Study Guide

Sapphire

Sapphire Essay - Critical Essays

Sapphire

Introduction

Sapphire Push

Born Ramona Lofton in 1950, Sapphire is an American poet and novelist.

A controversial novel even before its publication, Push (1996) is set in the harsh world of Lenox Avenue in Harlem during the 1980s. It relates the miserable existence of Claireece "Precious" Jones, an overweight, African-American sixteen-year-old girl who dreams of learning to read so she can graduate from high school and find independence. Precious's story begins with her discovery that she is again pregnant by her own father, who also is the father of her first child, Mongo, a girl born with Down's syndrome. Not only has Precious's mother, who is not married to her father, been aware of his routine sexual abuse, but she beats Precious for stealing her man. After the birth of her second child, Precious learns that her father has died of AIDS and that she is HIV positive. Despite all the degradation she has endured from her abusive family and cruel classmates, she is not psychologically destroyed. A ninth-grade dropout due to her first pregnancy, Precious by chance gains entrance to an alternative school, where she is befriended by Blue Rain, a reading teacher who restores a sense of self-respect and hope in her students by encouraging them to keep a journal, "to live in language." Precious eventually joins an incest survivors support group. A lengthy postscript contains the life stories of other students in Precious's reading class. Critical reaction to Push generally has been favorable, but debate about the book's literary merits and its intense focus on incest, abuse, and prejudice has continued. Although many publishers thought that the unrelenting despair of Precious's existence was greatly exaggerated, reviewers have often compared Push to Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Critics have frequently commented on the angry yet intimate voice of Precious and her blunt, graphic language, to which many readers have attributed the emotional power of Push. "Without benefit of intricate plot or beautiful language, masterly structure or terribly complex characters," remarked Rosemary Mahoney, "Sapphire has created in Push an affecting and impassioned work that sails on the strength of pure, stirring feeling." Sapphire also wrote a collection of prose and poetry, American Dreams (1994), which explores similar themes of racism, misogyny, and the despair and injustice suffered by the poor. One poem in particular, "Wilding," scandalized critics with its frank description of a Central Park gang rape. Margaret Randall found the book "startlingly raw in places, imbued with a haunting power."

Principal Works

Meditations on the Rainbow: Poetry (poetry) 1987
American Dreams (poetry and prose) 1994
Push (novel) 1996

Criticism

Margaret Randall (review date March-May 1995)

SOURCE: "Dreams Deferred," in American Book Review, Vol. 16, No. 6, March-May, 1995, p. 26.

[In the excerpt below, Randall discerns "considerable craft" in the poems of American Dreams.]

Sapphire's American Dreams is a first book and as such suffers from some of the problems such endeavors often display. It is also startlingly raw in places, imbued with a haunting power…. Sapphire is African-American;… concerned with the ugliness of race hatred, the mindless misogyny of woman-hatred, the despair of poverty-induced disease and injustice. The landscapes of these American Dreams range from the tenement bed to South Central LA, from the shabby stage of "lesbian love teams" to the girl child who tries to substitute her own story of sexual abuse for the fairy tale her mother insists upon forcing down her throat.

Sapphire is at her best in her rich prose. There are stories in American Dreams that stay with you, like "A New Day for Willa Mae," "There's a Window" and "Eat." Prose poems like "Reflections from Glass Breaking" and "Human Torso Gives Birth" are as close to perfect as anything in the book. This writer is less successful when she combines prose and the poetic line; some narrative pieces dwindle into several pages of lines rambling to no purpose I could discern. I have a feeling hearing Sapphire read might help to resolve some of my questions about why she has chosen...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Terese Svoboda (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "Try Bondage," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 157-59.

[In the following excerpt, Svoboda observes of American Dreams, "These are not nice poems. But they are rarely not good poems."]

