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In Praise of Push

The movie adaptation of Sapphire's 1996 novel opens this Friday but, please, read the book

By Michael Corbin | Posted 11/17/2009

As a teacher I never made anyone read Sapphire’s 1996 Push. I never promoted it. I just had it available in the classroom, lying around. It’s a book that would never be officially assigned, a book that can get you trouble. It crosses too many lines for schooling. It’s a book that can explode.

The kids I taught, like most Americans, watch and enjoy a lot more movies than they read and enjoy books. And no doubt a lot more American’s will go see Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire—that’s the official, awkward movie title, struggling between marketing and provenance—than read Push.

But, for real, Push, the book is such a unique alchemy of story inextricably fused with the language of its telling, a book where the sound of those physical words on the page—and in your ear, in your head, and finally in your heart—can break you, open something up, like the best works of art, that it deserves a separate life, away from the big screen that will shortly overwhelm it, as a singular, great American novel.

Vintage Contemporaries has, of course, reissued the book and repackaged it for maximum movie tie-in value with Gabourey Sidibe gracing the cover. Sidibe will no doubt give a new, separate, and powerful life to the character Clarireece Precious Jones as only cinematic storytelling can, but the temerarious, soul-haunted and haunting voice of Precious, as rendered in the pages of the book, commands and deserves its own hearing.

The first time I saw the power of that voice at work was when a ninth-grader brought it to me after class. She—and most of my students, but not all, who were pulled into this book were female—was tentative, uncharacteristically shy. In class this student was often wound-up, over-the-top, a work-out for a teacher. She could intimidate the boys, who in ninth-grade still often favor the pre-pubescent. She was a big girl, not overweight, but inhabiting a body that was not a child’s and out of whose mouth flowed profanity like a percussion instrument keeping her sentences in time.

She had waited till the other students had left and cut her eyes to the door with self-consciousness. “I read this,” she started, patting the red and black covered paperback. “I read this in one night!”

Some literacy researchers who study struggling readers, both adult and adolescent, talk about “home-run books,” a first-time book experience with that book’s reading, which can fundamentally change that reader. It is an experience of, for the first time, cracking the code between alphabet, phonemes, syntax, and your life and consciousness. As a teacher there is nothing more powerful, more human, than seeing that intimate, educational consummation occur when reading books would no longer be what those other kinds of kids did.

“Did you read this?” she asked wide-eyed, pushing the book toward me now. When students become readers, they want to talk to someone, tell someone, share what is in that book. “We need to read this in class. This is for real.”

The point here is not that this young teen experienced the abuse that the character of Precious in the novel does. The novel was not some Oprah-esque, empathetic, therapeutic epiphany for this student. But, more powerfully, Push was a lens making visible, bringing into focus, an American life that we only know through cliché and ideological caricature when we know it all. Push made this Baltimore city, overage ninth-grader, struggling reader come alive. “We have to read this in class. This is for real.”

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ‘cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.

I got suspended from school ‘cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’!

My name is Claireece Precious Jones. I don’t know why I’m telling you that. Guess ‘cause I don’t know how far I’m going to go with this story, or if it’s even a story or why I’m talking . . .

Many other students came to claim Push. Some of them were struggling readers, some of them growing bibliophiles; a few had experienced abuse, almost all found pieces of their lives. A parent challenged me once: “Why would a teacher let a child read such a book?” It became one of those word-of-mouth, passed-around kind of books that we like to think existed before our high-def, plasma-screened, dual-controller, killer app, post-literacy age.

A student came to me one day and asked who is William Wordsworth and what is the Talmud? Push begins epigrammatically with an excerpt from the Wordsworth poem “Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree, which stands near the lake of Esthwaite, on a desolate part of the shore, commanding a beautiful prospect” and from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”

You do a lot of Talmudic bending and whispering in a Baltimore City public school classroom; and I’m no angel. Part of the power of Push is in its ability to capture trying to learn and grow in an environment that has little to do with learning and growing. The classrooms of Precious’s Harlem school, like many of the classrooms in Baltimore and across urban America, deform children. If nothing else Push is testimony to the tragedy of unrecognized human potential and beauty in institutions ostensibly about cultivating human potential and beauty.

There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. 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 the picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. The eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist.

What the tess say? I don’t give a fuck. I look bitch teacher in the face, trying to see do she see me or the tess. But I don’t care now what nobody see.

Not all of my high school students graduated. The warp and woof of urban survival led them elsewhere. Where I teach now we give the TABE test and the GED, among other kinds of teaching. TABE stands for Test of Adult Basic Education. Basic Adult. It’s a school of second chances, second acts. It’s American like that. Second chance education is both harder and more beautiful. However it’s not clear that there are second chances in America today.

Precious, in the novel, makes her way to the nineteenth floor of the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street in Harlem. Here is the wonderfully imagined “Higher Education Alternative/Each One Teach One”—another chance at learning, another chance at reading, another chance of being visible.

I step out the elevator and see this lady with cornrow hair sitting at desk. White sign black letters on the desk.

“This the alternative?” I ax.

“The what?” She life eyebrows.

“This the alternative?” That bitch heard me the first time!

“What exactly are you looking for?” woman nice talk.

“Well, what is this here?”

Push is an alternative view of the America we now inhabit. Here on the page is the dialect, the vernacular of truth in Baltimore, in America. Precious, in her room under her posters of Louis Farrakhan, Harriet Tubman, and Alice Walker, survives despite. This is not a tale of redemption, but it is one of hope. This unique, necessary novel is a language-map of survival, of humanity, of where to go now that we have even lost the words to say that we have lost our way.

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