Traditional African American female quests described from an urban perspective in Sapphire's Push

Seminar Paper, 2003

22 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)

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1. Introductory remarks

2. A short overview: Recurring themes in 20th century African American women’s literature

3. Sapphire’s Push – The urban perspective
3.1. Becoming herself – The quests of Precious Claireece Jones
Precious’s quest for positive selfhood
Precious’s quest for a home and a family
A quest for recognition and acknowledgment?
Writing against invisibility
Finding a place in the city

4. Summary


1. Introductory remarks

While female African American authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker predominantly used the rural perspective to convey their female protagonist’s struggles through life, Sapphire’s short novel Push is set in New York City.

The Harlem that Sapphire describes in Push seems to only have the name with the Harlem of the 1920s in common. Her protagonist can hardly fight for herself let alone fight for the bigger cause of Black liberation. Neither does she partake in artistic activities or in the publishing of books that will shape African Americans’ perception of themselves as Push’s protagonist can hardly write.

In this paper I try to examine whether themes like the quest for a positive self and a place where one belongs, as they are often used in novels by female African Americans, have been simply transplanted from a rural Southern environment to the hustling and bustling of the city.

A short overview of recurring themes in African American women’s literature of the 20th century will serve as a starting point for my paper. It helps to clarify whether Sapphire can be understood as following and contributing to the literary tradition that had been developed by her predecessors or whether she chose to tread entirely new paths.

According to my first presumption, the conditions of an urban environment create different challenges than rural surroundings and, thus, require a unique way of dealing with problems that appear to be universal in African American women’s literature. To prove this point I examine how Push’s protagonist Precious Claireece Jones deals with the numerous conflicts and problems that seem to constitute her life.

My second presumption is that the different “quests” the protagonist pursues are ultimately a quest for recognition and acknowledgment. In an urban environment that seems to deny her a unique identity, Precious is struggling to create a self. To verify this, I look into the way in which her quests are presented as being motivated by a broader desire to become visible in the anonymous surroundings of the big city.[1]

2. A short overview: Recurring themes in 20th century African American women’s literature

In most novels by African American women writers of the 20th century, the rural South often exists either as setting or as a part of the protagonists’ past. Thus, the protagonists are at least familiar if not part of the black rural community with its ties based on group membership and kinship and with its traditional patriarchic structures.

The way in which dominant themes in 20th century African American women’s literature are dealt with can be understood as highly dependent on the communities’ structures that the female protagonists are (or used to be) tied up in.

Among the dominant motifs are the quest for a positive female self and the quest for a place of one’s own. The structures of the respective communities provide a matrix that has to be considered in negotiating identity and sense of belonging. For protagonists like Hurston’s Janie, Angelou’s Marguerite[2] and Walker’s Celie the black rural community is less a secure haven that allows them to fully develop a positive self but is presented as a rigid corset that restricts any individual personal growth outside allotted norms. The community is presented as only accommodating to those who do not challenge the accustomed order. In this environment, for the female protagonists of the novels I know why the caged bird sings and There eyes were watching God, the first step into the direction of a self-determined life is to exit the restricted and restricting community.

In Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American novelist, however, Hazel Carby challenges the prevalent tendency to prefer the rural, Southern setting when African American women authors write about issues concerning African American women. To her it is important that these authors would start to reconsider their neglect of the urban perspective as “some of the most crucial and urgent issues of the cultural struggle (…) have to be faced in the cities, the home of the black working class.” (Carby 1987:175).

There are African American women writers in the past who have chosen an urban environment as setting for their novels. However, novels like Morrison’s Jazz deal with characters that have traded their rural homes for a life in the big city. Here, the city is still a promise and characters like Violet have to come to terms with the fact that community life also has its advantages. The community’s crisis is presented as causing the characters to lose their footing. These protagonists are used to living their life inside of community structures and have yet to learn how to face the challenges of urban life without the protection of a safety net.

The recurring appearance of child abuse as a theme in 20th century African American women’s literature is also remarkable. During her childhood, Walker’s Celie had been frequently sexually abused by her (step)father who is also father to her two children. Angelou’s Marguerite got raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend. I understand the theme of abuse as a means to convey the doubly suppressed situation in which African American women often found (and still find) themselves: Marginalized by the white majority and at best not taken seriously and at worst actively suppressed within the rigid patriarchic structures of black rural communities.

