to survive,
At least not in human form.
~Audre Lorde

I have always identified with Kong—King Kong, that is.

Pamela Sneed’s Kong and Other Works took me back to a time when I innately picked up on all the messages sent my way, back to a time when I did not doubt my mission in life. Her Kong and Other Works took me back to that awakening I first experienced when I read such authors as Audre Lorde and James Baldwin—folks that let me know that I was not alone, that there were others fighting the windmills of lies.

One day as I biked along the lakes in Copenhagen, continuing my mediation on the title Kong, it came to me: Sneed resurrects Kong and vindicates him and all that he is supposed to represent.

As a child I pitied him and hated the cast who harassed him. With the clarity bestowed upon children, I saw that Kong was victim while the “human” cast were the very same people who were capable of committing another atrocity that I, even as a child, had already come to know: slavery.

While others seemed to empathize with the humans in "Planet of the Apes," I (and please resist all obvious comparisons here) rooted for the Apes. It seems that history had taught me to always, no matter what, root for the underdog.

As for Kong’s inexplicable fascination for the screaming blonde—well, even as a child I was familiar with the irrationality of Hollywood: After all, I knew that something was amiss even on the very mundane Love Boat because although I loved Isaac, how come he was the only brother? Point is: I learned real early that Hollywood wasn’t about me or my people. It did however, give me a peak into what was supposed to be the psyche of the status quo: capture and destroy all that is strange (Kong); if aliens ever came to earth they will always land on American soil (every Hollywood Alien movie ever made); fear of a well-deserved revolution (Planet of the Apes); and not least of all, other ethnicities don’t exist. This education, made on the green carpet of my living room floor plopped in front of my television, was perhaps even more valuable thanwhat I learned in school.

The first time I saw Pamela Sneed was at the Public Theater, back in the early 90s. I remember her, standing there, her statuesque physique commanding attention, stark against a bare stage. She was reading from her first collection Imagine Being More Afraid of Slavery than Freedom.

What I loved most about her work then, and what I continue to love about it now is not only her honesty, but also her reminder that, we are not alone. Like Baldwin, Lorde, Sanchez, Baraka, her words comforted me and accentuated the greatness of this company.

Upon opening Kong, I am transported to evening conversations with Sneed in her Brooklyn Heights home, walks throughout the East Village and visits to the bar where once she tended. Her voice, although countries away, visits me in the aloneness of my Copenhagen apartment.

There are themes here: themes that resonate the fact that there are thinkers amidst the white noise of media. She reminds us “a lot of us has had to be warriors.” She wipes out the myth that Ghana does not represent some kind of healing for a people who must be healed. She conjures the souls of all the unnamed, unsung heroes, fallen under the sword of a dis-ease of ignorance: AIDS. She testifies and bears witness for so many who have perished under hatred wrapped in racism and homophobia. She juxtapositions crass institutions such as in her Wal Mart Chronicles and reveals, unbelievably, the humanity inherit in them. We experience her familial healings and celebrate that she has been blessed to witness the taming of a mother:

There was a nice guy. He was Gay. I liked him.
He worked behind the register
But he used to wear women’s clothes
They fired him because of it.”
And then she said in a moment that was uncharacteristic
And thoughtful,
'I think that was discrimination.'

It reminds me of my own relationship with my son and how important it is for me that he exercises tolerance in his life and that moment of triumph and pride I felt while watching Top Model, the season where Isis, the transgender female makes her appearance, he says, “I think she is beautiful mommy, and I don’t think it’s nice how the other girls treat her.”

As a New Yorker, Sneed celebrates and gives voice to all that I have felt. From the closing down of Pat Field’s on 8th Street to the insipid process of gentrification that has snuffed all color and diversity out. Even in New York it seems, there is not much room for difference.

Sneed calls things out the way she sees them. Some of her observations are cuttingly accurate and on point. You know, when reading her words, that this is a woman, like the title character of her book, who has been resurrected from some kind of personal hell, that many of us have experienced and will continue to experience in life. You hear her when she writes,

And I think all that stoning, branding, and crimes against women that are reserved for The Third World countries and medieval times they still happen here. So maybe the religion thing hasn’t worked out for me but in my heart I’ve come to know and practice God.

And she testifies, “I am the dream and hope of slaves.”

She conjures ancestors: Sekou Sundiata and the presence he continues to fill in many of our lives as she reiterates, “Black people speak two languages.”She opens:

And I’m calling out from Brazil to Trinidad, Haiti to Jamaica Antigua to Spain to Mexico from Cape Coast to Elmina Accra to Kumasi Kumasi to Benin to the Volta mountains from Ouidah to Mississippi Mississippi to Georgia Georgia to New York New York to Boston Ancestors I salute.

I enjoyed the way in which she weaved her experiences together, like how our ancestors sewed, lovingly, patches of cloth together to keep us warm. Particularly compelling is the way in which she writes about her students, a motley crew of immigrants and locals all striving to better their lot in life. What is apparent is the love, what is moving is the precision:

…walking away, he says in that potent kind of ESL way language that cuts straight to the core without mincing the way native speakers do their juxtapositons are much more risky and metaphoric which makes ESL students always my favorite as a poet Thanks Miss I happy. You give me courage.

And with that, I must agree: “Thanks Ms. Sneed, you give us courage.”

Kong and Other Works is available at Vintage Entity Press

Writer and educator, Lesley-Ann Brown is Trinidadian-American poet/writer from Brooklyn, New York. She currently lives in Copenhagen, Denmark with her 9 year-old son. To read more visit her blog, blackgitl on mars: notes on a life in copenhagen.


tanita davis said...

Hadn't heard of her before -- thanks for your thoughtful prose and an introduction to another author.

Blackgirl On Mars said...

Thanks for posting this! Sneed's work should definitely be spread! Congratulations on this great blog and the work that you are doing!
Warm Regards,
Blackgirl on Mars!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

What a beautiful review!