“I need you to PUSH!” — Sapphire


Yours truly with Sapphire at Clark Atlanta University

This past Friday I attended Clark Atlanta University’s Literary Literati which featured Sapphire, the author of PUSH, which was made into the film Precious.

As I settled in my seat I thought of the points raised on the bulletin board of 1380 am and was eager for the event to get underway because I knew that the issues around the media’s portrayal of blacks and whites and the ‘airing of dirty laundry’ would be addressed.

She did not fail to disappoint.

Right off the bat the question was posed about the “Great White Hope” scenario and how in the film it became a light-skinned sister. The student posing the question reminded the audience that in the novel Ms. Rain is a brown-skinned, dread-locked woman. Sapphire said the director simply “had to have” the actress who was cast in the role and that she didn’t have anything to do with casting.

She stressed that when she wrote the novel she quite deliberately had Precious supported and strengthened by HER community. She believes wholeheartedly that solutions have to come from within the community.
She charged all of the audience to not simply Focus on Precious, BUT to turn our attention to the male nurse, the social worker, the teacher, the classmates, the staff at the halfway house; the women in the Incest Survivors groupthe COMMUNITY that helped her overcome her trials and for us to work to BECOME those pillars of the community. The media didn’t want us to catch that and we were so caught up in arguing about the ‘negative’ images of blacks that I bet most of us missed that.

The story was inspired by a young lady who Sapphire actually taught and she described writing the book to mobilize MOTHERS against this type of abuse. She thought she was leading a charge and found instead that the black community was embarrassed by the book. She cited the ‘middle class’ in particular. She said even though her book was a Best Seller, Essence Magazine would not even print a review of the book.

It was young people who kept the book alive. I can attest to this because I found one of my eighth grade girls reading it and immediately asked if her mother knew she was reading it. In this instance the young lady had her mother to talk to about the graphic scenes and issues found in the novel, but I remember having a discussion at an English Teachers Training about the ‘suggestive’ material young girls were reading. We couldn’t decide if it was enough that they were at least reading or if the material was detrimental. When PUSH was mentioned in the same vein as the ‘urban erotica’ of the day, I was quite adamant in making the distinction between PUSH and the “romance” novels girls were sneaking out of their mothers’ rooms.  Not the same at all.

But I digress. Young readers kept her novel in circulation. Going as far as boosting it out of book stores! She had never intended for young people to read it, but the fact that middle class blacks rejected the book made it risqué and in turn drew young people in.  To date she has had countless women, and even some men, thank her for the book.

This anecdote added dimension to her speaking at a University and the moderators reminded college students in attendance of the services available on the campus should they find themselves in need of any support. The young speakers who flanked Sapphire on the panel addressed some of the questions in the voice of their generation. One young lady was stellar, raising great points and thankfully staying away from “like” and “Can you repeat the question?” Any time she spoke I was all ears!

I personally love hearing what people think. It opens up my mind and offers new perspective, so that even when I ‘think’ I don’t like something, I dig deeper and learn more. I think that was why I felt compelled to respond to the post on the 1380 am website.  I couldn’t imagine making my mind up about anything without checking it out for myself.

As a teacher in NYC schools, the book took me into the underbelly of what I had heard and seen. I do agree that the film is another matter altogether. Sapphire explained that it could only touch upon aspects of the book in order to get an ‘R’ rating. The book is that raw. And when I realized that the author was just a few feet away and reading to me– her inflection lyrical, her voice sweeter than the gritty words — I couldn’t help but get choked up. What a rare blessing to hear the author speak her own words. Her novel sits prominently on my shelf and I brought it dog-eared and all to have it autographed.

Sapphire is an artist and her ability to find words for the inexplicable is an inspiration.

I stood on line waiting for my moment to address her thinking of what I would say in our short time together: how I read her bio on the back page, found that she earned an MFA at Brooklyn College and promptly applied and was accepted; how great it was to get that New York-feel in the middle of the Peach State; how I was working on my first novel and what advice would she offer. Too cliché.  I settled on talk of poetry and our alma mater. She is brilliant and the interaction was so real that I promised myself, on the spot, that I would continue to seek out events that broaden my view and inspire me to create.

In New York I took new ideas and unique perspectives for granted. They were everywhere! Here in Atlanta, I will have to work a little harder.

And by the way, I did go back to 1380 am and offer Sarah some of this insight. I don’t know if she’ll read it, but it’s there.

She had actually responded:

I have to disagree with you on the airing of our problems. If blacks have problems in our communities, we will or should seek our own solutions to that problem and not have some Jew/Zionist tell us what blacks should be doing, with a black face to push their agenda. Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels to name a few of them.

Sapphire addressed this when she called on the audience not to focus on the perspective being ‘pushed‘ by the media. She wrote the novel so we would seek out our own solutions.

Early on she even discussed the backlash the movie, “Precious” received from the black community. We had the opportunity to hear the ‘UNedited’ version of the New York Times editorial she sent in response to Ishmael Reed [No way would they print what she suggested about the Master and male slaves!] who wrote an OP-Ed piece in the New York Times called, “Fade to White” in which Sapphire was accused of creating a work that made whites feel better about themselves while making blacks feel ashamed.

