OTI Online
Fall 1996


There was a time when Sapphire couldn't give it away. She would carry her work in a backpack from bookstore to bookstore, asking if they'd take it. Now, a well-publicized, $500,000 two book deal from Alfred A. Knopf has changed all that.

It's a Friday night at Nkiru, the black-interest bookstore on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue. More than 50 people are packed in waiting to hear Sapphire read from her first novel, Push. Sapphire is home. She knows this audience and they know her. They've been reading her poetry for years, knew about her enormous talent light-years before Knopf figured it out. They have encouraged her, bought her poems, and agitated for bookstores to carry her. Now Sapphire's mainstream. Legit. And they love it.

People in this audience remember that several white feminists once petitioned New York's women's bookstore to bar her from ever speaking there again. Sapphire had read "Wild Thing," a poem written in the voice of the rapist of the Central Park jogger, and they were outraged that she gave him humanity. Others who heard it were blown away by her ability to to show his complexity. Sapphire is that kind of writer.

The lights dim. Sapphire opens her mouth and out of it comes the voice of 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones. In ninth grade, Precious is pregnant with the second child she will have as a result of being raped repeatedly by her father. He's split, but Precious's mother continues to sexually and verbally abuse her. Precious can't read, can't write, and can't tell anyone. But she's hungry to learn and is furious when the rest of the class is disruptive. "Shut up mutherfuckers," Precious says, "I'm tryin' to learn something."

One of her teachers suggests a different school, Higher Education Alternative/Each One Teach One, where Precious can study for her GED. There she meets young women like herself and a teacher who cares, Ms. Blue Rain. In a room in Harlem's Hotel Teresa, Ms. Rain teaches Precious to read and, through journal-keeping, to write, and it is here that her dream of being educated, of having a real life, starts to seem real. Precious knows that at least three people care for her: Ms. Rain, Alice Walker, and Louis Farrakhan. Precious writes in one of her poems: "GET UP OFF YOUR KNEES / Farrakhan say. / CHANGE / Alice Walker / say." And Precious does.

As Sapphire finishes reading there's sustained applause that shows no sign of stopping. The audience is laughing and crying at the same time and they want to talk to Sapphire.

On The Issues Magazine - Sapphire: What I Want to know is, how do children get to be repeatedly abused?
Sapphire: "What I Want to know is, how do children get to be repeatedly abused?"

Turns out she's Ms. Blue Rain. Well, not exactly, but Sapphire taught reading and writing to kids like Precious, a composite of her students. There are, or were, literacy programs in the city like the one described in Push, but the one where Sapphire taught no longer exists; Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's cuts closed it. "When you dismantle the welfare system and cut services," Sapphire reminds us, ''you're taking everything away from people like Precious."

The title, Push, reflects the energy of the book. Sapphire wanted the focus to be on action and "push" is a doing word. "Poor and abused women are often shown as passive," Sapphire explains, "and I wanted the focus to be on the way Precious rises above the abuse rather than on the abuse itself." "Push" denotes female energy. Having a baby. Becoming literate. Getting a life. "Precious is a pushy little girl and she will not be stopped."

Push takes a hard look at the family unit and a school system that doesn't work for a lot of people.

Some just aren't going to make it. "But Precious is not a failure," says Sapphire - even though her story is not universally liked. Just this morning, Sapphire says, she was interviewed on a Pacifica radio station by someone who told her she was being used as a tool by white people. She is devastated. "How people react to the story tells a lot more about them than about the book. There are those who are ashamed of Precious. They think she reflects negatively on all black people. But some see her as a symbol of liberation." Push tells a story that is part of everyday living for many. As Precious Jones says, "I'm gonna try to make sense and tell the truth, else what's the fucking use? Ain' enough lies and shit out there already?"

SALLY OWEN is book review editor for ON THE ISSUES and former co-owner of Judith's Room in New York.

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