Face Me: A Declaration – Wauwatosa West Graduate Publishes Story of Identity, Empowerment, and Race

Wauwatosa West Graduate Olivia Keenan has worked for six months to write and publish her own book of poetry.

Annabelle Wooster, Editor

For six months, between two states and never at a reasonable hour, Olivia Keenan poured her heart and soul into a book of poetry inspired by her experience as a female of mixed race living in modern America.

Keenan graduated from Wauwatosa West in 2019. She decided to major in Biology, and committed to the University of Virginia. While away at college, Keenan decided to author her own book. She drew inspiration from the events unfolding around her.

“I think a lot of things inspired me to write and publish this book, but the catalyst was the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer,” said Keenan when reflecting on her inspiration behind the book.

With so much to process, Keenan looked to express herself through poetic verses; something she discovered while attending Wauwatosa West.

“I initially got drawn to poetry through spoken word poetry. Some of my very first poems were poems I wrote for Wauwatosa West’s Black History Month assemblies. So I have always written poems to be shared and read aloud”.

Keenan participated in slam poetry through Wauwatosa West but also brought her talents outside of the school. She also became involved in a Milwaukee based youth organization called Stillwaters Collective.

“There was a slam poetry club for my junior and senior year at West and we would have slam competitions against other schools. I also competed individually outside of Wauwatosa West in slams in the Milwaukee area,” explained Keenan.

Her love of poetry only grew from there. She knew it was going to be the best way for her to express herself and get her thoughts down on paper. Once she settled on a format for her book, she began prioritizing and organizing her most important topics of discussion.

“The book discusses a range of topics, all relating to my identity as a Black woman of mixed race,” explained Keenan.

She also expressed that being of mixed race poses a lot of difficulty with the societal pressure to conform to a single racial identity.

“Having a mixed race identity is difficult to navigate because it’s hard to “fit in” into either of your races. Mixed people historically have been “accepted” more easily into white culture due to lighter features…essentially I have had to navigate life as someone who may receive “preferential” treatment from a white gaze, but who is still, ultimately, Black,” said Keenan.

She touched on specific experiences where she felt caught in the middle; unable to fully express both sides of her identity.

“I have had so many situations where white people are good with me, and happy to be around me, until I try to talk about race or my Blackness. Then they don’t want any part of it! In high school especially, I had many instances of censorship in Black spaces, and freedom in white spaces.”

She explained that she has suppressed those feelings and concerns for most of her life. She was gentle with people and ignored most of the comments. Until now. This book is a reflection of her desire to finally be able to fully express who she is.

“I think most of my life I have been okay with explaining myself to white people, especially in high school. And often in “explaining myself”, I would be gentle and I would ignore microaggressions. My book is one of the first times I don’t mince my words. I explain myself, but in an uninterrupted, uncensored, unapologetic way”.

Another one of the topics discussed in her book is religion. Keenan has struggled with the idea of traditional Christianity.

“I have navigated Christianity shrouded by white supremacy and patriarchy. The book follows my journey to recognition and celebration of a God that embraces equality” she said.

Keenan chose to attend the University of Virginia after touring the campus during a spontaneous visit with her family. They drove down to South Carolina and visited Shenandoah National Park. From the park, her family drove an hour to the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.

“My family decided spontaneously to tour the school because I had been talking about it for some time. Our tour was spectacular…It is a stunning school. It has these red brick buildings with white columns, and is nestled in between the Blue Ridge’s beautiful rolling hills…I was drawn to UVA by its beauty and the fact that it is a public school,” explained Keenan.

The University of Virginia is rich with beauty, but also with history. Going to such a historical school has made many things clear to Keenan. She noticed that Black voices weren’t represented in major American documents and that the founder of her school had an interesting past.

“An overarching theme of the poems is that Black voices and freedoms are exempt from early American documents, such as the Declaration of Independence. I go to the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration. He was also a man who had over 600 enslaved laborers in his lifetime. Thomas Jefferson fathered children and had a non-consensual relationship with a mixed race enslaved woman named Sally Hemings,” explained Keenan.

She wanted to show people the reality of past and present obsessions over Black women and their sexuality.

“I write to expose the sexual fetishization of Black women and how I have navigated my sexual identity in a world that often sees Blackness as ugly, while simultaneously fetishizing it,” she said about her purpose for writing her book.

Once Keenan identified the topics she felt needed to be included in her poems, she began the writing process. She is fortunate enough to have experienced family members that offered a helping hand to get her started.

“The publishing process began with my dad’s cousin, who is involved in a publishing company called The Unapologetic Voice House. She reached out to my mom and I this summer, because my mom has written a book before,” said Keenen about the initiation of her writing and publishing process.

Once she had a starting point, she signed a contract and began to organize her thoughts into poems.

“When I agreed to write a book of poems about my experiences, I signed a contract and began writing. This was in June. So I wrote for a few months, and then in September, I got an editor. My editor worked on it from September through November.”

In November, she began researching ways to add art and photography into her book. She was able to create beautiful works of art with the help of close friends.

“I worked with my roommate on the photography (to be shown) on the inside (of the book). She is really good at photoshop, so she added some drawings on top of the photos. In January, she and I designed the front and back cover,” said Keenan.

Her book took about six total months to complete. She spent most of the summer writing and editing, but also used old poems of hers to simplify the load.

“A few of the poems in the book are poems I started in my freshman year of college and just edited a million times to be in the book. But most of the poems were written in the summer. I wasn’t completely finished with edits until December, so the total writing process was about six months”, said Keenan when reflecting on the total time devoted to perfecting every word.

With final edits done, illustrations laid out, and a cover set in stone, there was only one more thing she needed to add. She needed a dedication, not just to anybody, but to people that have shaped who she is today. She decided to dedicate her book to her two sisters, both of whom currently attend Wauwatosa West.

“I dedicated the book to my sisters (Janessa and Melina Keenan) because there are few people who can understand my struggle with identity besides from other mixed people. Some of the issues I’ve faced growing up that I write about in the book are issues I hope my sisters won’t ever have,” declared Keenan. “My sisters are my best friends so it was important for me to dedicate it to them.”

For Keenan, the writing process was far from easy, but she was proud of the way she confronted many difficult topics.

“The issues I talk about in my book are not easy to talk about. Therefore, the most difficult part of the writing process was facing some of these truths and being vulnerable enough to write about them…It is super scary being so open about private things, and releasing it into the public!” said Keenan.

With that being said, she can’t wait to see the response of the public, especially the responses of other Black women.

“The most rewarding part of the writing process has been my public announcement. I think ultimately the most rewarding part will be when people start reading it, especially other Black women. The best moments are when someone comes to me and tells me how much my words mean to them. That makes everything worth it.”

Keep an eye out for “Face Me: A Declaration” by Olivia Keenan coming April 6 2021. Preorders of a digital copy are currently available through Amazon Kindle.