Here is a part of the response that she shared and I posted this to 1380 am as well:

Why Stories Like ‘Precious’ Need to Be Told
February 11, 2010

To the Editor:
Re “Fade to White,” by Ishmael Reed (Op-Ed, Feb. 5): In the 13 years since my novel “Push” was published, I have talked to thousands of women who have been sexually abused, some of whom have had experiences that make what happened in “Push,” which was made into the film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” look like a walk in the park.
I’m not a social scientist but a creative artist. I took and will continue to take the stories of women I have listened to and turn them into fiction.  I write about black women because it’s the world I know. “Fade to White” mentions that incest is not confined to one group of people. I agree, but I argue that it does have a different place in African-American culture than it has in white American culture. During slavery many black women were impregnated by their masters, who were often also their fathers. The white male was literally the master-father of the plantation.
I would like to see black males less defensive and more courageous in their investigations of sexual abuse in the black community….
Silence will not save African-Americans. We’ve got to work hard and long, and our work begins by telling our stories out loud to whoever has the courage to listen.

Brooklyn, Feb. 10, 2010

Need I say more?



Acclaimed author of the novel PUSH, which was made into the movie PRECIOUS.

This morning while brewing tea and trying to figure out how much I could humanly accomplish in the remaining fourteen hours of the day, I remembered a radio ad announcing that the author SAPPHIRE would be speaking here in Atlanta.

Now that the school year is in full swing, I find myself mostly grading papers and lesson-planning.

This past week, I promised myself [for the millionth time] that I would make a concerted effort to live ART no matter or place. See, I was the kid who insisted on finishing her homework first then going out to play. Well, let’s just say by the time homework is even remotely finished, it’s time for bed.

It frustrates me that I do not make enough time for my husband, my writing, my dreaming — ME.

So keeping to my new promise, I started searching the web for the event. Finally found it on the  News and Talk Radio station 1380 website — The Voice of the Community:

Clark Atlanta University (CAU) will host acclaimed poet and author Sapphire at two exclusive, free events

Friday, Oct. 15.  The public is invited to attend “Lunchtime Literati: A Conversation with Sapphire” at noon in the University’s Davage Auditorium.  At 6 p.m., Sapphire will share from her novel Push.  

Buried under school work and a bit of a recluse, I have to admit that I am still trying to figure Atlanta out. This home of civil rights struggle and southern belles who don four-inch pumps to thump melons at the local supermarket; This home of rap music in repetitive drawl bumped in tricked-out Capri Classics; This home of televised mega-churches and infamous strip clubs. New York does not have one face it puts on  to be proper and an underbelly it hides when company comes calling. It is what it is, so I was actually surprised when I scrolled down and read the comment posted.

I thought, someone who listens to a station that considers itself “the voice of the people” posted this? Dredged up The Color Purple firestorm that even in my teens I didn’t understand because writers are supposed to tell the untold stories? Did they really say [PRECIOUS is] “another movie with some of the same negative characterizations that are associated with white culture, rape, incest, pedophilia, aids, etc are back again being pushed by black faces unto our community?”  Really?

Maybe because I was a quiet kid. Maybe because I didn’t stand up for myself when I really needed to tell people where to get off. Maybe because I learned quickly that people mask themselves to protect themselves and  you never truly know how anyone is doing: Whatever the reason, I always side with the underdog. I write for those who can’t find the words. I piece words together to tell their story.

I felt compelled to respond.  My comment sits awaiting moderation, but I replied:

“What I find most interesting is that both The Color Purple and Push feature victims of ‘closeted and unspoken abuse’ who in telling their story finally break from the abuse. I remember the debates about ‘airing dirty laundry’ when The Color Purple came out and wondered even then —- Well, what do victims do for healing? It is as if the soul of one person has to be sacrificed for the sake of appearances. One person sacrificing their sanity and spirit for the sake of her/his people. But when does the community do for them?

It isn’t as if these issues are isolated to one community, one set of people.

I guess knowing victims of abuse who suffered in silence so that no one would ‘look bad’ gives me another take on the matter. Works like these offer some victims the strength to break the cycle and at the very least start much-needed dialogue.

I am a fan of any work that rattles the status quo and makes every one check themselves, so I will definitely be in attendance.”

—Susana Yvette

And I do know people who opted for silence and imploded, opted for silence and were guilt-ridden because without their speaking up there was just another victim. I know some who sacrificed their very souls for fear of not being believed, for fear of being black-balled, for fear of shaming family…etc.

The post opened by saying that “Her book is one of the reasons that we have seen a cultural set back by another 25 years,” and this just seemed so close-minded on a site that touts ideas and perspectives that differ from the status quo. I am still shaking my head. But  I realize that 1380 WAOK is the voice of the people, I mean the writer immediately had someone agree with the question of why anyone would buy this book, see this movie…

So I did the only thing I could do — speak up.