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Brandeis prof examines politics of 'Push'

Jeremy C. Fox | 3/3/2010, 4:19 a.m.
The cast and crew of “Precious: Base on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” accept the award for outstanding motion picture at the 41st NAACP Image Awards on Friday, Feb. 26, 2010, in Los Angeles. At left is Gabourey Sidibe and in center is Director Lee Daniels. AP /Chris Pizzello

The full, ungainly title makes the film’s origin clear: “Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”

But with all the critical acclaim, the endorsements from Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, the nominations and awards, the movie has predictably managed to overshadow the book that made it all possible.

In a talk last week at the Harvard Humanities Center, Brandeis University Assistant Professor Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman explored the novel’s themes and their meaning for the African American community.

Originally published in 1996 but set in the 1980s, the book tells the story of Claireece Precious Jones of Harlem — 16 years old, illiterate, abused by her mother and pregnant by her father for the second time. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Precious seeks to take control of her own fate through education and the support of other poor women of color.

It’s important to remember, Abdur-Rahman said, that the book was written at a time when the minor structural gains of the Civil Rights Movement had been largely undone as a result of conservative claims that affirmative action was no longer necessary and that welfare was the refuge of cheats and layabouts.

Abdur-Rahman said that beneath the horror of the abuse that Precious endures, the novel is ultimately about the failure of the system to protect her and the necessity of people of color building their own support systems.

In her view, the book contains “an inclusive politics of racial uplift that is suitable to our post-Civil Rights moment and an adaptive strategy of social survival for impoverished African Americans, one in which the travails of racism, urban poverty and familial ruin are overcome through inter-class, cross-racial, and trans-cultural coalition-building,” she said.  

Though Precious suffers the physical and sexual abuse in private and beyond the reach of any public service agency, its effects are there for all to see.

But they are ignored in “public schools, welfare offices, shelters, hospitals and the like, exposing the failure of these government agencies and the people employed in them to respond effectively to the needs of one horrifically abused black girl named Precious,” she said.

Even when Precious explains in the hospital after delivering her first child that the baby was conceived with her own father, no one intervenes and she is sent back home.

Beyond having their needs overlooked by the state, Abdur-Rahman said that Precious and the real women the character represents are often forced by welfare reform laws into taking menial, low-pay jobs with no chance for advancement  — nor flexibility to look after their own children.

“The assumption underlying this recommendation,” she said, “is that there is some social inadequacy or criminal propensity that disqualifies Precious from public support. In other words, Precious is not presumed worthy by the state of public assistance.”

The support and empowerment that Precious so badly needs ultimately comes not from the state or her biological family but from the group of other under-educated and abused young women of color that she met through a pre-GED literacy program.