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Precious, my Precious: Black Female Citizenship, Complexity, and the Politics of Unrelenting Survival
As I sit against the florescence of the television screen, watching the conservative Fox News pundit Glenn Beck drive political nails into progressive leaders using the fear of U.S. blacks and immigrants of color as his hammer, my memory harkens back to the year in which the book Push was set, 1987. During that time, eugenics theories about the inherent laziness and criminality of black teenagers was rampantly resurgent in the news. Conservative research was cementing stereotypes of the black welfare queen, the crack baby, the HIV infected black woman as the truth that justified the destruction of the safety net as we knew it. Since then, health care has become increasingly privatized. Welfare has turned horrifically to an indentured servitude of workfare. The numbers of black women with HIV have skyrocketed. And the movie Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire, was released.
Caricatures or Complex Characters?
Clarice “Precious” Jones is an extreme character, meant to shock the senses and unveil the underbelly of the brutality of racism and capitalism in the patriarchal land of the free. In the film and in the book, Precious is a dark-skinned teenaged girl who experiences multiple forms of oppression and violence at the hands of multiple perpetrators. In the movie, her sexually brutal father is an invisible or blurry character at best, while her mother, whose victimization as a woman was only alluded to, is cast as the primary perpetrator. It is only through the extreme telling of an extreme story that this dichotomy of inequity is revealed. There is only one man in the story as told in the movie – a male nurse- and the welfare and education systems which oppress black womanhood and subvert black female resistance are cast as saviors. Questions have been necessarily raised by black audiences -is this story the best way to reveal these contradictions? Is the mother the real villain? Does the story reflect reality or is it more of a caricature? And if a caricature how does that shape the impact of the film on the representations of black women in media and in the public psyche?
I have known many black girls afflicted by multiple forms of abuse, compounded by addiction and illness. I have watched black women beat their children to bloody pulps in the street, cursing them the whole time. I have heard black mothers threaten to cut their daughter’s pussy out to prevent them from having sex. I have witnessed black women trade their daughters for crack. I have heard and seen so many things. And I have also seen those same exact women place themselves in front of a fist to save their daughters. I have watched those black mothers walk the hoe stroll for hours to make enough money to feed and house and clothe their babies, as they struggled to overcome addiction. I have watched, in my own home, my own beautiful black mother struggle with the decision to keep her man and have an adult life or protect her daughters and live for her children. Eventually, she chose the latter, though not soon enough. My mother was alone from the time I was about 14 to her death in 2005. That’s almost 20 years of intimate solitude in an effort to stand between her black daughters and the world of violence that waited for us in and beyond our home because she did not know how to manage both the safety of her children and her needs as a woman. These characters, Precious and her mother, are not simple caricatures, and yet the film chose some truths over others, and must be interrogated. This is by no means an exhaustive review, or a review of any kind. It’s what came for me after watching the film.
Black Womanhood and Complexity
Can you imagine that patriarchal colonialism and a generational experience of slavery can result in an experience of powerlessness and shame that can twist the mind and give rise to the belief that your three-year-old child has stolen your man? Can you imagine that there are black and brown girls, and boys, all over this world, that have HIV, have been raped by their father, sexually and physically abused by their mother, failed by the school system and exploited by the welfare system. And that these girls are brilliant and beautiful and full of unrealized promise- as are their mothers. These women are two sides of one coin, mother and daughter. Both trapped in different ways, both villainized by “culture of poverty” research, and exploited by the economic system and the civil institutions that touch and shape the daily texture of their lives.
The Narrative of Black Female Citizenship
This set of contradictions, this opening of an unhealed national and international wound, is not a mere regurgitation of racist and sexist images. There is a real untold story here, and the voice of that child and the voice of her mother need to be heard. They need to be heard because it is our silence on issues of sexual abuse and systemic violence that allows the space for the empire’s story about us to be the only one told. We do not control our media and cultural systems or the institutions of civil society, and therefore the narrative of black female citizenship has been used in so many ways as the lynchpin to justify the most brutal democracy in the world. The lies that our citizenship is somehow a gift and not a right, that our mothers are responsible for the socialization of black children and therefore the cause of their incarceration, and that our daughters have drained and massacred the economy, have justified mass incarceration, war, the privatization of social services and health care, and the defunding of public education. The same has been done to black men, using different stereotypes. But this, right here, is about black women.
Let’s talk about education. It was a strong thread that bound this plot together through the realization of the unrelenting power of words. In the book Push, the transformation of Precious occurs over the course of more than a year. Her increasing sense of pride and self-worth is tied directly to her increasing ability to read. Literacy is a powerful thing. It increases one’s ability to navigate and transform the physical, political, and economic conditions we find ourselves subject to. The ability to express one’s story, to know that it will be witnessed, is as powerful a motivation for transformation as any. Why did the leaders of the Cuban revolution begin by increasing the literacy of the poor? For the same reason that Venezuela has placed so much import on democratizing their media system. Because the power of literacy, media or otherwise, is foundational for social change. The fact that the conductor of the orchestra in this case was a black lesbian added depth and complexity to the story of black women being told in the film. The depiction of black lesbians as allies to heterosexual black women was a blessing that brought tears to my eyes.
Hollywood vs. Our Stories
All this being said, the Hollywood version of the book absolutely invisibilized patriarchy, cast the system as a hero and not an actor responsible for the conditions of oppression in which Precious lived and survived, and over-simplified Precious’ mother as an animal who fed her child to the wolves. The movie’s flaws are real, and knowing that the film was being viewed by white middle class audiences whose ability to discern the notes in this song was minimal, was painful to experience.
It doesn’t make the story less powerful, less revealing, or less necessary. But it does leave room for the next telling to make these contradictions less nuanced, the complexity more stark. For U.S. born blacks mitigated by a history of slavery and colonial violence, complexity is the name of the game. And though I am tired of our black mothers, whose internalized shame and experience of powerlessness sometimes results in extraordinary brutality, being cast in roles that are either victim or villain, and never as the complex intersection of both, never as victor- I was stunned to joyful silence by the numbers of young black girls and boys I saw in the theatre. This is a complicated conversation that is rarely had in our families or classrooms, and even more rarely had in public. And it needs to be had.
In 1987, I was 13, and the book Push changed my life. I identified in some ways with the experience of Precious. I remember the tenements, the crack houses, the emergence of AIDS and the way both devastated family connection. I recall the news, the myth of the teenaged super-predator, the labels of crack baby, welfare mother, the images of addiction and violence that shaped so many black children’s understanding of themselves. and then there are things I won’t talk about, that make me proud to watch Precious survive, and her mother repent, on the screen. Because I understand the untenable choices black girls and women feel, and are, forced to make.
Today I am 35, and I am grateful for those precious black and brown children, those daughters of this nation’s dust, those human queens subjected to -and the perpetrators of-inhuman cruelty. Because with each individual survival there is a greater chance of our collective survival and transformation. And that is a story, a historical legacy that is the journey in my feet, the ancestor at my back, and the bitter at the bottom of capitalism’s cup. We are our mothers’ daughters, more than the sum of empire’s history, and our mothers are no worse than human. That is the story that needs to be told. Sapphire is one of hundreds of writers who pull back the veil on black female citizenship to reveal the abject bullshit of this democracy’s contract, place humanity back into the narrative, and open the door for complexity. Tell the truth, in all its complexity, regardless of the dominant group’s watchful gaze. And even when Hollywood distorts the tale, we will, by our own honest hands, set ourselves free.
Cause we are watching too. And this, precious, is for you.
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