Review of Push by Sapphire

In order to prepare for our reading group this week, I decided to read Push.  It is only 181 pages and I am so thankful for that, because it was an extremely difficult read.  The book is written from the point of view of its protagonist Clarice, Precious, Jones.  She is a fat, Black, poor, abuse survivor who has had little formal education despite actively attending school.  Clarice represents all those who have fallen through the system.  The language represents the vernacular that someone like Clarice would use on a daily basis, for example, instead of saying ask, Sapphire had Clarice say aks as well at toof for teeth or tooth. This helps to make the book feel extremely authentic and aids with identifying with the protagonist.

Clarice’s father started to abuse her from a very early age.  At school, she was teased for being Black and fat and so she began to recede into herself.  Even though she was wetting herself long past an age when bathroom accidents are inappropriate, teachers expressed frustration with her instead of seeing this as a sign that something was horrible wrong in Clarice’s home.  It had me wondering how many victims of child abuse slip through the cracks in just the fashion?   The system absolutely re-victimized her by ignoring the fact that she was a child in desperate need of care.

At the age of 12, Clarice becomes pregnant with her father’s child.  She enters labour in the kitchen cooking dinner for her mother but when she collapses with labour pains, instead of seeking help, her mother begins to kick her. Were it not for the intervention of a neighbor, Clarice never would have received medical help.  During labor the paramedic that delivers the baby on the kitchen floor is nice to her and she holds onto his image because he is the only one who has been actively nice to her.  A nurse at the hospital becomes aware that Clarice’s pregnancy is the result of rape but when the police arrive she refuses to talk to them about it.  This is not uncommon when it comes to victims abuse.  In Clarice’s case, as a Black woman raised in Harlem, she has not reason to believe that the police are there to actually help her. This is yet another example of how social institutions have let down this young Black woman. If there had been more rapport with the police, perhaps her father could have been held accountable for his actions.

The scenes in which Clarice writes about the sexual abuse are absolutely shocking and horrifyingly real.  We learn that much of Clarice’s lived experience are disembodied.  As her father rapes her she goes to hide in her head until her body orgasms and she is forced to return.  Her father sees her orgasm as a sign that she not only desires sex with him but enjoys it when it happens.  As difficult as these scenes are to read, I think it is so important that Sapphire wrote about her climaxing because this is something that happens to a lot of rape and sexual abuse survivors. It often adds yet another layer of shame to an experience that is all about the loss of power and violation.  Even if the mind knows that rape is occurring that does not necessarily alter the body’s physical response.  Throughout Push, Clarice had to negotiate the fact that she not only enjoyed having orgasms but wanted to have them again, just not by her father. I think the fact that Clarice never has a relationship or another orgasm speaks to exactly how much her father stole from her.

There is a lot of genital fixation in this story.  Clarice constantly refers to her mother Mary’s vagina as foul smelling.  I must admit that at first I was extremely disturbed by this and it wasn’t until Clarice described her vagina as pleasant smelling that I began to understand that Sapphire was asserting a binary in which a good smelling vagina equaled a good person and a bad smelling vagina was obviously a bad person. When Clarice spoke about performing oral sex on her mother, inevitably she would always comment on the smell of Mary’s vagina.  Mary’s vagina was apparently so odorous that even sitting in a room fully clothed Clarice could always smell her vagina. I understand that for Clarice it was necessary to compartmentalize parts of her identity to survive but the constant reduction of not only herself, but her mother to their individual vaginas was startling and made me uncomfortable.

We know that Mary was abusive to Clarice in many ways and that should have been enough to mark her as negative without resorting to the constant referral to her vagina and implying that her vagina smelled. Mary was described as a fat woman who was very close to not being ambulatory and so I think that attacking her body in this way was not only anti-woman but had elements of fat shaming because fat people are constantly constructed as disgusting and in many cases dirty.  Mary’s vagina smelled because she was dirty and she was dirty because she was fat whereas in Clarice’s case she is fat and depressed in part because she is fat.  To some degree I can see that the reason both women are fat is because of class.  When you can only afford to eat high fat, high calorie foods, it stands to mean that eventually it would lead to a health problem. 

