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Racism, Sexism, and Women Writers
A Conversation with Sapphire
by Daniela Gioseffi
Sapphire is among the most uncompromising African-American writers of our time—a poet and novelist who understands racism at its core and women's rights as essential democracy. Before her novel Push (Knopf, 1996) was adapted for the screen as Precious, it won the Book of the Month Club Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s First Novelist Award, among many other honors.
As she has recounted on various popular media, Sapphire had refused at first to have a film based on her book, because she didn't want the vision of the character she'd created to be distorted and stereotyped or exploited. She wanted a film that would offer a sensitive image of true-to-life characters so that the audience could see what made them and not just pity them. Sapphire has said in many instances that she wanted the audience to view Precious with empathy, but didn't want black women to feel ashamed. And so she resisted for a long time allowing a movie to be made.
Eventually, Sapphire felt that Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball) knew how to incorporate both the good aspects and the dysfunctional aspects of the black community, and that he would be able to render Precious as a free individual with the ability to overcome her ordeal on her own. Judging by her recent interviews, Sapphire seems happy with the actors cast for the film and believes that the production was true enough to her book to allow her characters to live and breathe in all their intended dimensionality.
Sapphire’s new novel, The Kid (The Penguin Press, $25.95), is a sequel to Push; it begins with Precious’s son attending her funeral after her death from complications from AIDS. Precious has nurtured Abdul into boyhood, but now Abdul is cast into the foster care system. Though Precious broke the cycle of abuse, Abdul’s new circumstances cause him to be victimized both physically and sexually. What Abdul suffers makes him into a victimizer of others, giving psychological validity to Sapphire’s portrayals of character and experience. The Kid is an indictment of society’s failures to protect the innocent with adequate social services, but Precious’s love for her son ultimately has a positive effect on his life. Though Sapphire is often criticized for the graphic quality of images in her writing, she chooses to shock and awaken by being forcefully naturalistic. The following interview, never before published, took place in my writing studio in Brooklyn Heights in 2005. It's interesting, with the publication of The Kid, to go back and see what Sapphire had to say about the world of her memorable character Precious.
Daniela Gioseffi: When I compiled my book On Prejudice: A Global Perspective, I found there’s a morbid curiosity that whites have about blacks, and I wonder what you’d say about it. Whites want to imagine that blacks are closer to the freedom of their animal natures, and that they destroy themselves with animal libido the way whites don’t dare to.
Sapphire: I think that sort of curiosity actually is at the heart of racism. Part of what Thomas Jefferson might say in his justification for slavery would be that blacks are three-quarters human, and technically, therefore, still animals. This false idea of projecting a more intense form of human sexuality onto any one category of human beings—I won’t say “race,” because I really don’t believe in the idea of race. I believe we’re one human race.
DG: Yes, only one race, scientifically speaking, as I write in the introduction to On Prejudice, and the different varieties of secondary characteristics, having only to do with skin tone or shape of eyes and such, but not with basic genetic structures.S: Yes, so this projection of anything that has to do with putting the animal aspect of humans solely in the province of black people, I think, is basically racism. I think that we’ve suffered horribly because of it. Some of us even internalized the concept—and have even bought into it ourselveS: I remember a newscaster talking about blacks being superior at sports. Now, if this was Europe, and he was talking about soccer, or if this was Scandinavia, and he was talking about swimmers, it would be a different story. That newscaster was being racist in a subtle way.
DG: He was stereotyping blacks as more physical, more animal, better at sports than at intellect. He was excluding the existence of great African-American intellectuals, scientist, writers, and the variety of talents within any given group.
S: Yes, exactly. It’s part and parcel of the idea of whites as superior and blacks as inferior. I don’t think that there’s any truth in the concept that we have an unbridled sexuality. I don’t think that we are animalistic. I don’t think that we are more feeling. I don’t think that we are more emotional, you know, than any other people. But I think that the idea that we are so is part of the justification for our continued subjugation to racism.
DG: Well, suffering on the part of any ethnic group can give that group an emotional soulfulness. Calvin C. Hernton writes a good deal about the idea of the exotic sexuality of the black man, and how the fear of that has caused the white man to oppress the black man. But I haven’t read what Hernton wrote about the problem for black women, have you? He’s an important writer in terms of the issue of sexual stereotyping and prejudice in general. He’s an interesting poet, too, and should be better known.
S: Calvin is a very important writer, and a fine person, a very fine person. He was one of the first black males who openly addressed sexism toward black women, and who really talked about there being a sexist culture within our subculture, as well as within the general population. He observed and proved that black women were victims of extreme sexism. So that was revolutionary when he first wrote about it. Everyone is saying it now, but when he was first writing, other people weren’t explaining the issue. He was very open about black women experiencing a different oppression aside from racism.
