Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of Sapphire 'The Kid" Part One: I'm Nine


The Kid is the sequel to Sapphire's smash Push.  When we last left Precious she was on her way to independence through learning to read and dealing with the legacy of HIV/AIDS from her abusive father, as well as a history of sexual and emotional abuse from her mother.  Her dreams were simple, a good job, someone to love her, and a place where she and her son Abdul could be safe and happy.  Considering all that she went through, she really asked little out of life.  If I could only use one word to describe Clarice Precious Jones, it would be survivor because in spite of everything, Precious was not defeated.

The Kid begins with the death of Precious.  After everything that she went through to die at the age of 27, two years before finishing college was just heartbreaking to me. On the day of her funeral her notices her immediate absence when in the presence of her friends he is allowed to eat bacon, a food that his mother repeatedly told him was not good for his heatlth.  In his head he hears her talking to him and he really believes that she is not gone.

Whether it is the death of a child, parent, lover or friend, as long as you cared about someone deeply, death is a loss.   Abdul does not know how to deal with this loss and so all he can do is wish repeatedly that his mother will jump up and tell everyone that it's April Fools and that she was just playing with them.

As a parent I have had many sleepless nights worrying about my kids.  Just the very idea that something could potentially hurt them seriously is something I don't even want to imagine.  I must however admit that I have never thought about the other side of the equation very deeply.  What would it be like for my kids to live without my love and protection.  In the case of Abdul, all that stood between him and a world determined to destroy and hurt him, was Precious and when death cruelly stole her from his embrace, it left him extremely vulnerable.

It is telling that at her funeral Jermaine Hicks had the following to say:

"I guess there were bad things you could say about her, there's bad things you could say about anybody.  But to me this moment is about celebrating the life she did have, as well as pouring out her grief for the one she didn't have and now will never have.  Her shit was not easy -- Oh, I'm not supposed to talk like that here?....I'm not supposed to mention Medicaid didn't want to pay for her drugs or that the 'fare was threatening her again to leave school or lose her benefits, there's a padlock on her door and that she died broke and depressed, deeply depressed."
And in that one paragraph, Jermaine Hicks, aptly to described the struggles of a poor Black woman to lift herself and her child out of poverty.  As much as politicians are always talking about pulling one's self up by the bootstraps, they do a damn good job of making sure that even the slightest progress is next to impossible.

From the end of the funeral, the book becomes about Abdul and the legacy of his mother's womb.  He refuses to believe the truth about his conception and dreams that his father will magically come and save him.  More than anything he wants to go to where everything is safe and familiar.

I was particularly disturbed with how quickly the social worker stripped him of his name.  She didn't care about what he liked, she only wanted what was convenient and so Abdul, quicly became J.J.  If you cannot give a person the basic respect of calling them by the name they choose, then you have absolutely zero respect for him.  In Abdul's case, the name change to even further sever him from the life he knew before his mother's death.  Abdul was the safe and loved child, and J.J. is the child that exists to be discarded and assaulted at will.

J.J's existence in the foster system breaks my heart because I know that there are millions of J.J.'s who are seen as disposable and beyond hope.  Couple want infants, preferably White infants and a young Black boy is low on their list to love and raise.  I had a difficult time separating J.J. from my sons, and what I would want for them, if I suddenly were unable to care for them. The woman who ran the home referred to her charges as "ungrateful niggers" and she soundly refused to cook for them claiming that the children always wasted the food when she tried to feed them vegetable and meatloaf. Each night their supper consisted of hot dogs and beans. When she wasn't complaining about how ungrateful they were, she complained that the government didn't give her enough money to raise them.

Abdul's mother told him that he had private parts that no one was allowed to touch.  She wanted very much for her child to grow without being abused as she was, but unfortunately that was not to be.  On Abdul's first day in the system he met the infamous b@tty boy.  I really don't know what Sapphire was thinking when she chose that name for Abdul's abuser. B@tty boy is a slur aimed at gay men, and so this character wasn't even a person; he was simply a slur. The fact that B@tty boy then anally rapes and beats Abdul so badly that he is hospitalized for weeks is solely predicated on the gay man as predator trope. I know that the potential is high for sexual abuse in the foster system but I don't understand why Sapphire felt the need to portray this with homophobia, when she had Precious write in her journal, "I still believe allah and stuff. I guess I still believe everything. Ms Rain say homos not who rape me, not homos who let me sit up not learn for sixteen years, no homos who sell crack fuck Harlem. It's true. Ms. Rain the one who put the chalk in my hand, make me queen of the ABC's." (pg 91)

As a straight woman, I struggled with this character. Who am I to tell a lesbian how to write about this and what is and is not appropriate.  All I can say is that the character of B@tty boy felt wrong at the heart of it all.

Similarly to his mother Precious, Abdul experiences his assault as a dream.  At school, Abdul tells Miss Garnet that his head hurts and in response she says, "Your behind is what oughta be hurting! Don't come in here with a bunch of excuses, we got kids in there who've been through more than you could dream possible and you know what, they do their homework." Even as she is saying this Abdul is being abused, but rather than investigating the situation fully she blames him.  When you don't have anyone to speak for you, and you're a child, you slip through the cracks.  Just as the system let Precious down, it let Abdul down.  This first section of the book tells us that the supposed safety net, is filled with holes and if you are Black poor, it certainly meant to help you.