An important stylistic device is the usage of black vernacular. In an essay on Black English, June Jordan highlights “its status as endangered species, as a perishing, irreplaceable system of community intelligence” (Jordan 2002:157) and promotes the importance of its usage in both spoken but particularly in its written version as a way to withstand homogenizing tendencies of Standard, i.e. white, English.[3] Among the earliest novelists who consequently and systematically used vernacular as a mode of writing was Zora Neale Hurston. According to Eva Lennox Birch, Hurston considered it to be her task “to retrieve the black oral subculture which was the living triumph of her people over white suppression.” (Birch 1994:45). It is a clearly political decision for writers to choose to write in a language that is being considered as inferior by a fair share of the potential readership who mistake Black English simply for a misspelled and syntactically wrong version of Standard English.

3.Sapphire’s Push – the urban perspective

With New York City, Sapphire has chosen an ultimately urban setting for her novel Push. The female protagonist Precious did not choose life in a city, she was born there. As Precious comes from a family entirely depending on welfare she cannot be subsumed under “working class”. She rather belongs to a group that William Julius Wilson calls “black inner-city residents”[4] which is the most impoverished segment of the “lower class”.

The story is related by a participating first person narrator, Precious, whose point of view dominates the story to a large extent. An exception are the passages when she quotes other people that play a part in her life or when she seems to embrace other people points of view without filtering them through her own mental capacity. Precious relates to the reader how she perceives and judges the people around her. How the outside world perceives her, can only be guessed from the extent to which she has internalized constant oppression and from the quotes directed to her.

Push presents the reader with a speakerly text “whose rhetorical strategy is designed to represent an oral literary tradition” (Gates 1988:181). Sapphire, who has been a performance poet since the early 1970s, chose the unlettered Black urban vernacular as vehicle to transport Precious’s story. The unpolished language in connection with the anti-linear narrative structure and the “pseudo-autobiographical mode”[5] of the novel creates a very immediate effect that makes it hard for the reader to resist to being drawn into the disturbing narrative.

The impression that Precious speaks directly to the reader who cannot escape the urgency of her words is indeed a result from Sapphire’s usage of Black English. According to Jordan, one of the crucial qualities of Black English is the presence of life in every sentence. “[T]here is no passive voice […], all action takes place in the language of the present indicative. And every sentence assumes the living and active participation of at least two human beings, the speaker and the listener.” (Jordan 2002:163).

3.1. Becoming herself – The quests of Precious Claireece Jones

As discussed earlier, novels by African American women writers of the 20th century often have the female protagonist’s search for an identity as a central theme. In rural community structures this search usually goes hand in hand with the attempt to emancipate themselves from existing structures. Though the potentially supportive and unifying aspects of community structures were not denied altogether, the concept of a community in which everyone can develop themselves to their full potential is seriously challenged.

Precious, however, finds herself in a position that is not only the result of her specific immediate environment, but of an intricate network of systematic oppression that plagues poor, minority communities of the inner-city. The institutions that enable this systematic oppression include the family (the silence and shame of incest and sexual abuse), the school (the failure of under funded public education), media and social attitudes (shaping and propagating the standards of beauty and success).

3.1.1. Precious’s quest for a positive selfhood

The development of Precious toward a more appreciative notion of herself is particularly demanding as she has no positive role model in her immediate environment. There is only her mother – violent, abusive and one of the causes why Precious hates herself – and no strong black woman that could help her to acquire a positive notion of blackness. There are white people that she has been taught not to trust on the one hand (the one useless lecture her mother has taught her) but whom she still admires for the simple fact of their whiteness on the other. And there are unrealistic images of beauty and success that are distributed by the mass media and that shape people’s perceptions of what is the desired norm. None of those images could easily be bent to accommodate Precious’s features and conditions.

Breaking out of the vicious circle of hatefulness that is a result of the described systematic oppression that afflicts the poor and the marginalized, is presented as an important way for Precious to develop a positive selfhood.

