It should not surprise us that the artist known as Sapphire (Ramona Lofton) began her career as a performance poet. Sapphire’s most famous work, the novel Push (1996), is a startling tribute to the strong, urban voice of the underrepresented and abused. Push tells the brutal story of a young girl, Precious Jones, who suffers sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at the hands of those closest to her and as a result of a systemic oppression pervasive in urban city slums. Although many critics have deemed the novel unrealistic and exaggerated, Sapphire remains unapologetic for the seemingly insurmountable challenges her young protagonist faces: incest, illiteracy, obesity, and finally AIDS. Truth, Sapphire might say, needs no apology. What victims of abuse and illiteracy do need is visibility and voice.
Sapphire’s greatest achievement as an artist stems from her powerful ability to give a voice to those who have not been heard. Her literary style strikes, and strikes on its own terms. The speakers in Sapphire’s poems and the characters in her fiction always explode from their own worlds; what results is art that pulls us into truths and realities completely outside of ourselves. We are uncomfortable in the world that Sapphire creates, even as we share these truths with burning intimacy.
Sapphire would be the first to defend the truth if not the historicity in her work. She began as a performance poet. Her work strives to speak for one––someone––many someones––who is much more than a fictitious creation. When discussing the urban, humorous, first-person narrator of Push, Sapphire persistently discusses Precious Jones as a truthful compilation of the women she encountered during her early career while teaching. Perhaps that is the point. These realities are truth. These circumstances exist and have existed around us, unheard and unaddressed, for many years. As both a renowned author and a performance poet, Sapphire uses an acerbic style that demands the attention these thwarted lives deserve, not only because of her style’s connectedness and awareness of its role as a voice for those who are so marginalized as to seem unreal to the vast majority of America, but also because of the striking subject matter these [End Page 31] realities reveal. Child abuse, homosexuality, urban oppression, illiteracy in twenty-first-century America, and the AIDS epidemic remain among the many poignant topics at the heart of Sapphire’s writing.
In 2007 at the “PUSHing Boundaries, PUSHing Art” symposium held at Arizona State University in honor of Sapphire’s work, scholars from across the country discussed Sapphire’s poetry and fiction as each relates to the blues tradition, the abject nutritional and educational conditions of urban environments, and feminism in the twenty-first century. The academic considerations and relevance of her writing were the subject of the one-day symposium, and with the symposium, Sapphire’s work made its way into the classrooms and universities of America.
As Sapphire sat among the academic chatter at the “PUSHing Boundaries, PUSHing Art” symposium, thick in the excitement and energy of scholarship, she was both humble and proud. Yet her pride resulted not from her own personal accomplishment as an artist, but from the arrival of her work into the world of academia. Sapphire remains passionate about education and its relevance to an escape from societal oppression. What she wanted was a place for her body of work inside the world of academia, to bring new awareness, a new audience, and permanence to her words. The result is perhaps what Sapphire has always wanted since beginning her career on the streets of New York, speaking art to the pulse of humanity and being a voice for the many others.
Following the 2007 symposium, the film adaptation of Sapphire’s novel, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, receiving the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the drama category and a Special Jury Prize for the actress Mo’Nique. Drawing closely from Sapphire’s singular literary style, in 2010 screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay...