Poet, performance artist, novelist
Brooklyn-based writer Sapphire came under intense media scrutiny for her 1996 debut novel Push. The work tells the tale of a fictional teenager living in Harlem who survives and even triumphs amidst the most debasing circumstances, including incest. As a result of the large advance the fledgling writer received from a major publisher, bootleg copies were in circulation before publication, but Sapphire was no stranger to controversy. Copies of a 1989 poem she wrote were later circulated in Congress in an attempt to censor government funding for the arts. The largesse of her publishing contract with Alfred A. Knopf succinctly negated this free-speech issue, and in a similar vein Sapphire gives voice to those among us whom many, especially those in leadership roles, would prefer to forget.
Sapphire was born Ramona Lofton in 1950, the second of four children. Her father was a U.S. Army sergeant, her mother a former nurse with the Women’s Air Corps. The family moved extensively during her childhood, including to bases overseas, but when their father wished to settle in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Sapphire’s mother refused to come along; she eventually slid into alcoholism and Sapphire remained out of contact with her for several years. After high school, Sapphire attended San Francisco City College with plans to one day enter medical school, but the high cost of tuition and other pursuits waylaid those dreams. She became involved in the Bay Area’s freewheeling counterculture scene, and it was during this era she went from Ramona Lofton to Sapphire. “It was a new age thing,” she told D. T. Max in a Harper’s Bazaar interview. “I had read some-where 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.” This radical era for her also included forays into the black power movement and drug use, but she also began writing poetry and performing public readings of her work.
In 1977, Sapphire moved to New York City with twenty dollars to her name. She planned to become a writer, but instead wound up working in the sex industry around Times Square. She worked as a go-go dancer, and by her own admission, a prostitute for a time. However, she
At a Glance …
Full name, Ramona Lofton; born 1950, in Fort Ord, CA; daughter of an Army sergeant and former Women’s Air Corps nurse. Education : Received associate degree from San Francisco City College; received honors degree from City College of New York, 1983; attended graduate school at Brooklyn College, c. 1993.
Career: Worked as a go-go dancer and prostitute in New YorkCity; Children’s Aid Society, New YorkCity, parentchild mediator, mid-1980s; remedial reading teacher in Harlem and the Bronx, late 1980s-early 1990s.
Addresses: Home –Brooklyn, NY.
also found welcome among the city’s lesbian community. “This was going to be a way out of living your parents’ life,” she explained about this period of her life to Dinitia Smith in the New York Times. She began working toward a degree in modern dance at City College of New York, and after graduating in 1983 took a job as a parent-child mediator for the Children’s Aid Society. Later she became a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and the Bronx, perhaps some of the most povertystricken, dangerous urban areas of the country. She also made her home in Harlem as well. The year 1986 was a difficult one: her mother passed away, and a few months later her brother was killed in the Los Angles park where he found shelter. More friends died in subsequent months. “Those were really dark years, ’86 to ’89 or so. But it was then that my writing started to change,” she told Newsweek’s Jeff Giles.
In 1988 the tumult of Sapphire’s life brought a re-examination of the past, and she realized that she had been sexually abused by her father when she was a child. Originally, she assumed she was teetering on the brink of mental illness--her family had seemed normal on the surface, if a bit loose with the belt, but her parents were church-going people. Then her sister confessed that she had also been abused. Their brother had been schizophrenic, and Sapphire believes he had been abused by their father as well; their father denied the accusations until his death in 1990. Group therapy helped Sapphire undo some of the damage of the past, “but the art is where I let it come out,” she explained to Max in the Harper’s Bazaar interview. “Had I not been able to write, I think I would have lost my mind.”
Sapphire had written short pieces that were published in lesbian journals, but they were best experienced in poetry readings delivered in her own voice. Yet coming to terms with her past impacted her writing in an interesting way. When she began using a male perspective, the women’s-focused publications began rejecting her. “I was getting the message that the work was too male-centered,” she told Katherine Dieckmann in the Voice Literary Supplement. One work in particular created a stir: a poem she entitled “Wild Thing,” it arose out of the Central Park rape of a white woman jogger by a group of African American youths, who later admitted they were out “wilding,” their term for causing trouble. By using the perspective of one of the perpetrators, she tried to show how ignorance and hopelessness can easily evolve into random violence. One line in particular addressed the issue of child abuse by members of the clergy, a circumstance anything but fictional.