At the beginning of the novel Precious is presented as understanding herself as being a different person inside; one that is “pretty, like a advertisement girl on commercial” (Push:35) and, above all, one that is “a white girl, a real person” (ibid:32). This distorted perception of herself is a refuge for her to deal with the resentment and violence she faces on a daily basis because she can fool herself into believing that people would love her and treat her right if only they could see her inner self. However as long as she does not accept herself for what she is there will be no chance for loving herself either.

For Precious it is a slow and painful process to realize that she does not need to be white and skinny to be a person worth being recognized and loved. It is especially hard for her to overcome her self hatred because she resembles so closely the person who is one of the causes for Precious’s suffering – her mother. “Sometimes I pass by store window and somebody fat dark skin, old looking, someone look like my muver look back at me. But I know it can’t be my muver ‘cause my muver is at home.” (Push:32).

It becomes clear that it is difficult for her to allow herself to understand that what she thought really existed as an alternative personality inside of her was in fact only a fantasy, a means for her to endure ridicule, violence and rape. Only being able to endure her sufferings while Precious still thinks that her actual skin color, weight and appearance are rightfully being rejected, however, perpetuates the vicious circle of her self hatred.

“I am a TV set wif no picture. I am broke wif no mind. No past or present time. Only the movies of being someone else. Someone not fat, dark skin, short hair, someone not fucked. A pink virgin girl.” (ibid:112, my italics).

In order to break out of this circle, she has to come to terms with the fact that her appearance that she considered to only be an ugly shell for her real self is actually the only appearance there is.

“I am not white bitch. I am not Janet Jackson or Madonna on the inside. I always thought I was someone different on the inside. That I was just fat and black and ugly to people on the OUTSIDE. And if they could see inside me they would see something lovely and not keep laughing at me. […] But I am not different on the inside. Inside I thought was so beautiful is a black girl too.” (ibid:125)

This statement sounds especially bleak as it resounds Precious’s understanding that “beautiful” and “black” inherently exclude one another. But the statement has to be considered as the crucial point in Precious’s overcoming her self hatred.

Precious gradually overcomes the internalized reproach of being a burden and worthless and becomes someone who develops a feeling of her own worth. Though her self esteem is still small and fragile she has learnt to recognize the kindness around her by the end of the novel.

Being able to recognize that not only the friends she had made at Each One Teach One but also random people are friendly toward each other and toward her enables Precious to have a more optimistic outlook on life. She does no longer have to look askance at the world around her but can actually see the beauty that is ultimately there.

Even now I go downtown and seen the rich shit they got, I see what we got too. I see those men in vacant lot share one hot dog and they homeless, that’s good as Jesus with his fish. I remember when I had my daughter, nurse nice to me – all that is good. (Push:139)

Sapphire chose to let Precious speak about her own beauty only indirectly. That makes it both more believable and embracing. She says about her son Abdul, “He my shiny brown boy. In his beauty I see my own.” (ibid:140).

3.1.2. Precious’s quest for a home and a family

In her essay “Agents of Pain and Redemption in Sapphire’s Push”, Janice Lee Liddell summarizes the novel as dealing with the “physical and psychological holocaust inflicted on one of society’s most innocent by those who should protect and nurture her.” (Liddell 1999:137).

Sapphire does not shun topics of taboo. Precious’ family is depicted as highly dysfunctional, violently abusive and as being the main source for her having to struggle so hard with life.

Precious’ father Carl who does not live with Mary and Precious has sexually abused her since she was an infant. Her mother Mary recalls:

She still little. Yeah, around three maybe. […] “He climb on me, you know. You unnerstand?” […] “So he on me. Then he reach over to Precious! Start wif his finger between her legs. […] Then he git off me, take off her Pampers and try to stick his thing in Precious.

(Push: 135)

That was only the beginning of what turned into a systematic sexual exploitation of his daughter. Carl undermines Precious’ ability to develop a healthy relationship to her sexuality and her body by using her bodily responses to humiliate her even further:

He slam his hips into me HARD. I scream pain he come. He slap my thighs as cowboys do horses on TV. Shiver. Orgasm in me, his body shaking, grab me, call me Fat Mama, Big Hole! You LOVE it! Say you love it! I wanna say I DON’T. I wanna say I’m a chile. […] Then my body take me over again, I come again. My body not mine, I hate it coming.

