PUSHing Clarissa and Other Reid Books

 

I am the propogandist on this panel. By narrating some of the history of the Reid Family Writers of Color Series, and by telling you a story about the time I taught Sapphire’s Push in my EP 3 class on Clarissa, I hope to push everyone here to teach the Reid book regardless of your particular area of expertise. For some in this audience, teaching the Reid book falls naturally within your scholarly and pedagogical purview. For others, including me, it does not. If you are planning a class on the Early English Novel, or Shakespeare, or Medieval Romance it may seem incongruous—even absurd—to include The Voyage of the Sable Venus on your syllabus. My job (as Sarah told me when she asked me to be on this panel—you can blame her for this) is to push you to teach the Reid book regardless.

This job reminds me a bit of my childhood in a family where I was regularly accused of being a pushy person. But I also grew up the daughter of a children’s librarian. Every year, my mother’s library would hold a series of events called Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R.), “a national month-long celebration of reading” in honor of Beverly Cleary’s birthday.  As the organizational website puts, the Drop Everything and Read celebration is “designed to remind folks of all ages to make reading a priority activity in their lives. Because, what’s more fun(damental) than reading, really?” I think of this talk as the Drop Everything Else on your syllabus for a week and Read the Reid book, “because, really, what’s more pedagogically fundamental” than giving pride of place to writers of color—especially at this fraught moment in our national—and our university’s—racial history.

The Reid Family Writers of Color series began before we even knew Mrs. Reid existed. It originated at a department meeting in spring 2007 when Fawzia Mustafa issued a challenge to our faculty. Here’s what Fawzia wrote me when I asked her to recollect her comments: “I think it was something along the lines of the department’s needing to look at itself and realize how we repeatedly lost people of color through carelessness and neglect. That if we were serious about issues of diversity (not a phrase we used in those days) then we had to face up to both our departmental history (of never retaining anyone) and our paucity of effort on other fronts too. It was along the lines of the department needing to educate itself rather than falling back on the same people all the time to carry the burden.”

I suspect many of us were moved by Fawzia’s challenge. I know I was. But I had little hope of significant change and no hope that we would rapidly hire new faculty of color. At the time, the only response I could imagine was something symbolic. Fordham had—I think because of infighting—recently ended its policy of assigning a uniform “Freshman Book” to all incoming students. I suggested that we fill this vacuum by choosing a common English Department book by a writer of color. We could host lectures about the book, encourage as many faculty members as possible to teach it (though the choice would be optional), and use it as vehicle for educating our students and ourselves about race and diversity. It was a modest gesture—grossly inadequate to address the severity of racial inequality in the department and at every level of university. But at least by choosing a common book by a writer of color—at least by bringing students and faculty together to celebrate and interpret it—we could commit ourselves to some form of racial visibility and discussion.

That first year, four of us were involved in this undertaking—Eva Badowska, Glenn Hendler, James Kim, and me. For our common book we chose Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake. The four of us met to discuss pedagogical strategies and we arranged for our assembled classes to attend two lectures, one by Vijay Prashad, and to see the movie version of the book, directed by Mira Nair. Then, in spring 2008, we had a karmic windfall. Out of nowhere, Brennan O’Donnell told Eva that the parent of an incoming CBA student, wanted to fund some kind of literary program involving writers of color. That person was Frances Reid. Now that we had an endowment we could afford to bring some writers of color to campus. Another windfall arrived in fall 2008—in the form of Sarah Gambito—who assumed organizational responsibility for the Reid series with characteristic creative brilliance, and has, thankfully, been spearheading it ever since.

Excepting the times I have been on leave (and last spring, when scheduling proved prohibitive), I have taught every Reid book since the series began. Depending on my course assignments the book’s inclusion on my syllabus can seem more or less logical. When the Reid book corresponds with a Texts and Contexts course, I simply build the course theme around the book at hand.  So, for instance, the year we read Ruined by Lynne Nottage (which was being performed on the Lincoln Center campus), I called my course Haven and Hell, and the students read Paradise Lost, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Nottage’s play. I loved that combination. Patricia Smith was one of the Reid writers when I was teaching a service-learning course on homelessness.  Blood Dazzler—her collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina—was sadly, horribly, naturally about the loss of home and about displacement.

