Written by Barbara Jones, a Progressive Book Club blogger.
Last week, at the launch event for her second novel The Kid (her first novel, Push, was made into the Academy Award-winning movie “Precious”), Sapphire was greeted by an adoring and attentive house, a Barnes & Noble crowd that clapped and hurrahed and whistled its welcome — then hung on every word. Sapphire was interviewed on stage and for a podcast by B&N’s always spot-on “Upstairs at the Square” show host, Katherine Lanpher. And Sapphire was sung to by the deep alto of singer-songwriter Imani Uzuri (the bookstore became “the church of Sapphire,” Lanpher said). Toward the end of the evening, in a climax to everything that had been talked about, sung about, and read (Sapphire was marvelous reading from The Kid), Dance Theatre of Harlem artist DaVon Doane, in a breathtaking adagio improvisation, seemed to become Abdul, the protagonist of The Kid — except that Doane was Abdul as we hoped he’d be. In The Kid, Abdul is violated as a child and becomes a violator; in Barnes & Noble, Doane was Abdul healed, a beautiful young man in benevolent and powerful possession of his body. Many, including Sapphire, wept while Doane danced. Others stood in ovation. Soon after that, Sapphire’s fans formed a long line, each holding a copy of The Kid to be signed. Here was an entirely successful coming out for a new novel.
But even so, underneath, trouble brewed.
Let’s call it The Sapphire Problem.
In her novels and in her poetry, Sapphire writes about poor, black, abused American children, about HIV/AIDS and its many victims, including those orphaned by it, and about male (and sometimes female) domestic and sexual violence. She writes as honestly as she can, eyes wide open to reality.
Here’s some of that reality in statistics: Every 32 seconds an American baby is born into poverty; every 41 seconds an American child is confirmed as abused or neglected; every minute a American baby is born to a teen mother. (Hundreds more statistics such as these are readily available from the Children’s Defense Fund: www.childrensdefensefund.org.) These poor, harmed children live out whatever length of life they get largely unseen by the public that has the means and votes to do something to help them. Every 18 minutes a child dies before its first birthday; every 5 hours a child or teen commits suicide; every 6 hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect. Sapphire passionately wants these underfunded, undernourished, unsafe lives to be seen.
Well, you know how that goes over.
Her work upsets people.
Most people don’t want to read it. They don’t like it. Not really.
At Barnes & Noble last week, Katherine Lanpher said to Sapphire, “It strikes me as one of your hallmarks, for your poetry as well as your prose, that you are able to write about and make us look at things we don’t want to look at.”
Sapphire, sitting in a chair on stage, her hands clasped between her knees, looked toward the floor and said in her gorgeous, low voice, “Some people. Some people are able to look at things they don’t want to look at. Other people just close the book, and go on about their business.” She went on to explain that because of the buzz around Lee Daniel’s movie “Precious” and because “Oprah and Tyler Perry were gracious enough to get behind [that movie version of Push],” millions of people “went to see the film and were touched deeply,” and left the theater and bought Push, ten times more than had bought the book before. Even so, “some people… didn’t understand the violence in the text. It hadn’t happened to them. You know, ‘Why can’t we just keep a lid on that?’ And my thought was if these people can survive it, we certainly can read about it. I’m just asking you to read about other people.”
Words in a blog post don’t convey the solid, humble, generous way Sapphire spoke. If children thrown into poverty and peril through no fault of their own can survive these terrible situations, the least we can do is read about them. Read about the lives they are living before the worst happens.
The Kid begins with the death of Claireece Precious Jones, the now well-known protagonist of Push. Because millions of people saw “Precious,” millions will never look at an obese, poor, black teen mother in the same way; they will never ignore her as entirely as they did before. She has been seen. This triumph of social education may seem like a starting place for an ongoing, trusting mass-audience-author relationship. But Sapphire kills off Precious in the first chapter of The Kid. Precious’s sole surviving child, 9-year-old Abdul, is orphaned in that moment. “If there’s a strength in single mothers,” Sapphire said at B&N, “it’s that she carries on and carries forth. If there’s a tragedy in single mothers, it’s that if she falls, that child falls.” That tragedy is the situation of The Kid.
“Why did she have to go?” Lanpher asked Sapphire.
Because that’s what would probably have happened, Sapphire said. If a poor black woman had AIDS at the time Precious Jones had AIDS, chances were, she would have died. “Abdul is just one of millions” of children orphaned by AIDS worldwide, Sapphire said. “I chose just one man who has lost everything.” Furthermore, to drive home the reality of Abdul’s situation, Sapphire reminded the audience that he is a black boy in America, the least likely child to be adopted. “People will go all over the world. People will go to Indonesia, to Africa, people will go to Russia,” before they will adopt a black American boy, she said.
Lanpher asked, “What temptations, if any, were there for you to defy the facts on the ground and have Precious live and be that 1 percent that carries on?”
Sapphire, quickly, while making an effort to be patient with her audience, said, “You mean a romantic fantasy.” And her remark plus the way she said it sent a low “whoa” through the crowd, because she’d told the truth. A romantic fantasy is just what the people wanted.
Sapphire couldn’t write that fantasy. “That would cause you to not feel the pain that millions all over the world are feeling behind the AIDS epidemic.”
So far The Kid has received some of the lowest customer ratings I have ever noticed on Amazon. Distressed reviews. Why did Precious have to die? Why is this book so dark? Why is there no redemption — or so little redemption? The Amazon reviewers don’t fault the writing; they fault the plot.
“[With] mass horror should come mass grace,” one wrote.
“The worst part for me is that even though I can imagine young black boys are treated like this is the fact that there is no real resolution at the end,” wrote another.
But Sapphire is taking reality as her plot. As Chekhov saw it, it’s not the artist’s job to solve the situation, only to show the situation correctly. The resolution sought by the disappointed Amazon reviewer is not in Sapphire’s hands; it’s in the hands of the citizenry. Those who want to change Sapphire’s plot would have to help change the reality she’s looking at. Which would mean, for starters, seeing that reality, which could mean, as a first step, reading The Kid.
This post was originally published by the Progressive Book Club.