Face Me: a declaration by Olivia Keenan
When we look back at the COVID-19 epidemic, a lot of focus will be placed on all it took from us. The time away from friends and family that we can’t get back. Personal and professional opportunities that may not come again. The loneliness and fragility that can come with isolation. Second year-student Olivia Keenan, while experiencing all of this too, will come out of it with a forever document, a complex, hard-won, unvarnished portrait of who she is and what she believes.
Face Me: a declaration is a book of poetry published by the Unapologetic Voice House, in which Keenan examines the complexities of her mixed-race identity and helps her reclaim her faith, not in spite of, but rather because of who she is.
Keenan, pursuing a Biology major at UVA, first found her voice in poetry slam competitions in her hometown of Milwaukee and during her first year on Grounds. Like the rest of the world did, the slams fell silent in March of 2020, and her summer plans faded away. She found herself looking even further inward as she turned her focus from stage to page, spending hours in her childhood bedroom thinking about the issues of race that exploded through her city, our headlines, and our collective consciousness last summer. “I was juggling so many thoughts, and there were conversations about race constantly surrounding me and impacting every single facet of my life. I was reflecting on race more than I ever have and on so many instances that have formed my identity as Black woman.”
As fate would have it, a relative of her Keenan’s father runs Unapologetic Voice House and reached out to Olivia’s mother, who is also a published author, to see if she had any book ideas to pitch. Her mother told the relative about Olivia’s poetry, and the rest, she says, is history.
History is a constant backdrop and sometimes foil in Keenan’s work, particularly as she reconciles her position as a Black woman at Thomas Jefferson’s university. On this topic, as in all others she tackles, Keenan was driven by a piece of advice her editor offered in their very first meeting: Don’t. Hold. Back.
“I think when I used to talk to people about race,” Keenan said, “and particularly to white people, I was always a bit apologetic, always trying to explain myself more than I needed to. My editor was insistent that I share my real truth in this book.” One of the most important ways she does this is through an ongoing theme related to the Founding Fathers and Jefferson himself. “I remember that in grade school in Wisconsin, we worshipped the Founding Fathers,” she said, “but being north of the Mason Dixon line, there was maybe a little more discussion of the fact that they owned slaves.” She said that coming to Charlottesville gave Keenan a broader understanding of Jefferson’s history as a slaveholder and his relationship with Sally Hemings.
“I write a lot in the book about how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and left out so much of me and my identity. The book’s title, and the poems themselves, reclaim that.” The title is meant as more of a command than a declaration, bold and indelible pen strokes and key strikes designed to announce the presence of voices quiet too long.
I sign my name big on the bottom
write my name between the lines when America refused,
face me founding father!
Just as she does with history, Keenan uses her words to reclaim her both her faith and her sexuality on her own terms, doing so with powerful imagery and a defiantly unapologetic approach that makes listening not just important, but imperative.
Olivia Keenan’s Face Me is a command well worth heeding and a book well worth reading, especially given the treasures of heart, mind and language contained within it.