Skip to main content


credit: City Lights Books

Pamela Sneed, Funeral Diva (City Lights Books, 2020), p. 148.

Pamela Sneed is a Black lesbian scholar, activist, poet, historian, and professor, and she brings all this expertise to Funeral Diva, her new cross-genre book. The first two essays offer an overall context for the work that the following poems illustrate, creating a circular structure and, therefore, a reseeing of key moments. Always, Sneed speaks in a clear deliberate voice about stories that still need to be told: stories about grief, Black queer history, and the men lost to AIDS.  Sneed’s is a voice demanding to be heard about a time demanding to be reckoned with. 

Sneed lived through the AIDS crisis as friend, caregiver, and finally eulogizer for her gay Black brothers. She pairs a wide overview of that devastation with intimate personal details. In the beginning of the twenty-three page poem “Funeral Diva” she writes:

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

but in our generation it was young Black men who like babies

or children had begun to articulate, voice thoughts, ideas, and desires

that never in the world’s history had been spoken,

dying as soon as, moments of, or seconds after

pressing pen to paper. 

By tying the AIDS crisis to Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, she demands the reader pay attention not just to the loss of human life and human potential, but to the racism and political culpability that took natural disasters and violently escalated their devastation. Sneed argues in her essays, and illustrates in her poems, that Black people died in droves in all these interconnected situations because the governments didn’t value Black — and gay — lives. 

Sneed was closely allied with a writers’ collective of Black gay men coming out loud about their lives. These were her friends, her fellow poets and artistic leaders, and they were dying. Sneed says of herself:

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 

She’s clearly proud of her contribution but does not shy away from the times she failed, the days she was not there when a loved one died or the day she was not asked to speak. She claims the importance of the caregivers and their role in the story, the pain as “[t]he Black gay boys in the choir / became our disappeared” (“Twizzlers”).

credit: Patricia Silva

Reclaiming the disappeared — not just the Black gay boys, but Sneed’s own erased identity — is a key theme in this book. She has a series of poems about the various mothers in her life: her birth mother, the mother that adopted her and then left the family, her step-mother. Their suffering and struggles are tied to her own. As she writes in “There is Me/ There is my Mother”:

There is me/there is my mother

As in a medical drama when you think the patient

has lost too much blood

Suffered too many wounds

there is me/there is my mother

It’s like an action drama

Where the hero fleeing a villain

Clings for life from a rooftop

Awaiting rescue/there is me/there is my mother 

But in this poem, the two are actually separating. The speaker is doing what the mother could not do—leave abuse. The speaker is reckoning with this history, rescuing herself and claiming her space.

Yet, as Sneed bluntly states about a white woman friend, “there are repercussions for me as a Black woman making myself / visible that she could never know / that my entire upbringing and society silences me” (“Parable of the Sower 2”). Whether she’s not being respected in the academy or not getting equal treatment in the hospital—“Once when I’d been hospitalized at the same time as a white girl / she had pig-tails / we had the same thing but I saw how tenderly they treated her” (“I Can’t Breathe”)—she insists that readers be aware of how class, race, gender, and sexual orientation impact her space; and how they, themselves, may try to squeeze her out of it.

And that squeezing of her space is not just by one clueless friend or one rude doctor; it’s systemic, tied not just to political moments in the early nineties but political moments right now. She demands the reader pay attention to the present as much as the past. Many of these poems were written in response to the 2016 election and to the more recent COVID-19 pandemic. She makes the connection between political superstructure and the individual life imminently clear as she says in “Rope-A-Dope”:

I was just beginning to forgive deaths of my brothers


not forget

there should still be tribunals

for them and every woman abused

by the medical system

I had just begun to turn a corner on Mike Brown, Freddie Gray

Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, the massacre at AME

not think of it all everyday

Then the police kill this young Black girl in custody in Texas

claim she committed suicide

I remember we’re a war nation

in war times

I imagine how James, Bayard, Nina felt

seeing a nation turn it’s dogs, teeth, gas, hoses, bullets,

on children, adults, humans

I can’t stop thinking about Steve Biko

his battered face

they say he hung himself too

the world’s outrage

who will pray now

for us


The anaphora creates a terrible tension. When she writes “I had just begun to relax” over and over again, it paradoxically ratchets up the tension. The reader knows there is going to be a horrific turn. In a poem that names so many names, grounding the poem in the real, Sneed picks an unnamed moment to make the reader realize we are a nation at war. The “young Black girl” killed by police is anonymous, and could therefore be any young Black girl, any Black person. By bringing in Biko, Sneed links the apartheid and violence in America to that of the notorious apartheid regime in South Africa, bearing witness to injustice and fighting it. 

I wish I could have seen Sneed in her role as funeral diva, a woman chosen to speak “[b]ecause of my stature, writing, outlandish outfits, and flair for the dramatic.” But she has brought that intense presence to this book as well. She tells stories that bring back our precious dead, that bring back our crucial history. As Sneed so keenly points out throughout the book, her voice as a queer Black woman is often shunted to the side. Not here.


Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake and Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She has been published in Vallum, Poet Lore, and The Southampton Review among many other journals. She is an editor, teacher, and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at


Comments are closed.