Uncle Vernon was cool, tall, hazel-eyed, and brown-skinned. He dressed in the latest fashions and wore leather long after the sixties. Of all of my father’s three brothers, Vernon was the artist—a painter and photographer in a decidedly nonartistic family. To demonstrate his flair for the dramatic and avant-garde, his apartment was stylishly decorated. It showcased a faux brown suede, crushed velvet couch with square rectangular pieces that sectioned off like geography, accentuated by a round glass coffee table with decorative steel legs. It was pulled together by a large seventies organizer and stereo that nearly covered the length of an entire wall. As a final touch, dangling from the shelves was a small collection of antique long-legged dolls. This was my uncle and memories of his apartment were never so clear as the day I headed there with my first boyfriend, Shaun Lyle.
It was the eighties, late spring, the year king of soul Luther Vandross debuted his blockbuster album, Never Too Much, with moving songs about love. If ever there was a moment in my life that I felt free, unsaddled by life’s burdens, and experienced, in the words of an old cliché, “winds of possibility,” it had to be the time with Shaun Lyle heading upstairs to my uncle’s house as Luther Vandross blared soulfully out from the stereo, “A house is not a home.”
Of course Shaun was not the first or last person with whom I’d experienced feelings or sensations of unbridled freedom. Like seasons, freedom came in cycles, like in fall, in college with no money, chumming around with my best friend and school buddy Michael. We spent late afternoons wandering Manhattan’s East and West Village, searching for cheap drinks and pizza at happy hour specials, ecstatic in our poverty. Michael was a blond Irish Catholic punk rocker from Boston. We met when I was an RA at the New School’s Thirty-Fourth Street dorms at the YMCA. They were narrow, tiny rooms like closets and some floors served as a hostel for homeless men. Punk music blared from Michael’s room. I would knock on the door, commanding, “Turn it down.” Eventually, we united over the fact that he put a towel under the door to block the smell of weed smoke that frequently leaked from his room into the hallway. Michael and I were both writers, astute critics, and teacher’s pets. In fiction-writing class, we formed a power block. No piece of writing done by another student escaped our scathing critique. Professors deferred to us. “Michael, Pamela, what do you think?” We sat next to each other with arms crossed. A friend confessed to me later, “I was terrified of you two.” We were obsessed with Toni Morrison. I will never forget the last lines of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, which Jane Lazarre, our fiction teacher, made us read out loud as a class together.
Suddenly Nel stopped. Her eye twitched and burned a little. “Sula?” she whispered, gazing at the tops of the trees. “Sula?” Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
Jane’s eyes welled up, as did mine, and the whole class cried. Sula is the story of women bonding and friendship and longing and loss. “It’s a truly feminist novel,” Jane would declare. Feminism was her favorite topic. She was a straight woman with kids. She had gray hair and admitted she smoked pot. She was so cool, she’d write things on the board and say out loud, “Oh, I can’t spell.”
Michael and I were both work-study students. We covered for each other. He would call me after a night of drinking and partying and say, “I just can’t do it. I can’t go in. Will you go?”
“Sure,” I’d say.
One day Michael and I skipped school and hung out near the entrance of Seventy-Second Street and Central Park West. I stared at a figure across the street in a café. “There she is,” I said.
“Who?” Michael asked.
“Toni Morrison, and beside her is June Jordan,” I said.
“You’re crazy,” he said. “No way. That can’t be them. How can you see that?”
“Yes, it is.” We investigated. Sure enough, sitting beside a low fence of the café was Toni Morrison with June Jordan in dark sunglasses. I approached. Michael lagged behind, astonished. “I love your work, Ms. Morrison,” I said. At the time I wasn’t such a huge fan of June Jordan. I’m not sure if the reason I disliked her had to do with the fact that she had tried to pick up my girlfriend Cheryl while visiting/lecturing at the New School, or perhaps I wasn’t ready for her message. Knowing what I know now—if only I could go back through time and tell her how much it meant for me to hear her in person. Long after she would die of cancer and write the words in dialect “G’wan, G’wan!” telling us, a new generation, to go on. Long before the collapse of the twin towers, before the massacre of so many gay men from AIDS, wars against Brown bodies in Iraq, Harlem, and Afghanistan, before the growing epidemics of cancer, rape, police violence, domestic violence, mass incarceration, depression, demise of our pop stars, she said to a class at the New School, speaking of the U.S. in the true form of a prophet: “This country needs a revolution.”
Maybe it was June Jordan, like Audre Lorde, who taught me the power of what words could do. In retrospect, she opened the doors and flung open the windows to my consciousness, like when I heard Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” when I was nine years old. It awakened me. Just recently, with the terrible results of the 2016 presidential election, with Donald Trump elected, I could see June Jordan in sweet, smiling profile, reciting, as resistance, “Poem about My Rights.”
The poet, professor, and performer Pamela Sneed is the author of Sweet Dreams, Kong, and Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery. She was a visiting critic at Yale and at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and she is online faculty at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute teaching human rights and writing. She also teaches new genres at Columbia’s School of the Arts in the Visual Dept. Her work is widely anthologized and appears in Nikki Giovanni’s The 100 Best African American Poems. She has performed at the Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum, MoMA, Poetry Project, New York University, Pratt Institute, Smack Mellon Gallery, the High Line, Performa, Danspace Project, Performance Space, Joe’s Pub, the Public Theater, SMFA, and BRIC. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Reprinted from Funeral Diva, by Pamela Sneed, with permission from City Lights.