I only heard of Akilah Oliver when I saw her face in a New York Times obituary. 50 years old and suddenly dead. Her absence shocked the poet and activist communities she belonged to, and registered among many of the advisors at Goddard College who I had previously worked with. Akilah was many things to many people, but to me, as soon opened her collection of poems A Toast in the House of Friends, she became, like Audre Lorde, a queer mother of color whose verses registered emotional responses despite our differences in identity.
A Toast in the House of Friends is not easily quantifiable. It's not simply a meditation on grief. As Oliver said in 2009 interview, "Grief is a part of that seeking, but so is redemption and anger, the forgivable and the unforgivable, this ecstasy of being in a kind of light, the simple astonishment of the impermanence of absence." It explores the tragic deaths of her brother and son, who both died at young ages, but their absence is not simply mourning. In a vast expanse of poetic styles, Oliver's poetics burn with wild passion, propelling at grief forward through the movement of the body to desire a better future.
Admittedly, in the first moments of reading A Toast, I struggled to pick up on some of the rhythms or themes. In the collection of poems, she blends traditions from African oratory into dense, almost academic, analysis that feels seaamless. But a poem at the end, titled "dear matthew shepard" threw me into an understanding of her prose. The following lines, in particular, cause me to tear up any time I read them:
what did you fathom, matthew,
what resistance kept you alive,
through the hard night.
it was so fucking cold,
the sick act that hung you upon a sacrificial fence,
the normal boy american faces of the brutes
who played out their homicidal homophobia
on your beautiful
Earlier in A Toast, in a middle section that explores graffiti, Oliver explores the notion of the visible unseen, those "whose place in history has been fictionalized and rendered unseen under the totalizing glare of history." I soon realized that Matthew Shepard, for all he represented about the almost unlimited savagery of anti-gay violence, is often not remembered for his beauty or courage, and is never seen as anything other than an object to be distantly mourned in a historical progress narrative.
Oliver, however, posits a different type of a remembrance, what she calls, in an earlier work, flesh memory. This process is something that is, given her blending of race, sexuality, gender and violence, a distinctly black female subjectivity. Yet the ways in which figures like Matthew Shepard cross traditional boundaries of time and space demonstrate the capacity for that identity to redefine existing, often objectively defined, histories that fail to represent how grief, violence, and death are felt along pleasure and creation.
As a result, Oliver creates a type of queer being where the body and its memory are indistinct, creating moments where loss is not simply intellectualized, but felt through a collective moment of remembrance. In realizing this, I was able to explore earlier moments that no longer felt exclusive, or different from my own experiences, but invited me to consider how I have grieved, what I have lost, and the effects violence has had in reconstructing my memory. "Dream with me / sing with me for a while" suddenly bound me to Oliver, as she guided me both as an equal and a sage who insights revealed the impermanence of these emotions.
I wish I would have known Akilah before she passed. Her attempts at unity have transformed my own consciousness. I want nothing more than to sit next to her, listen to her speak her truth, and work to transform the unfortunate, powerful effects of violence against all marginalized people. But she is gone. Last year, in 2011, she unexpectedly died in her home in Fort Greene. We cannot and will not sit together. Far beyond her attempts at unity is her steadfast belief that nobody is ever lost if we make it so.
At the end of "dear matthew shepard," Oliver remarks, "& just as your death becomes mine, / someone else will wear my broken bones, / wake trembling from sleep, / try to get the work done." I write this piece today to publicly say I will wear her bones, like I've worn the bones of Shepard, Assotto Saint and Essex Hemphill, or any other queer voices silenced well before their will to speak ended. I wear her bones because, in 2012, queer people of all racial backgrounds and identifications suffer from violence, and risk becoming visible unseen in historical narratives.
At the same time, given that this is Black History Month, the sad reality is that even within the LGBTQ community, we continue to disproportionately erase, ignore, or obfuscate the efforts of queer women of color to enact lasting and unified social change. So we must not simply mourn the loss of Oliver, or transmit her idea of the visible unseen. We must work, as she says in A Toast, to weep her. To literally feel her memory, and the pain of her absence, as it informs present unified action against violence in a new type of history making.