Of Push, Precious, Percival, and “My Pafology”

by Latoya Peterson
erasure

The reality of popular culture was nothing new. The truth of the world landing on me daily, or hourly, was nothing I did not expect. But this book was a real slap in the face. It was like strolling through an antique mall, feeling good, liking the sunny day and then turning the corner to find a display of watermelon-eating, banjo-playing darkie carvings and a pyramid of Mammy cookie jars.

—Thelonious Monk Ellison (Percival Everett), Erasure

I knew that before I wrote a word on what I felt about Push and Precious, I was going to have a problem.  One, my personal experience colors a lot of my perception of the novel and the movie.  While Precious’ narrative is not close to mine (I’m way closer to Lola, from Oscar Wao) there were lots of notes of familiarity.

A few too many for comfort.

In discussions with the Racialicious crew, Thea and I actually got really close to parsing out why I feel so strongly about the work.

Thea wrote:

On the topic of African American lit…I am reading Don’t Erase Me right now by Carolyn Ferrell.

I guess it is supposed to be stories of black girls in the ghetto. The stories I’ve read so far are all about incest. So this trend is starting to bother me. Though I guess it could just be what I’m reading…

I wrote back:

It’s not really a trend if it happens a lot.

My sister and I were *not* molested by anyone growing up.  That made us a rarity.

Carmen pointed out that works that do feature incest and black people (like The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye) do tend to get critical acclaim and recognition, and wondered why that was. I  thought that the issue may be that white reviews, book publishers, etc, only know how to respond to black dysfunction, but that doesn’t erase the fact that so many of us go through this type of abuse.

Then Thea got all MFA on us, writing:

Just to clarify I didn’t mean that I thought sexual abuse was a trend. That would be a pretty awful thing to say. It’s more that I’m reading a deluge of books for an AfAm lit class that are about incest, or about black dysfunction in the inner city.

It’s distressing because while I don’t doubt for a second that this happens and that this is something that needs to be talked about and talked about until it stops happening, I am also quite sure that there is a lot more to being poor and black in the city than incest and family dysfunction.

It’s interesting to look at the way that black lit has changed since the 80′s until now. Alice Walker and Toni Morrison ruled the 80′s and they had a certain voice that was about the horribleness of life, but also that really celebrated the richness and joy of life.  The books I am reading now (Don’t Erase Me, I Got Somebody in Staunton, Holding Pattern) were all written after 2000 and they are all narratives where the protagonist is incredibly atomised and it seems like they have very little joy in their lives, and even more, have very little ability to perceive joy in their lives.  So that gets me down. I wouldn’t even say these books are disturbing, more than anything they are just bleak bleak bleak. Like Thomas Hardy bleak.

But I think it is an interesting shift – interesting potentially that there appears to be no longer any need to appear joyful. No need to feel like, if you’re writing for the black community, you gotta also be celebrating life (a secular Christian sort of approach).  That is a really marked difference – no more is there that strong black woman “we will overcome!” vibe.  In these books there’s no salvation. Which I guess makes them different from Precious? Seems like there is salvation at the end of Precious.

I wrote back:

Yeah, I’m probably super defensive since this is more or less the issues I’m having writing about Push and Precious.  And the worst part is it isn’t even in the books – I don’t have beef with those because Push shows Precious and the other girls with (1) vibrant inner lives and (2) personal agency, even within limited circumstances which other people are either missing or refuse to acknowledge.

I also tend to get super defensive in these discussions because, in essence, people (not you, the mass of reviews I’ve waded through) are saying that me and my family either (1) are black stereotypes, (2) too dysfunctional to be believed, (3) the “real” black life.  None of these things are inherently false or true, and that’s what keeps getting lost in these convos.

I agree with your point about bleakness – do you think it might be the street lit boom exerting some influence on literature?  I read Erasure last night, and while I enjoyed the book, I felt like Everett misfired at Push – his point is made by The Coldest Winter Ever much better than Push, and the “My Pafology” parody is about a nihilistic rapist, a far cry away from the introspective Precious.  I am not surprised – sometimes in our rush to distance ourselves from anything negative, or “detrimental to the race” we can miss a lot of cues of realism.  I loved how Precious parrots Nation of Islam ideology as a way to stay strong in the face of hardship. I also love how she later rejects many of the flawed ideas she learned once she outgrows them.  But that kind of nuance is almost never discussed, perhaps because people don’t recognize it for what it is.  They see someone speaking “improper” English and can’t be bothered to parse the content of the sentences.

Upon further reflection, I’ll even argue that The Coldest Winter Ever deserves a bit more credit.  Instead, My Pafology reads a lot like much of the street lit we’ve discussed before. And yet, I feel like that nuance doesn’t matter.  Negative is negative is negative, regardless of how it is used and to what end.

There are many things overlooked in critiques of Push/Precious, one of which is the frank discussion of incest.  As many readers here and at Jezebel pointed out, many of the reviews kind of waltz over the continued sexual abuse by both father and mother. (Something else that is never mentioned is Precious’ horror that her body reacts when she is being raped – something that her father uses as a justification that she “likes” it.)  And I wonder why this is being dismissed.  Would it have been okay to discuss the incest if the narrator was different, the situation was different?  Like this?

