Born Ramona Lofton, 1950, in Fort Ord, CA; children: two. Education: Attended San Francisco City College in the 1970s; City College of New York, Brooklyn, NY, B.A. (with honors), 1983; Brooklyn College, M.F.A., c. 1993.
Home—New York, NY. Office—New School University, 55 W. 13th St., New York, NY 10011. Agent—Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency, 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012.
Performance artist, educator, and author. Children's Aid Society, New York, NY, parent-child mediator, c. 1980s; reading instructor in Harlem and the Bronx, NY, c. 1980s-90s; New School University, New York, NY, faculty member; previously taught literature, fiction and poetry workshops at the State University of New York at Purchase, Trinity College, and the Writer's Voice in New York, NY; taught graduate writing workshops in M.F.A. programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Brooklyn College. Has also worked as a go-go dancer and house cleaner.
Year of the Poet III Award, Downtown magazine, 1994; MacArthur Foundation Scholarship for poetry, 1994; First Novelist Award, Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, Book-of-the Month Club, both 1997, for Push; Outstanding Achievement in Teaching Award, City of New York, for work with literacy students in Harlem and the Bronx.
Meditations on the Rainbow: Poetry, Crystal Bananas Press (New York, NY), 1987.
American Dreams (poems and prose), Serpent's Tail/High Risk (New York, NY), 1994
Push (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Black Wings & Blind Angels: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Contributor of prose and poetry to anthologies, including Women on Women: An Anthology of American Lesbian Short Fiction, edited by Joan Nestle and Naomi Holoch, Plume (New York, NY), 1990; Critical Condition: Women on the Edge of Violence, edited by Amy Scholder, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 1993; and High Risk 2: Writings on Sex, Death, and Subversion, edited by Amy Scholder and Ira Silverberg, Plume (New York, NY), 1994. Also contributor to Portable Lower East Side, and to other periodicals.
A traumatic upbringing and later work with traumatized students in Harlem inform the work of African American poet and novelist Sapphire. The daughter of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, who abandoned the family when Sapphire was barely a teenager, this controversial writer frequently addresses themes of incest, rape, and child abuse, as well as racism.
Born Ramona Lofton, Sapphire grew up in a middleclass family in California. Both of her parents were in the military, and the family moved frequently within the United States and Europe during Sapphire's early childhood. When Sapphire was thirteen, they settled in Los Angeles, and Sapphire's mother left the family. After leaving high school and connecting with the black power movement and later with drugs, Sapphire adopted her new name. She told D.T. Max of Harper's Bazaar: "It was a New Age thing. I had read somewhere that the rays emitted by sapphires can change the molecular structure of other gemstones—and that was exactly what I wanted to do with my life." She studied chemistry, and then dance, at San Francisco City College before moving to New York in 1977.
Sapphire worked at a variety of odd jobs while starting to experiment with poetry and performance art in Greenwich Village in the early 1980s. But the decade was a difficult one for the writer. She reconnected with her mother in the late 1970s, but her mother died in June of 1986. That same year, Sapphire's brother, who was then homeless and suffered from schizophrenia, was murdered in a Los Angeles park. She also began to have memories of incest. She confronted her father with her suspicions that he had sexually abused her, but he denied it. Sapphire's sister, however, confirmed the events Sapphire remembered. Other friends died during the next three years, marking an intensely dark period in her life, but she later recalled that coming through that time was actually freeing. In Harper's Bazaar the author noted: "A shade opened up, and suddenly my life was rescued for me."
In 1989 Sapphire wrote a poem called "Wild Thing," which was inspired in part by the "wilding" of a jogger in Central Park that had made national news. Her poem was written in the voice of one of the young men accused of the rape, and her empathy for the young man, whom she imagined as abused and oppressed himself, stirred the anger of both liberal feminists and conservatives of the Religious Right. (The convictions of the five men accused of the crime were challenged in 2002, after DNA evidence and the confession of another man called the verdict into question). Reverend Donald Wildmon discovered the poem and was outraged by one of its images, which presents Jesus in a sexual situation with an altar boy. Taking the lines out of context (Sapphire intended the image to represent the abuse of children by members of the clergy), Wildmon and Senator Jesse Helmes used the poem to attack the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which funded the journal in which the poem first appeared. John Frohnmayer, then head of the NEA, defended the poem and was eventually forced to resign. In his memoir, Leaving Town Alive, Frohnmayer continued to support Sapphire's work, writing: "[The poem is] not meant to make us feel good. It's not meant as an apology for a violent act. And it's certainly not meant to be sacrilegious, unless pedophilia is part of religious dogma. The poem is meant to make us think and reflect on an incredibly brutal act in an allegedly civilized society."