Sapphire’s “Wild Thing” appeared in The Portable Lower East Side Queer City, a journal that received some funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Conservative elements in the country had long tried to exercise censorship over the NEA’s bequests, and when a minister and head of a conservative watchdog group named Donald Wildmon came across the journal, he became outraged. In turn, he contacted Senator Jesse Helms, who circulated the poem among members of Congress in his successful campaign to oust NEA chair John Frohmayer. Sapphire received some unwanted attention for the debacle, but by 1993 she had enrolled in a master’s degree writing program at Brooklyn College to further her talents. The following year saw the publication of her first collection, American Dreams, which also contained “Wild Thing.” The volume also featured much of the harrowing imagery which would later surface in Push. Reviewing American Dreams, New York Times Book Review critic Jeannine DeLombard asserted that “this angry yet hopeful collection of poetry and prose speaks not of dreams deferred but nightmares lived.” The Voice Literary Supplement’s Dieckmann observed, “Sapphire’s crystalline texts wreak redemptive beauty from rough, ugly things…. Sapphire takes situations that are usually read one way and spins them out in all directions until moral certainty falls apart.”
Yet even Sapphire’s fellow writers were again less than supportive. She sometimes encountered hostile reactions among classmates at Brooklyn College. “These guys thought it was overkill,” she recalled in the New York Times interview with Smith. “They’d say, ’Do you hate men? Do you hate white people?’” Her writing teacher offered more positive feedback. When Sapphire showed her a few hundred pages of a draft of a longer piece, her teacher informed her that this was a novel in progress. After signing with an agent, Sapphire received a whopping $500,000 two-book contract from Knopf. The money was beside the point for Sapphire, however. “I can remember once picking up a copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in a bookstore and sitting down and thinking, This is good. I didn’t think about whether she got a large advance or not,” she told Max in Harper’s Bazaar.
As Sapphire’s first novel readied for publication, some at Knopf wanted her to excise one particularly shocking passage, and pushed her to change the ending. She refused on both counts, and Push was published in the summer of 1996 after much industry buzz. Its narrator is Claireece Precious Jones, an overweight teenager living in Harlem. Her tale, as she relates it in her own ungrammatical, slang-laden English, is a harrowing one. Her father raped her repeatedly, and she had a child by him at the age of twelve. The girl was born with Down’s Syndrome, and is being raised by her grandmother. Precious’s own mother sees her daughter as competition, and verbally, physically, and sexually abuses her she also steals the welfare checks that come in the mail for Precious and Mongo, her daughter.
In and out of school over the years, Precious is illiterate. Once, she sees a movie on television where a Polaroid is taken of a group of people, and the vampires among them don’t appear in the snapshot. She sees a similarity with her own life. “I big. I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see… I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am.. I know who they say I am--vampire sucking the system’s blood.” Later, she expresses nihilist thoughts. “Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don’t know how to die. Ain’ no plug to pull out. ’No matter how bad I feel my heart don’t stop beating and my eyes open in the morning.” When Precious again becomes pregnant by her father when she is sixteen, her mother kicks her out. She winds up in a remedial reading program and an incest survivors’ group. A sympathetic teacher helps her decipher the words on the pages of books, and also to find her own voice. Though she learns she is HIV-positive--contracted from her own father--the novel ends on a hopeful note.
Push received laudatory, if sometimes disbelieving reviews. Sapphire asserted that much of what she wrote about was unfortunately not sensationalist fiction. “I lived in one building in Harlem for over ten years, so I saw a generation of children grow up,” she told Newsweek’s Giles. “This novel isn’t conjecture, or some studies I read. This is life as I observed it.” Other elements of the story came from women she had met in the course of her teaching career. Reviewing Push for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani compared it to a cross between The Color Purple and Catcher in the Rye. Indeed, Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel takes on an important role in Push as Precious learns to read. Rosemary Mahoney of the New York Times Book Review noted that at first, Push is difficult for readers because of the unconventional grammar and misspellings, but Precious’s “sardonic voice is blunt and unadorned, sorrowful as a foghorn and so wholly engulfing that despite its broken words it generates single-handedly the moving power of this novel.” Mahoney concluded, “Without benefit of intricate plot or beautiful language, masterly structure, or terribly complex characters, Sapphire has created in ’Push’ an affecting and impassioned work that sails on the strength of pure, stirring feeling from a girl who should long ago have had all the feeling knocked out of her.”