DG: In the introduction to On Prejudice, I write about the fact that it’s been proven by science that there is only one race, the human race, but that scientific fact is not understood enough in the popular mind. It’s what Darwinism is all about; as far as I’m concerned, we should all be building monuments of worship to Darwinian science instead of born-again religiosity of any extreme kind. And Darwin’s ancestors were abolitionists for generations. His grandfather, Erasmus, formulated a theory of evolution to prove that there’s only one human race. Darwin sacrificed much to prove the theory of how we all come from the same gene pool, some 250,000 years ago in the heart of Africa. Anthropologists and biologists agree on this point, from Gordon Allport and Ashley Montague to the time when Dr. W. E. B. Dubois wrote “Prospect of a World without Race Conflict” in 1944.
S: Yes, all human varieties can reproduce. The reason cats aren’t considered dogs is because, unless it’s in The National Inquirer, you just don’t have little, you know, kitten-puppies. They can’t breed. But human beings of all varieties are able to procreate.
DG: Something like 40 percent or more of the Africans who had been brought here as slaves were now intermixed, and all had so-called “white blood,” and a similar percentage of whites have so-called “black blood” . . . everyone’s all mixed together genetically anyway. It’s silly to talk about race in our day and age. There are good and bad people of every sociological subgroup. Yet I wonder how these issues affect your writing and readership. Do you find that whites respond equally well to your books as blacks? Or is the response different?
S: I actually think that my readers are varied. There’s a response to the work that’s different among people of color. Most often, when people of color approach any of my books, they’re not questioning the reality therein. They know these situations exist for them, though it may be over the top, in artistic terms, for whites. Whites may never have heard of cops riding round looking for a “Gorilla in the Mist,” a black person to abuse in the night. Blacks don’t say, “Whoever heard of anything like that? Who ever heard of someone in the Los Angeles Police Department singing: “Let’s Kill a Nigger Tonight,” and spending a twelve-hour tour of duty riding around trying to assassinate a black man? Have whites heard of cops sighting an African-American male and singing out over the patrol, “Gorilla in the Mist”? Black people are not going to say they never heard of such a thing, but many white people are going to say, “This is over the top! If the police are bothering these people you can be pretty sure they’ve committed a crime.” So, there’s really a different reality for some of my readers.
DG: I understand what you mean, because I taught black students who related such horrendous happenings to me.
S: At the same time, when most women read the poem, “When Mickey Mouse was a Scorpio” or the scenes between Precious and her abusers in Push, her mother and her father, or some of the poems in Black Wings and Blind Angels that deal with sexual atrocity toward women, very few women are going to say, “I don’t believe that. Who ever heard of anything like that happening?”
DG: Yes, because the statistically validated abuse of women throughout history is well documented and goes across the so-called “color line.” Though no doubt in American history it’s been worse regarding slave women. Some men can’t imagine how widespread it is to this day.
S: There are still plenty of men who think that portrayals of the sexual abuse of girls and women are over the top; that women writers are exaggerating, but the statistics are out there. 40 percent of women say they were sexually abused as children by a father or stepfather or gardener or uncle, but it’s not as much a reality in men’s lives. Many men can’t imagine what it means, the repercussions of it. Many men cannot imagine that 99 percent of the homeless women—the heroin addicts and such that are on the street, those there as sex workers—were probably abused as children. Men cannot imagine that many of them are in their situation because of sexual abuse and rape they experienced as children or girls.
DG: The end result when sexual, or violent, or even verbal, abuse is not dealt with is low self-esteem, lack of purpose or belief in the decency of people, mistrust, paranoia, and depression . . . This result is almost a certainty if the traumas are not dealt with, are not given psychological help. And there can be real physical injury to the reproductive system and sexual organs that lasts a lifetime; that too is not taken into account or spoken of enough.
S: Exactly! Many men just can’t believe what someone like Precious goes through in Push. They can’t believe how rampant such problems are for women.
DG: I find this is sometimes true with even the most compassionate, thinking men. They can’t believe the statistics are as huge as they are. One just has to read 19th-century history when every large city in the world was surrounded by a poverty-stricken ghetto of women, as well as a red light district of so-called “damaged” women who had children out of wedlock, who had been raped or abused, and who were raising their kids in the slums with no recourse to a living other than prostitution. Every large city was edged with ghettoized slums of poor, husbandless women and their so-called “bastard” children. We certainly know now about the way the black woman slave was used and abused by the “Massa,” and how many children were born of that. I understand that Toni Morrison has turned Beloved into an opera because she feels that it requires the music, the drama, and passion of opera. What’s the name of that woman who had to kill her child that Morrison wrote about in Beloved?
S: Sethe in the movie? The woman Oprah Winfrey played was Sethe.
DG: Yes, Sethe in Beloved is roughly based on the life and legal case of the slave Margaret Garner. The book's epigraph says: "Sixty million and more," by which Morrison refers to the estimated number of slaves who died in the slave trade—but Beloved was based upon the life and struggle of a real woman.
S: Oh, yes, there was a notorious trial about Margaret Garner.
DG: And Margaret Garner’s child might well have been the Master’s child! So, “Sethe” could say (let’s use her generically, for all the slave women who experienced rape): “Not only have I been abused and raped to give birth, in pain, to this child, but now they’re going to make this child into a slave, even though my baby is the child of the Master.” I mean, one can see the insane sociological configurations, the utter inhumanity of the institution of slavery and its unspoken practices, it’s total destruction of the institution of family—so much worse than we were taught in history in our school days, because our textbooks never went into the morally depraved horrors of it. We never read about how Thomas Jefferson had slaves and a sexual affair with an enslaved woman under his ownership.
S: And we can add the less spoken story, or the really silent story. So, if master felt free to leave his house and go out to the slave quarters and get Miss Minnie Mae, would not some master have felt just as free to go rape Bobby? And Johnny? And Saul? And Jim and Paul? We know that was happening, too.
DG: One wonders, how much has civilization really progressed in terms of man’s inhumanity to humankind? I think of it: what you had was a black son of a white master being lashed to death by his white brother, the slave keeper. Slaves were not allowed to name their own children or have surnames. The child was often taken from the mother as soon as it was weaned and sold to some other plantation owner to prevent filial bonding from occurring—which is why I get really upset when people from their high-and-mighty perch say, “After all, it’s been over a hundred years for those people to get their act together!” But, void of financial means, and without the strength of family identity and love given to a child, without knowing who your mother or father was, with no “forty-acres-and-mule,” as Lincoln had promised before his assassination, before the carpet-baggers and greedy profiteers took over things after the Civil War—what is there to help one overcome anything?
S: Exactly. And when they say, “Oh it’s been over a hundred years”—it’s as if there was no Abner Louima! No Amadou Diallo, and those cases of brutality committed just very recently! It’s as if they are saying: “It’s been over a hundred years, and all assault stopped!” It’s been over a hundred years, and there has been unremitting racism ever since the slaves were “freed.” It’s not as if slavery stopped, and the powers that be said, “Oh my God, we’ll give these people a break!” It’s more like slavery stopped, and “Now, we’ll lynch ‘em,” and “Now, we’ll form the Klan,” and “Now, we’ll disenfranchise them,” and “Now, we will not allow their children to go to school during cotton-pickin’ season.”
DG: There’s still slavery, and sweatshop slavery, and child labor slavery and sexual slavery of women and children and boys all over the globe. It’s a monstrously inhumane world still in many areas—including places in the U.S.A.
S: Yes, and, “Now, we’ll take Abner Louima in, and shove a plunger stick up his ass.” And “We’ll shoot Amadou Diallo forty-one times!” Even if we had boots to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, the minute we bend over we’re getting kicked in the teeth. It’s happening to this day, despite that some of us have been successful and fulfilled and listened to as writers by some of the enlightened populace. Despite that some are multi-millionaires like Oprah Winfrey or Denzel Washington, or that there’s a larger black middle class today.
DG: Your poem “Gorilla in the Mist” shows that sort of brutality is still going on. As a matter of a fact, at Long Island University in the 1980s, when I was a professor in the remedial writing program, I would get students who were working hard to go to school and make something of themselves. African-American boys would come up to me and say they had been taken on a so-called “joyride” by the Brooklyn police, and this in New York City, the most diverse community in the world! And these young men would tell me they’d be walking home from college with their books, or walking home after their night job for paying their tuition, and the police would pick them up, take them somewhere, for no reason, beat them up, and dump them out. It was called a “joyride.” Cops would just go looking for some black kids to put the fear of death into the community.
Some years ago, I tried to do what you’ve done more recently—write empathetic stories about my students’ lives, to create understanding in the reader and to give their stories a voice. There is much of this in your writing. You become a voice for the oppressed. You tell their stories from the first-person narrative position. You portray all sorts of different characters in monologue, and that frees you to be a more imaginative writer.
S: Well, the book I’m working on now is totally in the voice of a young boy, and I’m living in his body, and trying to experience his sexuality. I have to use my own experience, but also some imagination, because I’m basically a feminine woman and my experience with men is female. I haven’t exactly experienced what men experience no matter how many men I might have slept with, so it’s interesting, just imagining being in this boy child’s body.