Sapphire was also thrust into the spotlight as her poem became a symbol of government-funded filth for some and an icon of free speech for others. The event made her feel exploited, and yet she realized that her fame could also bring further opportunity. "My dreams were not enhanced by someone holding my work up in Congress and calling me a pervert," she said in Harper's Bazaar, "On the other hand, there I was, suddenly a public figure." Sapphire was committed to the idea of literature as a tool for change. In an interview with Fran Gordon in Poets & Writers, she said: "I know literature helps." The author added: "My life was not the same after I read The Prison Letters of George Jackson. My perception of American culture changed."
Sapphire's first major book, a collection of prose and poems, is called American Dreams. The writing is confrontational and the images the author presents are graphic. The work's opening poems chronicle a black middle-class family headed by an abusive father and passive mother, and continues with poems for Sapphire's deceased brother and that explore the ugly stereotypes of blacks and Africans in popular culture. Jeannine DeLombard, describing the book in the New York Times Book Review, wrote: "At its best, Sapphire's poetry takes the stuff American's illusory dreams are made of—Top 40 songs, brand names, nursery rhymes, pop icons—and turns it inside out." Reviewers found the work powerful. In American Book Review, Margaret Randall called Sapphire's writing "unrelenting." Though Randall suggested that "disembodied penises, wilding, battery, rape, betrayal, S & M, sickness and death far outweigh connection, creativity, the retrieval of memory or the power of righteousness" in American Dreams, she nonetheless called Sapphire a writer of "considerable craft" and "haunting power."
With her debut novel, Push, Sapphire gained a wider readership. The novel tells the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones, a Harlem teenager pregnant by her father for the second time. Precious is also abused by her mother; she loses her first child when authorities determine the baby has Down syndrome. Worse, after delivering her second child and being ousted from her home, she discovers she has HIV. The story is told in graphic detail through the voice of Precious; Sapphire uses vernacular to convey the illiteracy that creates one more obstacle for her protagonist. The extreme horror that fills Precious's life comes across as nearly unreal. As Paula L. Woods wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, however, Sapphire's characterization of the girl brings her to life: "Although right-wingers might dismiss the real-life Preciouses of this world as the Willie Hortons of welfare, Sapphire gives the fictional Precious something that surveys and case studies do not—a mind, a heart and a ferocious rage to survive that ignite the book and make it strangely compelling for all of the horror Precious relives in the telling." Sapphire herself felt that Precious was a special character, as she explained to Gordon in Poets & Writers: "I knew that with Push I had created a beautiful character that people loved in spite of themselves. People who love to hate people like her loved her."
After the success of Push, Sapphire felt compelled to continue taking risks. Though her next book, Black Wings & Blind Angels: Poems, returned to the format of mixed prose and poetry, it was with a greater sense of distance from the rage that marked her earlier work. Speaking about the poem "Breaking Karma #8" in Poets & Writers, Sapphire commented that "in the rehashing, in the ruminating, in the obsessing, the incident is now, as tragic as it is, placed in perspective—and in the scheme of humanity, is a small incident." Characterizing the evolving style of Sapphire's work, a contributor to Publishers Weekly wrote: "This second volume of verse finds her less aggressive, mixing her hostilities and anxieties with a newly bemused nostalgia."