Afterward I go bafroom. I smear shit on my face. Feel good. Don’t know why but it do.


Mary Jones is as far as humanly possible from corresponding with the dominant themes that Patricia Hill Collins identified in her afrocentric feminist analysis of motherhood (Collins 1990).

Precious’ mother denies her daughter any contact with potential “other-mothers” (ibid) who could have helped fostering a sense of belonging to a community. With four locks and Mary on the constant lookout, the Jones flat becomes a trap that is difficult for Precious to leave and for others to enter. Even when Mary violently beats Precious who is highly advanced in pregnancy, their neighbor Ms. West, the one potential “other-mother”, is only able to help the child by talking through the four-foldedly locked door. “[.] Miz West live down the hall pounding on the door, hollering ‘Mary! Mary! What you doing’! You gonna kill that chile! She need help not no beating, is you crazy?’” (Push:9-10)

Instead of teaching Precious “skills of independence and self-reliance so that [she] will be able to protect [herself]” (Collins 1990:126) Mary seems to try and destroy any sense of self-esteem in her. The verbal abuse seems to be eclipsed by the physical forms of abuse that Precious is constantly exposed to. However, insults such as, “’Fat cunt bucket slut! Nigger pig bitch! […] I should KILL you!’” (Push:19), that are frequently issued by her mother do register with Precious and shape her perception of herself.

What is arguable the worst is Mary’s complete refusal to protect her child. Not only does she literally look on when Carl rapes Precious, she regularly batters her badly and does her share in sexually exploiting Precious:

I feel Mama’s hand between my legs, moving up my thigh. Her hand stop, she getting ready to pinch me if I move. I just lay still, keep my eyes close. I can tell Mama’s other hand between her legs now ‘cause the smell fill room. […] Mama’s hand creepy spider, up my legs, in my pussy.


Precious becomes increasingly aware that it should have been her mother’s duty to at least interfere when Carl was raping his child over and over again.

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’ family is not the only dysfunctional family presented in the novel. Her classmates in the pre-G.E.D. program and the women who relate their life stories in the Incest Survivor meeting come from similar backgrounds. Despite never experiencing any example of positive family life, Precious seems to foster the view of the concept of “family” as having the potential for being a safe haven and the question of how to find a place for her children and herself becomes increasingly important.

In the short staccato of someone who has just learned a new language, or as in Precious’ case: a new way to express herself, she gives a summary of what is immediately important to know about her:


My baby is born

My baby is black

I am a girl

I am black

I want house to live

(Push:76, my italics)

She has realized that the popular prejudice does not run in favor of her looks and has a very bleak outlook on her prospects of finding heterosexual love. But it consoles her that she has found people who care enough about her to embrace her for what she is and not for her appearance. “Maybe I never find no love, nobody. At least when I look at the girls I see them and when they look they see ME, not what I looks like.” (ibid: 95).

Precious says about her dealing with the new students:

[S]ome new girls – who is like me when I first walk through the door. Only now I the one who say “keep on keepin’ on!” to the new girls. I show them how the dialogue journal work. […] I explain the phonics game, vocab building list – all stuff like that I know now. (ibid:94)

This makes clear that the Each One Teach One class becomes in fact an extended family for Precious. The class functions like a “normal” family: At first Blue Rain is closest to being a parent figure, she explains the concept and how things work in the class environment. When Precious and the other students have internalized the structures it is their turn to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of students. Thus, each one is an important member who both gives and receives.

Finding a place for herself and her children proves more difficult than finding an alternative family for Precious. When she comes home from the hospital after having delivered her second child Abdul, her mother threatens to kill her. Precious does not take any risks. “I just grab Abdul, my bags, ‘n hit the door.” (ibid:74).

Sapphire certainly does not spare her protagonist, and she does not spare her readers either. Prior to the narrated incident, by inserting a journal book correspondence between Precious and Blue Rain, the author had guided the reader to wondering whether or not it would be a good idea for Precious to give her baby up for adoption in order to resume her education.

All of a sudden, however, the situation is more dramatic than before: Precious finds herself not only without a place of her own but without a place to stay at all.