DG: There’s something I want to ask you about, which is the rift in the black community between male writers and female writers. Ishmael Reed, for one, was angered by the brutal male characters portrayed by successful black women writers. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison both became very successful novels around the same era that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple became a Hollywood success. Many African-American women were writing very successful books about sexual, physical, and mental abuse, and Ishmael Reed wrote, “Why don’t they ever write about a decent black guy who’s a good father, and give the world that image of us?” What would you say?
S: Well, I’ve heard that, but those very same books also contain some decent black men. I was in a writers’ group—I’ve been in many writers’ groups because that’s how I work well, I’m a collaborative person—and I was the only African American in a certain writers’ group writing some fiction about the New York City experience of a black person, and one of the white women got up from her seat and said angrily: “Why is it that none of you people ever write about the good white people?” And then she went on to say how some relative of hers, in the 1960s, had been hit over the head in a freedom march. So, perhaps, what authors like Ishmael Reed have to understand is that there are legions of white people who are angry at him! And, angry at James Baldwin! And angry at Richard Wright! When you read their work you basically read about the bad white man who’s oppressing, and ball-cutting, and humiliating, and all that. That’s the question we might want to ask. Why didn’t James Baldwin? Why didn’t Reed? Why didn’t any of them write about the good white people?
DG: How much are black male writers writing positively about black women? I have to stop and think . . .
S: Well, let’s see: Let’s examine Richard Wright’s Native Son. In Native Son what do we have? Doesn’t Bigger Thomas cut up and throw a white woman in the furnace? Isn’t that what happens? And in Another Country, doesn’t Rufus beat up a white woman so badly that she goes insane? Isn’t that what happens? Who wrote that? That’s a black man portraying black men.
DG: This idea of yours is really interesting, because I remember my daughter and I going to see The Color Purple in Manhattan, and it was almost all white people crying their eyes out, identifying with black people in the film—that is to say identifying across the color line, as if it were not particularly relevant. My daughter and I were crying our eyes out. And we looked around us, and we saw all these white people, crying over black people’s lives. After the movie, with our eyes still blurry with tears, we got on the westside train going uptown, towards Columbia University, where we were going to get off and visit my brother-in-law. We forget to change trains, and we got out, and were in the middle of Harlem. It was just a poetic moment; you know? We looked up, engrossed in talking about the movie, and there we were, two whites in a train full of all black people. It was a good lesson for my college-age daughter: It was late at night and suddenly there was the sensation of what it’s like to be in the minority.
S: Do you know what I remember? I recall in 1994 being at the National Black Literature Conference, and Sonia Sanchez was up on the stage. I was facing forward, and I heard a black male voice behind me say, “Hey man, we better hurry up and get in there before the bitches get everything.” They were talking about awards at the time or something of that nature. I looked behind me to see who had said that, and two black authors who shall remain nameless were talking. So, sexism, is everywhere, too? That’s jealousy, isn’t it? The idea that there’s a piece of pie and there’s only so much that anyone is going to get and not enough to go around! And what’s standing in the way is not racism, but “the bitches.” So, that attitude is out there, too!
DG: I see what you mean, but jealously is always everywhere to a degree.
S: Yes, jealousy is everywhere a reality, but those black male authors worried about the so-called “bitches” getting everything didn’t get that they are writing about white men putting their foot on their black necks and stereotyping whites because that’s the sphere of their existence.
DG: It’s a pecking order with women usually at the bottom, and people write from the sphere of their experience with the world around them, whether it be within or without of a subculture.
S: Exactly! Those black authors talking about the “bitches” getting all the awards writing about nasty black men need to have a white person come up to them and say, “Where are the decent white people in your books?” Then maybe they will stop asking black women where are the decent black men in your books. So, the answer is, we’re all just writing about what’s happening to us. Black women are writing about what is happening to them within their world.
DG: Yes. I was going to ask why you’re now taking the persona of a young black male. Certainly there’s a pecking order in everybody’s suffering, and children are on the bottom . . .
S: The bottom of the bottom is defenseless children. I should say that this novel is about a black child growing up. I take him as far as his twenties. As women, we’re close to the vulnerability of young men and boys. Then they grow up and become strangers, right? We all know that experience: like, “Who the hell is that? I knew him when I was changing his diaper. You know, when I was fixing his lunch bucket. And now he’s grown up to be a macho stranger.”
DG: It’s a subtle metamorphosis that happens because of the cultural impact and peer pressures. As men grow they tend to repress their vulnerable emotions for the sake of macho power.
S: No one is going to deny themselves power. If the conditions of the powerless are horrendous, and as close to death as you can get and still be alive, then there is nothing to lose. So when a man becomes a man, one of the first things he has to do is turn against the females who raised him. And some people do it nicely, and some people do it like Clarence Thomas did it, you know, by putting down their mothers.
