Push by Sapphire

23rd June 2010

Book to movie production is a double-edged sword. For instance, when I first saw Milk, I was appalled that it was the first I had ever heard of Harvey Milk, the man and politician in the 70s in San Francisco who made gay activism what it is today. However, I am so happy that his story was brought to me, even though I hated that Hollywood was the one that informed me. In the last year, it has almost become a joke: Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire. Each time it won something, I would hear those words. I knew, based on reviews of the movie and the attention it was getting on several feminist websites I encountered that it would not be an easy viewing.  I also knew that, regardless, I would read/watch it. When I went to the library Monday night, I picked it up. I didn’t realize the book was actually published in 1991, which is why I love/hate that Hollywood once again beat me to the punch.

It’s a slim volume, and if you’ve been under a rock the past year, here’s the premise. Clarieece Precious Jones is 16, pregnant with her second child by her father, miserable at school, and desperate for a different life, a life for which she will always have to push. Her mother beats her because the father leaves when he realizes Precious is pregnant (he comes back). The mother has also apparently been molesting Precious. Precious is illiterate, and the book opens when she is suspended for being pregnant a second time, saying, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

The book is written as Precious’ journal and is thus full of misspellings and colloquialisms as well as foul language. ‘Miz Rain,’ her teacher at Each One Teach One (an alternative school) encourages her students to write their stories in journals; Precious takes to her journal, and it becomes therapeutic for her. The book is not easy to read, but I tire of hearing people say they don’t think they could handle it. I mean, I get it. If it were gratuitous, that’d be one thing. But it’s life. This book may be fiction, but the story is rife with truths. Life is and can be ugly.

More than anything, this book impacted me in a major way. I am also listening to the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (review up tomorrow), and both are stories of African-American women and incest. Although totally different, these two stories have really made great companions. Whereas Morrison’s story is, as always, so beautifully descriptive of something so vile, Sapphire’s story is in your face. It knocked me out and drug me down when I finished it at midnight last night. It made me angry; no – it infuriated me.

Precious is fat. The scale stops at 200, and she knows she’s heavier. She smells bad at times; she used to urinate on herself at school because she wouldn’t get up. She has been abused by everyone and everything in her life. Her first child at 12 was born with Down’s syndrome or “down sinder” as she calls it and is named Little Mongo. Her grandmother is absent although she cares for Little Mongo. Her father rapes her repeatedly, and her mother beats her and molests her. All of this rent my heart in two, but as a white woman – a privileged white woman – what absolutely killed me were lines like these:

Why can’t I see myself, feel where I end and begin. I sometimes look in the pink people in suits eyes, the men from bizness, and they look way above me, put me out of their eyes. My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones – thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids.

Passages like these actually nauseated me. Feeling ugly at times is one thing; I feel that way with no makeup or when I haven’t fixed myself up. But to feel like I could only be pretty if I were another race? To feel that maybe if I were lighter skinned or white that I would not have been raped, that my mother would have loved me, that I may be able to read?

How, how we have failed children like these! I know and acknowledge that incest, rape, child abuse, and illiteracy affect white children, Hispanic children, Russian children, yellow and brown, light-skinned and dark-skinned, diabetic, fat, skinny, gay, straight, innocent and not-so-innocent boys and girls. I can understand why there are those out there who didn’t want this book to become popular or who didn’t want the film to be made because it then becomes an African-American issue and not a capital “I” Issue. What I love about this book? That it moved me to want to take action.

Toni Morrison has a gift for beautifully telling horrible stories – stories for which the word ‘horrible’ is not even emphatic enough – but she never moves me to want to leave the realm of the story and do something about it. There was a moment in reading Push when the teacher Blue Rain is working with the students that I thought, I want to do that. It scared me. I know that people like Blue Rain (the non-fiction people) are out there doing this work and breaking their own hearts every day and working for little money, but oh, the rewards. For now, I want to find a literacy program and help support it. I’m not sure how yet to do that effectively, but on this site, in the future, I won’t do giveaways. I will promote whatever literacy program I research and decide would best use your money and my money. You and I, dear reader, are blessed. We have books aplenty, but more than that, we have the ability to open the pages of those books and allow them to take us away or to inform us or to better our minds. There are those out there who don’t have that option for more than just monetary reasons.

I promise you, and I promise myself that I will become an advocate for literacy. I promise to push.

  • Matt

    What a fantastic & inspirational review. Thank you, Picky Girl.

  • marlene

    Junella and I watched this movie together on Tuesday afternoon….the others felt they couldn’t handle it after a while, but we had to watch till the bitter, heartbreaking end. And I am oh so glad that I did. Hard to watch? You betcha, that doesn’t even begin to describe how it makes you feel, sickened, disgusted, horrified that any child should have to endure such unconscienable treatment, absolutely! Even after twenty years of teaching, many of them in a school environment rife with abuse, thinking I’d seen and heard it all, I was apalled and sickened by e plight of Precious, and her babies. Yes, it was a work of fiction, but it was also what so so many children deal with. I have often said to those who get angry at, or lack patience with those children many deam, ‘unloveable’, that if we only understand where and what they come from,we would see them for who they truly are. Heros that endure more as children, than most of us ever will in a lifetime, and yet still manage to carry on. I am glad I watched Precious, and I agree that it stirred me to action, as well. Our hands are greatly tied as a society, we can report abuse till the end of time, but often little is done about it. We CAN reach out and try to make those children whose lives we are priveledged cross paths with be impacted by our words and actions. It is a horrible monster to slay, abuse, both physical and verbal, and none of us know just how much we can make a difference by our efforts….but it’s a guarantee that there will be NO positive changes made if we do NOTHING! There is much to be gained in teaching literacy, yes, there is equally as much to be gained in teaching self-esteem, and the knowledge that each child matters. Count me in! I wish to do all that I can to make that difference.

  • Bravo, this was absolutely a beautiful post

  • Magnificent. I love it when a book/movie inspires you to take action like that. I don’t know if you’re interested but last year I went to a screening of Precious where the filmmakers came out to discuss the making of it and I wrote about it here http://bit.ly/d5PNq7. The book may be fiction but it’s based on a real student of Sapphire’s.

    I have a Toni Morrison story though it’s not my own. Years ago, my sister was a high school English teacher and tried to get Beloved into the curriculum. The school board said no, it’s inappropriate, stick with Huck Finn, etc. She quit, went back to school, got her Master’s in Education from Harvard, founded her own school and started teaching Morrison. Talk about being motivated to make a difference! Though she’s five years younger, my sister inspires me.

    • You know, the funny thing is that Huck Finn is all too often censored in schools. Crazy. That is an inspiring story. Good for your sis!

  • I haven’t seen this movie or this book yet, but your review brought tears to my eyes

  • Terrific post! It’s been a long time since I read the book but I remember it’s one of those when I put down I had a hard time starting another. It’s just so strong. I hope you are able to find a way to push for literacy!