After a night in an accommodation for homeless women she turns to Blue Rain for help and she and her friends from Each One Teach One do their utmost to find housing for Precious. Precious wants to stay in Harlem and throws a verbal tantrum when feels threatened that she has to leave the area she is familiar with for another place: “They wanna send me to 1/2way house in Queens, immediate opening! NO! What I know about Queens?! They got Arabs, Koreans, Jews, and Jamaicans – all kinda shit me and Abdul don’t need to be bothered with. Here, I stay in Harlem.” (ibid:79).

Her priorities regarding a home are clear. Precious wants to live in a place in Harlem with no one bossing her around and torturing her. Against this background, it can be considered a great achievement for Precious that by the end of the novel she is sitting in Advancement House, a housing project in Harlem.

There she can taste independence but she can also turn to the house mother in cases when her past comes crashing back down on her with all its weight.

3.2. A quest for recognition and acknowledgment?

The crisis of the black urban community that Morrison had picked as one of the central themes in Jazz seems to have come to a conclusion in the community’s complete disintegration. In Push there simply is no black urban community to rely on. As I have described above, not even the community’s smallest units, the families, are presented as offering any shelter from the harsh urban reality.

The self-hate that dominates Precious conception of herself is multiplied in her dismissive attitude toward the ones that could be understood as members of the same social group: “I hate crack addicts. They give the race a bad name.” (Push:14).

Experience has told her that there is no sense of solidarity present in the actual world around Precious and so she has to gradually learn to not feel threatened when other people try to get through to her and to accept that there are people who have nothing else on their agenda when they offer their help.

One of the central themes of the novel is Precious’ initial invisibility and her strong desire to be recognized.

The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit, an’ castles, you know shit be all haunted. And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. But the real peoples did not know it till it was party time. You know crackers eating roast turkey and champagne and shit. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. Got it? When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples do not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist.

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see that when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the systems blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV movie, LOUD.


Here, existence and visibility are understood as being dependent on recognition from the environment one lives in. Precious does not exist because nobody expects anything from her, she is not even the smallest screw that helps holding everything together - “Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me.” (ibid). She is not considered to be part of the society. She does not belong to anyone and she considers herself a burden; a “vampire sucking the systems blood.” (ibid).

The first step of her journey toward recognition and acknowledgement, is her entering the Higher Education Alternative/Each One Teach One program. This ignoring her mother’s inquiry, “’Where you going?’ Mama holler from her room. Why ain’t her fat ass sleep? I don’t say nuffin’. Fuck her!” (Push:23) so she can go to find the “alternative” is Precious’ first self-determined step in the narrative. This step gains significance because it is accompanied by a cautiously voiced hope for a better future of which she will be in charge, “Maybe after I have baby I lose some weight. Maybe I get my own place.” (ibid, my italics).

This faint optimism determines Precious’ slow but steady development in the due course of the novel but the novel itself is far from shedding any positive light on her situation. She fights a fight which she has never chosen to participate in but which she has to keep on fighting in order to survive.

3.2.1 Writing against invisibility

The ability to express herself, so others can recognize her is initially challenged by Precious’ illiteracy. “I talk loud but still I don’t exist.” (ibid:31), Precious says about herself.

That Precious is presented as someone who can neither read nor write can be understood as a further reason for her “non-existence” and her “invisibility” in the city of New York. Her condition, not being her fault, renders her unable to leave a recognizable mark in the world around her and seriously infers with her ability to read and understand the semiotics of the city.

Though Precious can hardly grasp the whole impact of her illiteracy, she is aware of the stigma that is attached to not being able to read and write. When a new teacher tries to include her into the lessons, she reacts aggressively to cover up her inability.

I couldn’t let him, anybody, know, page 122 look like page 152, 22, 3, 6, 5 – all the pages look alike to me. ‘N I really do want to learn. Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, some shit like in TV. I’m gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me. – I’m gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class.” (Push:5).

However, her reaction led the teacher to not incorporating her ever after. “He don’t say nuffin’ to me, now.” (ibid:4). Thus, Precious exemplifies the children who fall through the grid of the educational system because there is no capacity to individually attend to children with special needs.

In Precious’s case the actual education only begins after she is suspended from high school. She seems to unconsciously realize that she should try the alternative education program that her school principal had recommended if she wants to stand a chance. “I don’t know what an alternative is but I feel I want to know.” (ibid:16).