DG: Projection of one’s own inadequacy or self-hatred onto others has a good deal to do with prejudice of all kinds. I looked particularly at the last poems in Black Wings and Blind Angels and you accept your aloneness, your responsibility for your own life and your own feelings of being broken, and that’s the thing you’re writing about in that book—aloneness. I identify with that, because no matter how close I am to others, as a writer, I always feel very alone. I heard you read the poem about Violet, about how work was just as important to her as love.
S: Yes, I think that that’s an important realization for a woman artist. I think that part of what I was dealing with was not extolling or pretending it’s an ideal situation, because obviously it seems that the nature of being human is interaction with other people. But, I have come to some acceptance, and it’s an amazing acceptance for me, because there’s nothing in the culture that teaches us that we can be a whole being, without relating to a man, and also on some level, without being a mother, you know what I mean? When I listen to women talk about these situations, motherhood and relationships, marriage, and such, I am filled with wonder. I'm sure it can be absolutely wonderful, but I haven’t experienced that on some level. And, I still feel good to be alone and have my work.
DG: Yes, I feel we all need our own cart to Push, as Freud said: “Work and love; love and work.” I feel that work can be good on its own, but love needs work, too. (Laughs.)
S: Yes, I acknowledge the need for love and relationship. There are things I don’t have, but I am still a whole human being. And I have chosen my destiny. My destiny to be a writer would be the same whether I had a man in my life or not. Whether or not I had children, I am going to do this! I am going to write. I am going to be an artist. I’m going to dance. I’m going to learn language. I’m going to write. So it would be nice if I had a supportive partner. It would have been nice if I had children, but I didn’t.
DG: Well it ain’t over until it’s over. In the meantime . . .
S: I don’t have a dog either (laughs), but I manage to keep on writing.
DG: You’re also doing a good deal of teaching—I went to one of your classes at the Bowery Poetry Club—and I’m sure you’ve put a fair amount of your mothering instinct, or nurturing instincts, into being a teacher. Can you talk about your philosophy of teaching? I remember you quoted Raymond Carver, and you said, “If it happened, use it.” That’s why I felt good in your workshop because I don’t need formalism; I need to get out what I’m afraid to say.
DG: Tell me a little bit about your philosophy of teaching. It seems mixed with an idea of healing, of getting at what is blocked, or hurting.
S: I have an MFA in poetry. And I don’t have a PhD in literature. I’m a reader, but I couldn’t call myself an academic scholar by a long shot. I am very much interested in the process of writing. In addition to reading literature, I’ve also studied with people like Allen Ginsberg. I’ve studied with writers who combined Zen and writing, meditation and writing. I’ve studied with Natalie Goldberg. I was a student of hers, in workshops, for over a year. All of that is involved in how I teach. I don’t know about publishing, and I don’t know about the process of writing a novel or short story, but the actual act of writing, I think, has a great deal to do with feeling, with emotional release.
DG: Emotional release seems central to Push.
DG: In the “each one, teach one” class, you have each student tell her story in her own style of expression, her persona. It's so much more poignant than if you'd attempted to write in the second person as character description. These monologues are very powerful.
S: The characters come to life in their own voices.
DG: You said that you were influenced a great deal by Ai and her poem monologues?
S: That technique plays into my “Gorilla in the Mist” poem—a dramatic monologue. It has to do with the work I'm doing now: taking on the persona of the character I'm writing about, writing in the first person. It's like using poetry to create a short novel, a little drama, creating a whole world through the voice, not as a novelist, setting the theme, plot, whatever. The dramatic monologue has to rely completely on the voice of the character to create the scene, the drama, the plot, the theme, everything.
DG: It certainly creates intimacy with the audience, because we all see the world through our subjective eyes. If the listener, the viewer, can get into another's skin and see the world through the eyes of the character in the book, or on the stage, then empathy can be achieved.
DG: With the character Precious Jones in Push, one begins to feel her inner life, even though she might be completely different on the outside from the reader or listener or viewer—one begins to live in her skin and feel her feelings through her voice. You do write about a teacher, Ms. Rain, but we don’t get into her as much. Is Ms. Rain white, or black? I’m not sure I remember, or knew. I think she is black in the book.
S: She’s black, but in many ways, in the book, she is what a good teacher should be—she’s somewhat invisible. And you know, that was by design, and also, in the novel, I was really trying to have the heart of the book be the character Precious. Like in that story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” you know, where that heart is pounding all the time . . .
DG: Edgar Allan Poe’s story.
S: Right, Poe. The pounding heart of the book is Precious. And all the other characters are slightly in the background.
DG: But I really felt Ms. Rain as an important influence.
S: Oh yeah, she was an important influence.
DG: And even the name “Rain” is like being washed clean.