Sapphire became the center of some degree of controversy over the work. As a result of her well-publicized half-million-dollar advance from an “establishment” publisher, there were some subtle political connotations since her work seems to portray the black male, and urban blacks in general, in a negative light. Again, she defends the veracity of the work as well as her critics, remarking in an interview with William Powers of the Washington Post, “Would people have said that to Charles Dickens? You’re a writer and you go where you’re heart takes you.” She has spoken of her refusal to sell the film rights to Hollywood, noting in the News-week interview with Giles, “I don’t want a filmmaker to come in and make Precious look pathetic.” Even Madonna has expressed interest, but Sapphire cannot visualize the story of Precious on screen. “To have a child sitting in the audience look up and feel shame…that could really happen,” she said in the Washington Post interview. “At some point I do have control. At some point you don’t have to give in to greed. I have more money than I ever thought I had, so why go there?”
American Dreams, High Risk, 1994.
Push, Knopf, 1996.
Dallas Morning News, August 7, 1996.
Elle, July 1996.
Harper’s Bazaar, July 1996, pp. 108-109, 135-136.
Interview, June 1996, pp. 28-30
Ms., July/August 1996, p. 82.
New York Post, August 27, 1996.
New York Times, June 14, 1996, p. C29; July 2, 1996, p. C11.
New York Times Magazine, February 19, 1995, p. 36.
New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 26; July 7, 1996, sec. 7, p. 9.
New Yorker, December 25, 1995, p. 48.
Newsweek, June 3, 1996, pp. 72-73.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 13, 1996.
Poetry Calendar, June 1996, p. 7.
Vibe, October 1996.
Village Voice, June 25, 1996, p. 76.
Voice Literary Supplement, April 12, 1994, p. SS28.
Washington Post, August 6, 1996.
Many legends of occult properties surround this precious stone, whose name derives from the Sanskrit sanipriya, i.e., dear to the planet Saturn. Next to the diamond, it is the hardest mineral; its true color is blue, but it may also be red, yellow, violet, green, or brown. It was also known in ancient times as lapis lazuli. According to folklore, the vision seen by Moses and the Law given to him were inscribed on sapphire. The sapphire was one of the twelve stones on the Jewish high priest's breastplate, located on the second row in the middle. It attained an eschatological significance as a foundation stone for the New Jerusalem (Isaiah 54:11 and Rev. 21:19).
When Roman Catholics select a new pope, a gold ring set with a sapphire is traditionally placed on his ring finger, symbolizing marriage to the church. Buddhists ascribed sacred magical power to the sapphire and believed that it reconciled mankind to God.
It was said to be a good amulet against fear, to promote the flow of good spirits, to prevent ague and gout, and to prevent the eyes being affected by smallpox. The sixteenth-century writer Camillo Leonardo claimed: "The sapphire heals sores, and is found to discharge a carbuncle with a single touch." The occult writer Francis Barrett stated in his book The Magus (1801): "A Sapphire, or a stone that is of a deep blue colour, if it be rubbed on a tumour wherein the plague discovers itself, (before the party is too far gone) and if, by and by it be removed from the sick, the absent jewel attracts all the poison, or contagion therefrom."
sap·phire / ˈsaˌfīr/ • n. a transparent precious stone, typically blue, which is a variety of corundum (aluminum oxide). ∎ a bright blue color. DERIVATIVES: sap·phir·ine / ˈsafərin; -ˌrēn; -ˌrīn/ adj. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French safir, via Latin from Greek sappheiros, probably denoting lapis lazuli.
Sapphire ★★★ 1959
Two Scotland Yard detectives seek the killer of a beautiful black woman who was passing for white. Good mystery and topical social comment; remains interesting and engrossing. Superbly acted all around. 92m/C VHS . GB Nigel Patrick, Yvonne Mitchell, Michael Craig, Paul Massie, Bernard Miles; D: Basil Dearden. British Acad. '59: Film.
The word comes (in Middle English, via Old French and Latin) from Greek sappheiros, probably denoting lapis lazuli.
sapphire wedding a forty-fifth wedding anniversary.