After Precious enters the Higher Education Alternative/ Each One Teach One the speakerly text of the narrative is complemented by passages that convey Precious’s progress in acquiring the ability to read and write. In the journal that every student is supposed to keep, the politically conscious teacher Blue Rain communicates with Precious. This direct contact encourages her to keep on trying. “I am happy to be writing. I am happy to be in school. Miz Rain say we gonna write everyday, that mean home too. ‘N she gonna write back everyday. Thas great. (ibid:62)

Precious overcomes her invisibility in direct proportion to her acquisition of the ability to write and read. She becomes increasingly able to leave her mark and have this mark acknowledged. First, when Ms. Rain responds to the writing in her journal and later when she is able to recite poetry in front of the appreciative audience of her class.

That she can write, both functionally and creatively, is the first source for her developing self-confidence. “Everybody know I write poems. People respect me.” (ibid:138). Her new-found literacy is in fact a source from which she can draw to enhance her visibility and a tool that will help her to survive in the city. However, what is even more important, it is a feature that she has incorporated so it can never be snatched away from her again.

As Precious increasingly understands the concept of semiotics, the fact that there are signs in the world that do not stand for themselves but represent a concept, an idea or point to something else, helps her to broaden her horizon as her knowledge allows her to confidently expand her range of action within the city. Had her range of action initially consisted only of her mother’s apartment and the public school she went to, by the end of the novel she is able to use a variety of the facilities a city environment offers: The entertaining aspects of going for coffee to the East Village and visiting museums as well as the supportive structures of groups like the Incest Survivor Meetings and the meetings for HIV positive girls.

Though Precious is not presented as having the whole world read and understood by the end of the novel, she is theoretically able to do so.

3.2.2. Finding a place in the city

Among the first scholars who were to theorize on the city and its modes of life was the group around Robert E. Park of The Chicago School of Sociology. They noted that urbanity is a state of mind that leads city dwellers to practice everyday customs, to employ in artistic endeavor and in communication and, thus, give meaning to the concept of “city life”. Most important is the notion that the city itself is constructed by constant social interaction of strangers, people who are not bound by ties of kinship and group membership. (comp. Balshaw 2000:18).

Precious fulfills none of the criteria that would qualify her as an urban city dweller. She cannot afford the luxury of contemplating on urbanity as the issues of her immediate life are far more urgent. She has no place to develop “urban everyday customs” as all her daily activities are enjoined on her by her mother or through compulsory education. And she does not interact socially as that would imply the existence of someone who would consider listening.

The new school environment marks a turning point in her life. All of a sudden she finds herself in a place where people have an interest in her wellbeing and her personal development and comes to realize her former outsider position. “Now since I sit in circle I realize all my life, all my life I been outside of circle.” (ibid:62).

One of the most crucial instances which prove that Precious has in fact become “somebody” is when she is perceived as a potential customer: After attending the Incest Survivor meeting, Precious shares her new-found joy about knowing that she is not alone: “I’m alive inside. A bird is in my heart. Mama and Daddy is not win. I’m winning.” (Push:131). Thus boosted in her confidence she is able to perceive beauty in others and even compliments a strange girl on her hair. “I surprise myself. ‘How you get hair like this?’ I say. ’Oh,’ she say, ‘you like it? I do yours one day you want. That’s what I do – fix people’s hair and makeup.’ She give me a card!” (ibid).

Precious’s excitement lets assume that this is the first time someone has approached her like that. She is not considered a burden, not as someone who needs help, but as someone on the contrary, she is considered to be someone worth doing business with. In a consumer-oriented city environment that gravitates around consumption and that does not take notice of you unless you prove to be a part by being a consumer, it must surely equal recognition if someone is being considered a potential customer.

3. Summary

Push is a novel of progress and development. Sapphire describes the different levels on which her protagonist Precious has to make progress in order to develop a more positive notion of herself and to gain recognition from the outside world. None of the levels taken individually would have ensured the stage of development as depicted by the novel’s end.

It does not need much speculation to say that in a rural setting, Precious’s fight would have been a different one. The city environment she lives in requires a unique way to approach the seemingly universal African American women’s quests for a positive self and recognition. And some of Precious’s developments would not have been as crucial to her survival in the rural South.