S: And being nurtured . . . you know, without rain there’s no growth. So, we know that she’s vital to the story, but the thing that I was not going to have in that book was “Up the Down Staircase,” where the white teacher in black Harlem takes center-stage, and “Oh, here I am, the noble teacher, here to write about my poor little nigger students.” You know? I didn’t want that condescension. I wanted her to help in finding the question and giving the means—you know what I mean? The means. So that someone like Precious should be able to leave Ms. Rain’s class and write her own story. She shouldn’t need the teacher, finally.
DG: Well she does actually . . . in her journal, writing her final poem, where she’s still hoping she’ll stay around long enough to raise her baby, and that a cure for AIDS might be in the future . . . she’s going to let that tiger inside her bloom, and she’s not going to let anyone put her down. I think anyone can identify with the character. And that’s what makes it such a good book; it’s a journey of the soul that anyone can identify with.
S: And people do. I mean, I was in Antwerp, and this young woman came up to me, and she was just ecstatic. I just looked at her. You know how you can just look at people and see what they are about. Basically this young girl was upper-middle-class, if not wealthy, eighteen years old. And she said, “Oh I just loved the book. I identified with it so much.” And I thought what is she trying to tell me, what did she identify with in this horrendous story? And she says, “Oh I had a happy childhood and everything I needed, but I just identified with it so much. I just felt like the character was me.” And so I said, “Well, what was it about the character?” Also, this girl was very thin and pretty. I said, “What was it about the character you identified with?” And she says, “Precious was born on November 4, and so was I.” And I was just . . . you know? She really identified with this character, and she had never had these experiences, so she had to find one little thing that she could latch onto, that she could have this communication with, that would allow her to bond with this under-class, abused character because what was similar to her in this character was not the birth date, but maybe this girl was who Precious might have been her had she not been abused. Because, there’s a spirit to Precious! You know, there’s happiness, an effusiveness that’s there despite everything, that isn’t even there with her other classmates who have experienced less misery than she.
DG: Yes, she’s got a spirit that people want to identify with, because it’s the spirit of self-actualization, of survival after horrendous experience.
S: Exactly. Of transformation!
DG: Emerson wrote about it. And Emily Dickinson wrote about it. And Whitman wrote about it. Many African-American writers have written about that spirit to survive, but yet, in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, her little Pecola, doesn’t survive the way Precious does.
S: No, it’s sad, ultimately . . .
DG: Pecola falls into insanity and misery, but that’s what’s different about Precious—as horrific as her story is, it comes out on the side of hope. Not with peaches and cream happiness, but it does come out on the side of hope.
S: Yeah, she still has her problems. We have to deal with that—and I wish I could write a book as beautiful as The Bluest Eye in that way—but we also have to deal with the fact that Precious comes on the back of, not just those books you mentioned earlier, but on the back of several decades now of knowledge. What we know now is that child abuse is devastating, but it doesn’t have to kill. That wasn’t always known. People now are dealing more with the resilience of the soul of the child, it seems. Do you know what I mean?
DG: No, I’m not really sure. Perhaps, it’s just different with different character analysis. Somehow, some have strength to endure and others don’t.
S: While child abuse is deadly serious, what really kills you . . . I’ll just be blunt. If your father rapes you at two years old, you probably will not die, although some children do. But if your father leaves you in a trash-can at two, you will die. So abandonment, in some way, assures that you will die. Abuse, many, many people suffer. And what we’re dealing with now is really . . . People are actually naming a post-incest syndrome, a post-traumatic stress syndrome related to rape and abuse. We have this understanding, a set of behaviors almost, that can be identified with rape survivors. I know a modern psychologist who is dealing with survivors is not going to be shocked when they read Billie Holiday’s biography. How she behaved in a self-destructive way is in keeping with what happened to her. Instead of looking at her the way white male writers look at her (and most of her biographies have been written by white males), which is looking at her as a victim, a woman who is knowledgeable about what it means to have been abused as a child and survived will look at Billie Holiday as a survivor because we know now that many women who have experienced what she has experienced usually die, usually become addicts, usually do not survive or make something of themselves. And, back in her day, you know, there was no psychiatric help; when Billie was raped, she was arrested. So, she didn’t go to therapy; she wasn’t removed from the situation or helped . . .
DG: I understand, because I never spoke or wrote about my rape by the Klan, for my civil rights activism, until I was over fifty, and it happened when I was nineteen years old. I finally wrote of it in story form in “The Bleeding Mimosa” in 1995—thirty-four years later.
S: Exactly. Women didn’t tell or seek help back in those days, as they do now.