And then there was the semester that I was teaching an EP 3 course that I called One Big Book. The entire course was devoted to reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, a 1,500 page, eighteenth-century novel about a highly educated, highly religious, highly British young woman, who arguably starves herself to death to prove her superior propriety and virtue. The Reid book that year was Push by Sapphire, about a pregnant, obese, illiterate Harlem teenager who is nicknamed Precious and opens her narrative with sentences like, “I’m gonna try to make sense and tell the truth, else what’s the fucking use? Ain’ enough lies and shit out there already?” Could any combination of texts seem more absurd?

And yet, I had my Drop Everything and Read the Reid book policy.  The book’s suitability for my course was secondary to what I saw as the history and heart of the Writers of Color series—our communal commitment to racial visibility and discussion. So, along with the customary tests and essay assignment, my One Big Book syllabus stipulated  that everyone had to attend Sapphire’s lecture. And for one week, we pushed Clarissa aside to read Push. If nothing else, I figured it would be a salutary reprieve from Richardson.

One of the great virtues of our discipline is that we have the freedom and skill to draw creative comparisons, to think about words and representation beyond categorical difference.  Our courses tend be organized under coherent rubrics, and that is fine. But we have been trained to interpret language wherever there are texts and to encourage our students to learn to do the same. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter what your area of expertise is or what your course is focused on—there is always something fundamental to be gained by including the Reid book on your syllabus.

As it so happened, the connections between Push and Clarissa are astonishing. For all their racial, economic, and historical differences, Clarissa’s and Precious’s trajectories are essentially the same. Both are abused daughters, both viewed as property in their families, both sacrificed by their mothers to their fathers, and both are raped by familiar men. Through it all, both Clarissa and Precious fight to defend their individual rights and both do so via the act of writing.  Oh, and it turns out that Precious’s real name is Claireece!

Now, Push itself—as well as the 2009 movie based on it called Precious, which was directed by Lee Daniels and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry—were called racist by some black critics.  In the Wall Street Journal, Vaughn Carney wrote, “A battered and abused black female tells her story of being ‘buked and scorned but manages somehow to rise above it all. Sound familiar? I mean, why does the publishing industry have this morbid fascination with the most depraved, violent, misogynist, vulgar, low-life element in the African-American experience?”  Of the movie, Armond White wrote, “Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as ‘Precious’ . . . . Full of brazenly racist clichés, it is a sociological horror show. . . [,] an over-the-top political fantasy that works only because it demeans blacks, women and poor people.” Though I don’t sanction Carney’s attack on the so-called “low-life element in the African-American experience,” I think both he and Armond raise legitimate questions about the book and movie’s potential racism. I can’t tell from my notes or recall exactly what happened in class, but I certainly hope I discussed these problems with my students

At the same time, by juxtaposing Push with Clarissa my students and I were able to recognize something that the critics did not. What now looks like the novel’s—and later the movie’s—“brazen clichés” about the “dysfunctional African-American family,” and “black on black violence,” and “black female victimization,” may actually descend from generic conventions that date back to the early English novel. The “battered and abused” heroine who tells her “story of being ‘buked and scorned but manages somehow to rise above it all” has not only been black.  The resemblance between Claireece and Clarissa speaks to a long entrenched and commercially successful tradition of representing predatory families and brutally violated young women.  The relationship is one point of intersectionality on the historical continuums of race and gender.

On a temporarily happier note, my students were eagerly awaiting Sapphire’s arrival. Several of them looked forward to asking if she’d purposefully named her novel’s heroine after Clarissa. And then, the unthinkable occurred. Sapphire called in sick. She wasn’t coming. Her agent told Sarah, “it was an act of God.” This was a disaster—not just because the students would be disappointed, but because Mrs. Reid had, as in years past, flown out from California to participate in the festivities.  

Fortunately, Sarah worked a miracle. Within a few hours she arranged for the poets Tyehimba Jess and Patrick Rosal to show up in Sapphire’s stead. Not a single student in any of the classes had read their work in advance.  And yet, at least in my class, all of the students loved the poets. Several came to the next class eager to discuss their work.

And here is the final moral of my pushy story. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what the Reid book is or exactly which speakers come to campus. My experience is that students love the Reid Series because they love meeting authors that their English professors tell them are important. After the presentation the students await with giddy excitement for their books to be signed.  The Reid Writers of Color become our celebrities. And this too is good.

 

~ Susan Greenfield