In her prose, Sapphire draws on her own childhood experiences as well as her time living and working with children in Harlem throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Talking to Mark Marvel in Interview, Sapphire said: "I saw a complete generation grow up while I was living in Harlem. I moved into a building in '83 and moved out in '93." Sapphire continued: "I saw girls who had their first babies at fourteen. I listened to someone I had gone over a little primer with talk- ing about their friend who got shot." The author added: "I saw the way things get repeated." Discussing social themes implicit in Push, Sapphire told Gordon that while "there was an … agenda-ridden part of me that wanted to talk about the welfare system," her primary aim was "to tell a really pure, unadulterated story about a girl." "I didn't want to preach," she continued, "but I did want to show what was happening." Sapphire added: "I don't think there's anything wrong with that—that's history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 14, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Frohnmayer, John, Leaving Town Alive, Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1993.
Newsmakers 1996, Issue 4, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Advocate, September 28, 1999, Richard Tayson, "Ready, Aim, Sapphire," p. 96.
American Book Review, March-May, 1995, Margaret Randall, "Dreams Deferred," p. 26.
Black Issues Book Review, March, 2000, review of Black Wings & Blind Angels: Poems, p. 44.
Booklist, January 15, 1994, Whitney Scott, review of American Dreams, pp. 894-895; May 1, 1996, Lillian Lewis, review of Push, p. 1470; October 1, 1998, review of Push, p. 317.
Book World, March 12, 2000, review of Black Wings & Blind Angels, p. 6.
Entertainment Weekly, April 8, 1994, Suzanne Ruta, review of American Dreams, p. 52.
Harper's Bazaar, November, 1995, Katie Roiphe, "Making the Incest Scene," pp. 65, 68-71; July, 1996, D.T. Max, "Pushing the Envelope," pp. 108-112.
Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, fall, 1996, review of Push, p. 37, and American Dreams, p. 43.
Interview, June, 1996, Mark Marvel, "Sapphire's Big Push," pp. 28-30.
Kenyon Review, spring, 1995, Terese Svoboda, "Try Bondage," pp. 157-159.
Lambda Book Report, May-June, 1995, Jewelle Gomez, "Cutting Words," pp. 6-8; September, 1996, Jacquie Bishop, review of Push, pp. 12-14.
Library Journal, November 1, 1999, review of Black Wings & Blind Angels, p. 107.
London Review of Books, February 6, 1997, review of Push, p. 25.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, Paula L. Woods, "Pushed to Survival," review of Push, pp. 1, 9.
Ms., March-April, 1994, June Jordan, review of American Dreams, p. 70; July-August, 1996, Jewelle Gomez, review of Push, p. 82.
Newsweek, June 3, 1996, Jeff Giles, "Beginners' Pluck," review of Push, pp. 72-75.
New York Times, June 14, 1996, Michiko Kakutani, "A Cruel World, Endless until a Teacher Steps In," review of Push, p. B8.
New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, Jeannine DeLombard, review of American Dreams, p. 26; July 7, 1996, Rosemary Mahoney, "Don't Nobody Want Me. Don't Nobody Need Me," p. 9.
Observer (London, England), December 8, 1996, review of Push, p. 17.
Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, April-June, 1997, Suzanne Lego, review of Push, pp. 29-31.
Poets & Writers, January, 2000, Fran Gordon, "Breaking Karma: A Conversation with Sapphire," pp. 24-31.
Publishers Weekly, January 10, 1994, review of American Dreams, p. 58; April 22, 1996, review of Push, p. 61; September 27, 1999, review of Black Wings & Blind Angels, p. 99.
Reviewer's Bookwatch, May, 2005, Akua Sarr, review of Push.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1997, Susann Cokal, review of Push, pp. 186-187.
Times Literary Supplement, October 11, 1996, Alex Clark, review of Push, p. 24.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 21, 1996, Achy Obejas, "Living Hell," p. 3.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1994, review of American Dreams, p. 28; December 8, 1996, review of Push, p. 17.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 2002, review of Push, p. 175.
Women's Review of Books, November, 1996, Gayle Pemberton, review of Push, p. 1.
Atlantic Center for the Arts Web site,http://www.atlanticcenterforthearts.org/ (September 25, 2007), profile of Ramona Lofton.
Comet, http://cometmagazine.com/ (April 26, 2007), "Seeking Hope Sharing Insight with Author Sapphire."