While the likes of Celie and Janie had to emancipate themselves from an ever present community that would dictate rules and roles, Precious has no (at least potentially) supportive structure around her. When inventing her identity, she has to literally start from scratch as there are no real role models that she could either set herself off against or orientate her actions on. Exactly this interplay of opposition and imitation makes it relatively easy to come to term with one’s self. Precious, however, is presented as initially sitting between all chairs and having to put together her identity tiny piece by tiny piece.

The acquisition of the ability to read and write[6] would have been of less immediate importance in Black rural communities that were less oriented toward reading and writing and in which rules and traditions were being handed down by word of mouth and through interaction.

By the end of the novel there are still much more questions than answers, Precious personal development is far from being completed and not even her wish for a place of her own has been fulfilled. Precious still cherishes her resentments against certain population groups, sexual preferences and the consumption of illegal substances and has yet to widen her horizon in order to master those uninformed prejudices.

Given the circumstances, however, this makes the novel believable. In one of the intertextual references to Walker’s The color purple, the novel’s fairy tale ending is criticized. Sapphire does not repeat what might have devaluated Push ’s message altogether and ends her novel on an optimistic note but provides the reader by no means with an ultimately happy ending.

I do not understand Sapphire’s Push as a disruption to the African American women writers’ tradition as most of the dominant themes remain existent in her novel. I would argue, however, that the complete turn away from anything even remotely rural proves to be a point of departure for a new way to deal with problems as they occur in the everyday day lives of contemporary African American women.


Primary Text:

- SAPPHIRE. Push. New York 1997.

Secondary Texts:

- BALSHAW, Maria. Looking for Harlem: urban aesthetics in African American literature. London 2000.
- BIRCH, Eva Lennox. Black American women’s literature. A quilt of many colours. Hertfordshire 1994.
- CARBY, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American novelist. New York 1987.
- COLLINS, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. London 1990.
- DALSGÅRD, Katrine. “Disrupting the Black Feminist Consensus? The Position of Sapphire’s Push in the African American Women’s Tradition.” In: LÖFGREN, Hans and SHIMA, Alan. After Consensus. Critical Challenge and Social Change in America. Göteborg 1998.
- GATES, Henry Louis, Jr. The signifying monkey: A theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York 1988.
- JORDAN, June. “Nobody mean more to me than you and the future life of Willie Jordan”. In: JORDAN, June. Some of us did not die. New and selected essays of June Jordan. New York 2002.
- LIDDELL, Janice Lee. “Agents of Pain and Redemption in Sapphire’s Push”. In: LIDDELL, Janice Lee and KEMP, Yakini Belinda. Arms Akimbo: Africana women in contemporary literature. Florida 1999.
- STANZEL, Franz K. Theorie des Erzählens. Göttingen 1991. (5th edition).


[1] While being well aware that this is only a very limited selection I think that the following novels can be understood as representative for my purposes: HURSTON, Zora Neale. Their eyes were watching God. 1937. ANGELOU, Maya . I know why the caged bird sings. 1969. WALKER, Alice. The color purple. 1982. MORRISON, Toni. Jazz. 1992.

[2] I subsume I know why the caged bird sings under novels despite the fact that it is in fact an autobiographical account.

[3] In her noteworthy essay, June Jordan develops a set of rules for Black English that helps to make clear that Black vernacular is far from simply being an erratic version of Standard English.

[4] W.J. Wilson as quoted by Katrine Dalsgård (Dalsgård 1998:172). He identifies four African American classes: middle class, working class, lower class and black inner-city residents (whom he used to call “underclass” before abandoning the term).

[5] Compare with Stanzel’s “quasi-autobiographische Form” (Stanzel 1991).

[6] A process that I understand as a metaphor for gaining the capacity to make sense of the semiotics of the city.

22 of 22 pages


Traditional African American female quests described from an urban perspective in Sapphire's Push
Humboldt-University of Berlin
Seminar: New York Fictions
1,7 (A-)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Traditional, African, American, Sapphire, Push, Seminar, York, Fictions
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Katja Bartholmess (Author), 2003, Traditional African American female quests described from an urban perspective in Sapphire's Push, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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