There were several Black lesbian women in this story and that is hardly surprising since Sapphire is a lesbian, but it was refreshing.  Miss Rain, the teacher at the alternative school that Clarice attended after being kicked out of her regular school when they discovered that she was pregnant for a second time was the first positive gay person in Clarice’s life. Throughout a lot of the book, Clarice parrots the homophobia that she learned from mother and Ms. Rain counters that by telling her that it is not (gay slur) that raped her and it’s not (gay slur) that kicked out of school etc,. When Clarice says that she hates (gay slur) Ms. Rain tells her that means you hate me.  Clarice dosen’t hate Ms. Rain in fact it is quite the opposite. 

Part of Clarice’s problems is that she praises the honorable Minister Louis Farrahkhan.  When it comes to talking about race, Farrahkhan has some rather salient points to make.  Clarice identifies when he talks about the Black man being the traditional man, and believes that her father has forgotten his worth. The problem with listening to Farrahkhan without a critical deconstructing what he is saying, is that you will miss that not only is the man a raving misogynist, he is also rabidly homophobic.  Farrahkhan at his best is the living representation of a broken clock.  Even when he is correct in his discussions about race, his misogyny and his homophobia help to obscure any good that he is saying.  I was much relieved when Ms. Rain gave Clarice Langston Hughes and Alice Walker to read. As a Black person, I know that it is important that we study Black leaders, past and present but doing so without the ability or knowledge to deconstruct their speech and actions to the most basic level means internalizing things that are harmful.  Just like any community, the Black community is a microcosm of the larger society and that means that even as we fight for justice, we actively oppress as far as our ability will allow, other minorities. I thought that the juxtaposition of Farrahkhan to Hughes and Walker proved that point beautifully.

I think that Sapphire was saying that a lot of the hatred of the GLBT community is down right ignorance and that once you meet someone who is openly out that your opinion will change.  I will agree that in Clarice’s case, she was absolutely taught homophobia with no counter, but the solution in real life is not as easy as meeting a gay man or a lesbian.  Just like any community, there are gay men and lesbians who are just super awesome, but there are also some that are just plain assholes.  What if the first out GLBT person that Clarice met was a complete asshole?  Would she have been justified to continue on with her hatred then?  Even knowing Ms. Rain, Clarice continues to use gay slurs! 

The other lesbian in the book is a fellow student.  She is referred to as a straight up bull dyke.  Okay, this made me very uncomfortable.  Unfortunately, I have not read enough writing by lesbians to really comment intelligently.  Though I am not entitled to answer, if someone could enlighten me on if the terms is problematic, I would really appreciate it.  It is something I certainly would never say, because in the pit of stomach, I always felt that it was oppressive in some manner.   At any rate the lesbian student leaves home when she is discovered by her religious mother making love with her girlfriend at the time.  She is also subjected to corrective rape by the father of one of her lovers.  I know that though Push is fiction, far too many young lesbians have had this happen to them.  It is a heartbreaking truth.

Every student in Clarice’s class has been abused in some manner.  Most have faced sexual violence in their homes and all are there because they slipped through the cracks.  Their families saw them as disposable, because they were young women of color. I saw this as commentary on the traditional, patriarchal nuclear family.  Even in cases when the family is headed by a woman, the males were still placed above the women. 

Sapphire wrote Push, as a sort of modern day version of Alice Walkers, The color purple.  She took women of essentially the same class and examined what would have happened to Celie had she born and lived in our time, instead of during the reconstruction era.  I think as a follow up it works.  When Clarice ended up with HIV/AIDS I thought about the high rate of HIV/AIDS among poor women of colour.  In this case it was because of rape, but in many cases it is because of improper sex education.  As much as this book was about sexual abuse, it was also statement about the various ways in which the system continues to fail poor women of color.  With Push, Sapphire set light on a group of marginalized women that society has been more than happy to erase.   Essentially, Push is about seeing those whom we have chosen to create as invisible in order to actively oppress and exploit.

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