“So,” Jack said after we’d settled into the pine-and-leather booth.  “How was your day?”

“Fine. I, um, did some laundry, went to the book store —”

“Oh yeah? What’s you get?”

“Oh this psychobabble thing I’d been wanting to read.”

“What?”

“It’s called The Drama of the Gifted Child.”

“Uh-huh.  What’s it about?”

“Oh, I don’t know, just stuff about your childhood and how you’re affected by it.”

“Mmm.  So, did you have some childhood trauma?”

It was an interesting way of putting it, and I didn’t quite know how to answer.  Trauma seemed so big a word, as if I’d have to have been a survivor of a war or a pawn in a horrible divorce.  I was neither, but my childhood pain felt just as large.  I realized this was an opportunity to tell him about Lucas, but it was too soon to spill such pain.  On the other hand, I could give him a peek at my baggage to give him a chance to run if he couldn’t deal.

“Um, well, nothing catastrophic.” I let the moment pass.

The excerpt above is from Benilde Little’s Good Hair, one of my favorite books. Good Hair is often described as “a black comedy of manners,” and focuses on Alice Andrews, a Newark-born Manhattanite who is having problems finding her place in a class conscious society. Is her story more valid than the one of Precious Jones, because Andrews’ world uses proper English, is college educated, and everyone has a career?

On of the things that grates on me so about the discussions around the work is the lack of analysis of the underlying content. I’ve read lots of street lit, mostly because I make a habit of reading what others around me read. And I have lots of issues with street lit on both a systemic level and a content level. But while I was reading through My Pafology, I realized that while it is a direct response to Push (some similarities is narrative and tone, and some of the same words – like “down sinder” for “down’s syndrome” – are used), it appears that Everett missed the point. He interprets it as a glorification of hood life, and not a character narrative.

Thea writes a little later:

That’s what I really struggled with about Erasure.
1) There are are too many stories about black dysfunction, and often white literary culture takes that up as the “real” black story, to the detriment of both black folks who didn’t have that experience, as well as the black narrative in general, which is complex and diverse
2) That doesn’t mean that the stories about black dysfunction aren’t true or real.

What Erasure (to me) seemed to be saying was that there are too many stories about ghetto life, and none of them are true. My Pafology is supposed to be mirroring Push – fictional Monk writes the book to either make a point or make money, but it’s taken up by a fictional racist white literary culture as being a true representation of life. So Everett is saying that real life Sapphire just wrote the book to make money and real life white culture is too racist to recognise that she’s lying up the wazoo.

It’s such an uncomfortable and difficult position to be in, to be saying on the one hand that black culture shouldn’t be essentialised to just be stories about really difficult lives, and saying on the other that those stories are still true. And I think you are very right that what gets lost in the mix is the fact that those “essentialised stories” are also complicated ones with characters who have rich inner lives.

What you say Latoya, about both Everett and culture in general not recognising the nuances in Push’s story, reminds me of your critique of Oscar Wao – how none of the critics got what Diaz was trying to do with Lola. They either ignored her, or didn’t pick up on the nuance and thought Lola was evidence of Diaz’s sexism.

…I guess ultimately people are getting to get what they want to get out of Push/Precious. The annoying thing though is that the folks who think it is
(1) are black stereotypes, (2) too dysfunctional to be believed, (3) the “real” black life.
aren’t going to recognise that they’re not getting the full story of Push. They’re not going to think – hey, maybe there’s some parts of this story I just don’t get – they’re going to think that they fully understand it, and that this is all there is to this story. They’re not going to recognise that potentially they don’t ge the whole story because they lack some kind of lived experience that would enable them to pick up on the nuances.

That really pisses me off. Like I can read Ulysses or whatever incomprehensible great British novel, and I can recognise that just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. It prolly just means I don’t know enough about what Joyce is referencing to get Ulysses. But folks with privilege are rarely going to read a book about a marginalised experience of which they have no understanding – because the experience is so poorly represented in mainstream culture – and think hey, maybe I don’t get some parts of this book, because I don’t know anything about what this writer is referencing.

What this whole grad school thing is teaching me is that people with privilege/entitlement are incapable of understanding that there a billion things in the world that they know nothing about.

As I have edited this site over the last couple of years, my beliefs on a lot of things have changed dramatically. There was a time when Spike Lee’s comments about Tyler Perry’s “coonery and buffonery” would have prompted me to agree, and launch into a discussion about black owned media and stereotypes. And while I still think that conversation has some worth, when the question was posed to me by Vocalo a few weeks back, I found myself instead talking about systems, and the danger of a single story, the Chimamanda Adichie TED talk Thea posted a little while back. I argued that Lee was angry, and his anger was directed at Perry when it should be directed at the tyranny that occurs when our experiences are flattened. We shouldn’t have to self-police representations of blackness, concerned that one negative portrayal will damn all of us. We should be able to exist as we are: flawed, complicated, beautiful, and proud.

And the media we create should be able to reflect that.