DG: I didn’t want to talk about it. I came from that generation where you wore lipstick, girdles, and bras, and held everything in, and you didn’t talk about it. You practiced feminine denial, so as not to be looked down upon, and you didn’t tell. And mostly I didn’t tell to save my father’s life, because he had that Italian attitude that “a ruined daughter will never get married,” and you know, he had a weak heart, and had a heart attack just prior to my experience and he didn’t want me to be an activist for fear that something bad would happen to me. I never told my father. I never told my parents. I dealt with it all by myself with no psychiatrist.
S: We paid a tremendous price for what we couldn’t say.
DG: Yes, and that’s what’s great about women’s literature in our time—we’ve begun to tell it all. I remember the Jewish-American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in a poem: “What would happen if a woman told the true story of her life? The world would break open.” Or words to that effect.
S: And, remember now, this is what men are trying to get us to shut up about. “Why don’t you write about the good men?” They tell us. Well, we’re writing what we need to write; it’s effing keeping us alive. If you want to write about the good men, you go rent you a room and write about it. We’re writing the literature that we need to write to live. We have paid dearly for this. We have paid dearly with our lives, with reduced self-esteem, with reduced possibilities.
DG: With nightmares.
S: With awful nightmares! With, you know, secondary abuse. There have been the women who have abused their own children, or gotten into situations blindly, recreating the abuse for their children by choosing the wrong men and ignoring what’s going on like their mothers did.
DG: As if it was normal for the child to be abused as they were.
S: Yes. Then there’s been the generation of women who’ve been abused, and never married and didn’t have children because of it. There’s no one who has been through this experience who hasn’t paid mightily. I mean, it’s taken the same toll that racism has taken. So, given what we’ve been talking about . . . I question a writer who isn’t writing about it.
DG: Exactly. It’s the underbelly, and unless we face it, we’re never going to be cured of it. All that Victorian repression that Whitman and his whole generation experienced, it only created illness and a lack of self-realization. When you Push things under the rug, they get sicker and uglier.
S: And also, we haven’t dealt with the whole story of Whitman. I think that’s what June Jordan was alluding to in her essay on Whitman that we just read for an audience at the Brooklyn Historical Society today. You know, not only are we not reading him, but we’re not dealing with his full biography. There was one point where Whitman was actually tarred and feathered for homosexual sex, and then he was run out of town. Where’s that written up?
DG: I’ve heard several Whitman scholars dispute that incident as rumor, but nonetheless, how much do we talk about how Whitman died in poverty from a stroke, selling his poems on the street from a basket, and how he never made any money to speak of from his writing? And yet, he is the voice of America’s “Democratic Vistas” read all over the world. It’s what’s so great, that I see now, that women are actually being successful as writers and making a life as a writer by telling the truth.
S: Exactly. Also, what we’re doing right now—we’re sitting in an apartment that you bought, for yourself to write in. Not a place that you bought for your grandchildren to come visit, not for you to cook and knit in and raise kids in—but that you decided to put at the center of your life literature. That’s amazing!
DG: Yes, a place for my books and my work. I’m old now, and I have one grown daughter, but this is my place to work and write in. What would be left for me after raising my daughter if I didn’t have my work? I’ve ultimately got my work to rely on, to keep me alive and well.
S: Being here is really meaningful. This conversation that we’re having right now in your writing studio is really meaningful. Imagine, at my age, a woman like me would not be seen at another time and place as a vital functioning person. Right? I would be a spinster, I would barely be able to come out of my house. You understand: an unmarried woman, without children to take care of her? There was great stigma attached to that.
DG: And look what you’ve done with your art. You’ve taken better care of yourself than any parent or any man could.
S: I believe that.
DG: You should. You have made a life. You are listened to, and people hear what you have to say. You are healing yourself and others with your writing. And you’re getting truth out there in everyone’s face. I feel that some of the most vital writing of our time is being written by African Americans, because their political truth is so “right on.” It’s like something we always lived with and always knew. We’re just waking up as a country. Middle class people are just coming alive. I mean, they thought they had a vote. They thought their opinion mattered. And now the middle class has shrunk. The theory of revolution is that it only happens when the middle class gets so oppressed it joins the poor, but the problem for me, as a literary critic, is that I don’t see enough cross-fertilization. There is plenty if you go downtown to the Bowery Poetry Club—but I mean, uptown! How many white writers are really taking the time to write literary criticism and analysis of black writers? And vice versa? There needs to be more cross-fertilization. Maybe there is among the younger generations. What would you say about that?
S: Well, I think that there are two things that happen. What I see a lot is that black writers of the middle class have the same issues as anybody who is white. They are still thinking: “This story of ‘Gorilla in the Mist’ or Precious Jones is over the top.” They cannot imagine that a policeman would shout, “Come here, Boy!” to an innocent young man walking down the street these days. “Get in my police car!” They can’t imagine that the innocent boy would be driven to the river, and beaten, and thrown out on the ground, for no reason at all. Unless they are gay—gay men can imagine that abuse. You know what I mean?
