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Sapphire’s THE KID — an Important New Novel, with a Serious Old Problem

Sapphire’s THE KID — an Important New Novel, with a Serious Old Problem

 

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 welcomethen 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.

Related Stories:

HIV Rates of Poor U.S. Areas Rival Those of Developing Nations

Female Journalists Reluctant to Report Sexual Abuse

Justice For Caylee: Stop Child Abuse & Neglect

Read more: , , , , , , , ,


Photo used under Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to John Steven Fernandez.

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25 comments

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10:42PM PDT on Aug 26, 2011

I am a white (I say Latino because I'm Italian) 69-year-old woman. I was horribly abused by both my parents. The medical profession saw to it that I was ill and suffering my entire life. My mother was 26 when I was born. It is not necessary to be black, obese, a teen and have AIDS to suffer. It is time that we look at the fact that we live in a dysfunctional society where most people suffer to some degree. No doubt this is the reason most people want romance...which means deceit. Look it up in the dictionary.

12:33AM PDT on Jul 24, 2011

Congratulations. I wonder if the book will arrive here?

8:31AM PDT on Jul 22, 2011

I will definitely read this book when I can come upon it used (not that I think it might not be worth full price, but I don't get very much money

1:21AM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

Unfortunately, the people who *need* to read this book won't. They are already committed to their own "faith", that only the rich and white should prosper and survive.

12:35AM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

These critics' reactions remind me of the film makers who put a happy ending on "1984" - because, y'know, Art has to have happy endings, because that's what sells.

6:05PM PDT on Jul 20, 2011

I did not realize they were books. I really don't get around much......hope it is in library. If not, I can ask for them to order it.

5:58PM PDT on Jul 20, 2011

I've read Push and I will read The Kid. It was so hard to read through Push but I am grateful every day that I did. I knew that horrible, God-awful things like that happen every day, so it wasn't so much an eye-opener as it was a fog clearer. It swept the fog away and allowed me to really make up my mind about wanting to help people like Precious. It's the most honest book I have ever read, and I believe everyone should read it. We need to get with the program and understand what is happening to millions of people every single second of every single day. Until we wake up and realize it's happening and get motivated to do something about it, it's not going to stop.

11:40AM PDT on Jul 20, 2011

good article

10:45AM PDT on Jul 20, 2011

ty

10:13AM PDT on Jul 20, 2011

Like Miranda L. I don't think I will read the book either. Not because I don't want to know about it. I've read and seen enough to know what's going on.
Not until we look at each other in a compassionate way. Not until we try to change society like the late Dr. King Jr. asked us to change it. Not until we embody the ways our great teachers us to live. Not until we change our government that spends at least 50% of our nations budget on war and military instead of on our people. Not until we shed capitalism, the free market mentallity, the economic barbarism that pervades the world will we be able to change the problems spoken about in these books.
Gandhi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Unfortunately many people want to see a world of winners and losers. A societal Darwinism. Instead of an egalitarian society where all can succeed not at the expense of their fellow man.
Kudos to Sapphire. But no book is going to wake the people up to what's happening and no book is going to change the economic Vandals from pillaging everything they can and harming the other 99% of the population. Or convice the foot soldiers of those econimic Vandals from believing that doing their bidding is a good thing.

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