Every word costs in American Dreams, a High Risk book by Sapphire, published [in the United States] and in London. The title is the screen on which she projects both the shattering of those dreams and the dream of re-making them. The title poem yields yet another reading:

       The woman looked at me & hissed,
       "Stand up for the general!"
       I said, "My father's in the army, not me."
       & I remained seated.
       & throughout 38 years
       of bucking & winging
       grinning & crawling
       brown nosing & begging
       there has been a quiet
       10 year old in me
       who has remained seated.
       She perhaps is the real American Dream.
                                 ("American Dreams")

"Nobody said that what was cannot be changed," Sapphire writes in the opening poem, "Are You Ready to Rock?" This is a brave premise for a woman with a childhood of extreme sexual abuse who lives in a society which values her little as a black lesbian.

American Dreams unfolds with the spectacle of a black, middle-class family gone sordid, the father attacking all his children, male and female, with a complicit mother who never wanted them standing by. These are not nice poems. But they are rarely not good poems. Sometimes the...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 14 June 1996)

SOURCE: "A Cruel World, Endless Until a Teacher Steps In," in The New York Times, June 14, 1996, p. B8.

[In the following review, Kakutani suggests that an ideological subtext diminishes the emotional impact of the narrative in Push, which makes it "disturbing, affecting and manipulative all at the same time."]

What do you get if you borrow the notion of an idiosyncratic teen-age narrator from J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and mix it up with the feminist sentimentality and anger of Alice Walker's Color Purple? The answer is Push, a much-talked-about first novel by a poet named Sapphire, a novel that manages to be disturbing, affecting...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Dinitia Smith (review date 2 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Playing the Hand She's Dealt," in The New York Times, July 2, 1996, pp. B1, B4.

[In the review below, Smith discusses the controversy over some of the themes and perspectives in Sapphire's novel and poetry.]

This is the realm of "the voiceless," Lenox Avenue between 133d and 134th Streets in Harlem, where Precious, the teenage heroine of Push, a new novel by the poet Sapphire, lives.

"She lives there," Sapphire, also known as Ramona Lofton, said recently, pointing at a dowdy building over a check cashing store. Sapphire spoke as if Precious really existed. In the book, Precious, whose given name is Claireece, has a baby, "Little...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Rosemary Mahoney (review date 7 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Don't Nobody Want Me. Don't Nobody Need Me," in The New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, p. 9.

[Below, Mahoney calls Push "an affecting and impassioned work that sails on the strength of pure, stirring feeling."]

Intrepid will and raw intelligence ring forth in Claireece Precious Jones, the narrator of Push, the poet and performance artist Sapphire's first novel. Precious, as she prefers to be called, is a teenager in Harlem during the 1980's, and the numerous violations she has withstood in her young life have left her bereft of resources, utterly lacking in self-command and virtually unable to communicate. Black, poor, angry, profoundly...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

Paula L. Woods (review date 7 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Pushed to Survival," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following review, Woods calls Push "an impressive yet deeply flawed debut," pointing to inconsistencies in narrative voice and use of language.]

"I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver."

The opening line of Sapphire's first novel hits the reader like a Mack truck, and it clearly signals that the literary ride ahead won't be in your father's Oldsmobile. The journey of Harlem teenager Claireece Precious Jones is sickening and confusing, painful and hopeful. By turns thought-provoking and horrifying, Push is sure to...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)

Achy Obejas (review date 21 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Living Hell," in Chicago Tribune—Books, July 21, 1996, p. 3.

[In the review below, Obejas briefly outlines the themes in Push, praising Sapphire's portrayal of inner-city life.]

Push is a story about hell.

It's about Precious Jones, a 16-year-old girl whose life is damned before she's even born. It's about economic and spiritual poverty, about violence and incest, about ignorance and prejudice, pregnancy and AIDS and death. It's the kind of story that gets more intense and infernal with every page.

Yet the miracle of Push is that, even at its most devastating, it is also a story about faith and...

(The entire section is 720 words.)