DG: Prejudice is in everybody. The best of us fight it hard, but it’s in everybody. You’ve got certain feelings because you’re black and I’m white. I’m scared of offending you, or you’re probably thinking that some of the time I’m trying too hard to be real with you because you are black, that I might be a bit condescending, or something.
S: Right. Right. It’s always there until people know each other thoroughly, and maybe then it’s still there sometimes . . .
DG: Yes, to be honest, if I walk down the street, and I see a group of black youths walking along or a black guy walking toward me and it’s night, I try really hard just to walk by him like anybody else, but it’s difficult. I’m scared of reverse racism. I might just see that he’s a dignified guy, just walking along. But, there’s always that little fear, and that’s been bred into us. My mother would scare uS: “Don’t go out at night. Those black boys are going to rape you.” You know? But she was just a poor, ignorant woman in a ghetto of one kind next to a ghetto of another kind. So, for her, she felt that when you’re next to the blacks that means you’re poor, too. She couldn’t deal with it. My older sister would bring home recordings of Billy Eckstein, and my mother would say, “What are you listening to that nigger for?” You know? And here would be this handsome man singing with this gorgeous mellow voice, but my mother just felt, “Well, you’re pulling me back down into poverty again by listening to a black guy.”
S: Right, right. Exactly.
DG: So my sister had to hide her records, and finally she ended up a racist herself. But there’s all those subtle pressures. Did you know Doris Jean Austin, the novelist who died young, not so long ago?
S: I only knew of her.
DG: She died rather young of ovarian cancer. And she gave me my first big New York Times review for Women on War. And we read our work together, and I took her and Grace Paley out to my alma mater, Montclair University, for a nicely paid reading and we became friends.
S: Right, and what happened?
DG: Well, we’d go out to dinner, and she’d want to go to an expensive restaurant and I couldn’t really afford them and didn’t like to spend a lot of my resources on eating out, but I couldn’t tell her, because I was afraid of condescending to her, or I thought maybe she thought that’s what I expected, but if we’d been the same color, I just could’ve said, Hey, Girlfriend, this place costs too much! I could have felt free to be more open. And then, before she died, she wanted me to bring her a pack of cigarettes in the hospital, and I didn’t want to because I didn’t think it was good for her, so I said I would come with the cigarettes, and I just never did, and then I heard she died a few days later, and I felt terrible. But, if we’d been the same color, I’d simply have said: “No, I can’t bring you cigarettes, Girlfriend, but I’ll come and see you with some fruit or flowers,” but I didn’t, and so I ended up feeling guilty, instead. You know? It was a difficult thing to communicate with direct honesty. Anyway, I’m just saying that along the way I’ve had black friends, but really living an integrated lifestyle isn’t easy.
S: It still isn’t easy.
DG: Maybe among us poets, it’s easier?
S: Well, I don’t think it’s easy among any people, in general, but I think part of it is that we’re the only culture that expects things to be easy. Once I accepted, in a way, that friendship is difficult, that it’s challenging, and that it’s painful, it stopped being a problem for me. I got rid of the people in my life I couldn’t deal with. You know what I mean? There are some white people I just cannot deal with. And others, I’d just realize that there’s going to be challenges in the relationship to overcome. I had to explain this and that; I had to; there are even ways I had to let my white friends know that their children can and can’t talk to me in certain ways. I don’t have to say these things to my black friends. Know what I mean?
DG: I think I do. I just hit on something about Push that is different than Maya Angelou’s and Toni Morrison’s novels mentioned earlier—there’s more of an integration of society in Push, because in that “each one, teach one” classroom, where all the students have suffered a common abuse, they’re a mixture of backgrounds and cultures.
S: Right, right. It’s a truly urban atmosphere. Precious is not a southerner living in a segregated society as in Morrison’s or Angelou’s books. Our first educational encounters for Precious, are actually with the white school teachers: Mr. Witcher, the teacher who kicks her out of school, Mrs. Lichtenstein? Then Precious goes into the alternative system, and in her classroom there are actual challenges. She’s a victim, but if she’s to grow, she’s going to have to deal with her own xenophobia. Remember, she can’t deal with the Jamaicans or Hispanics or anyone at first. Precious also has to deal with her own homophobia. On her first day, she is confronting all of these people, and if she is to hold onto all of her prejudices, her hatred, she will not survive, she will perish—because in that room, the homosexual will help her. The “coconut head” will help her. The light-skinned Hispanic girl will help her. These are people she has formally perceived as her enemies or competitors for the few crumbs on the table, but if she does not resolve these prejudices, she and they will not survive. If we all do not resolve these problems, we will not survive as the human race.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011