Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Was a Black Cowgirl, My Tongue Was a Six Shooter and My Fingers Were Guns (A Conversation with Sapphire) by Carl Hancock Rux

I see it over and over, the real people, the people

who show up when the picture come back; and
they are pritty people, girls with little titties like
buttons and legs like long white straws...Why can't
I see myself, feel where I end and begin. I sometimes
look in the pink people in suits eyes', the men from
bizness, and they look way above me,
put me out of their eyes.
My fahver don't see me really. If he did he would know
I was like a white girl, a real person, inside. He would
not climb on me from forever and stick his dick in me
n' get me inside on fire...Can't he see I am a girl for
flowers and thin straw legs and a place in
the picture.

from Push , by Saphire

Act One: A Monday. Astor Place. Rain. Saphire has been waiting. My apologies well rehearsed. Haven't seen her since we were doing that poetry thing- maybe Lincoln Center when she made an uptown audience squirm with her Mickey Mouse Was a Scorpio invective. Tales of shit and semen. Or it might've been that summer we were hitching rides with friendly strangers at the National Black Theater Festival in Atlanta,Georgia -sipping the notes from Abby Lincoln's mouth, promoting the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe anthology with Miguel, and fiercely engaging in a discourse on Black Feminism and Audre Lourde. Haven't seen her since she was standing at the lectern in a peach tree plaza ballroom on a Saturday evening, sharing the platform with the Negro Literati- and yes...Essex...this would be the last time I would ever see Essex Hemphill. In the middle of the rodeo the two of them postured like partners in crime, the outcasts come back to take the booty (sic). Her locks all around her breasts and straight back. She read There's a Window, from her book American Dreams. Window is a narrative of two women having un-casual sex in a prison cell. An interesting choice to render to an upright audience of Nationalists, Afro-fascists, the Christian Right and the Artistic left.

I was sitting on top of her belly pumping my thighs together sending blood to my clitoris...I was riding, like the Lone Ranger on top of Silver.

Using the grandiloquence of dangerous words and brimstone cadence, Saphire transformed in front of her audience. She became the ...river overflowing it's banks, rushing all over the brown mountains. She was not the token dyke poet willing to compromise content and context for the sake of ethics, the struggle, and a Black Baptist readership. With the power of her prose, she revealed herself a black cowgirl, galloping through the audience (that brown mountain), her tongue a six shooter, her fingers, guns.

We find each other in the doorway of Starbucks. Smiles and hugs and no rehearsed apologies. She has cut off all of her locks. I remember when her now closely cropped hair once fell all around her breasts at poetry readings. She runs her fingers through it and says it was "just time to let it go." We walk. We catch a cab. The rain reminds me to tell her of my October spent in Key West, Florida, where I had been invited to read my work. After talking to his agent in New York, a successful white male writer acquaintance of mine queried me about "This Lesbian Black woman with dreadlocks named Saphire who maxed a major first book deal...Six figures!". I relay the story. She laughs. Laughs hard. The newly trimmed bush growing from her scalp frames her face differently than the long tresses. She is younger and older and appears to be traveling light. Makes me think Sampson didn't lose his strength because Delilah cut his locks off. He lost his strength because, unlike Saphire, he was careless enough to restrict it to one place- externally. I'd already read the excerpt of her controversial first novel Push in the controversial Black issue of the New Yorker and subsequently received a complete uncorrected proof from the publisher.

(Scene 1) In an East Village apartment over coffee, muffins, red wine and cigarettes, we exchange a lot of laughter and address the controversies regarding her work. The first being her unconventional writing style.

Carl- You use the protagonists (Precious Jones) voice to tell the story. Her idioms are clear and words are written phonetically. The reader really gets a sense that she is illiterate before she ever admits it. Then, you switch suddenly to a third person omniscience. The third person narrative keeps many of Precious' idioms. It's very interesting that after several pages, you complete the omniscient voice and never return to it. We only hear from Precious for the rest of the book ( and some of the women in her life) via poetry and essays. It was as if, just for a moment- in the beginning of the book, she'd lost her voice- couldn't talk anymore- but in her effort to claim herself, took over again. The ghost of herself was silenced for good.

Saphire-I wasn't trying to write a novel. It started out with this child's voice and my own determination not to let everything I had seen and heard in Harlem escape me. And it went on and kept going from there. I wasn't trying to write a novel, I was trying to tell a story. I definitely wasn't thinking that I had to do it a certain way, that the third person voice had to be (indicating) up here and what have you- it was like Napoleon Ice Cream/ Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry/ you can mix the shit up if you want to! (Laughter) I was thinking of it as an energy and music driven novel. The music of Harlem in the Eighties was hip-hop. I wasn't doing the James Baldwin thing where he was listening to Coleman Hawkins and Bessie Smith. This thing was speeding! I was also trying to show, visually, by the shortness of the novel, that this characters life was going to be short- even though I don't dwell on her death. I wanted to show life as I see it in this AIDS era we're living in. Like putting a video on fast forward - even if you're walking slow- it's fast, because we're dealing with a different sense of time, a different sense of mortality. I wanted the book to be Bap-Bap-Bap-Bap! I wasn't trying to satisfy the reader- I wasn't trying to give them a conclusive ending and fill in all the blanks! Who the fuck- (Pause) I read an excerpt of it on the phone to my step-sister, just the first few pages, and she asked me, "What is going to happen to that girl?" That's what I wanted the reader to do. I didn't want to tell them what was going to happen, I didn't want to fix it, I didn't want a happy ending or a tragic ending or whatever. I wanted to leave a big question mark in America's heart about what's going to happen to these children- I wanted to leave them with that sense of dissatisfaction. I wanted them to wish there was a hundred more pages- WELL THERE AIN'T! You know what I mean? You figure it out! I wanted it to hit really love her and then have it hit hard/ Asta la vista baby! Because that's what's happening. And I wanted them to think about the author. How do you think I feel having had so many people slip through my fingers? Not knowing what happened...

Carl- (Hesitating) Okay...Second controversy...Cash! (She's laughing at me) People are talking about the money you got for this book, your first novel. Your book deal became the topic of-uh- conversation, I guess, across America. Writers I knew who didn't know you, like the guy in Key West, were asking Who is Saphire, and is she all that?

Saphire- Getting this money, and knowing that I'm going to get it has been both joyous and problematic. It's a two book deal, so that negates that idea that I got it for one- but I've worked hard all my life, so to get this is very rewarding for me. One thing I can say is I have no feelings of unworthiness. I deserve it. A whole lot of other people deserve it! I earned it. This is not an NEA grant, which I've never gotten or anything. I entered the literary marketplace with a product and it sold. This is America, right? This is CAPITALISM-it wasn't like I was taking the tax payers money. I didn't get a NYFA grant and write pussypussypussy and put Christ in piss or anything. I entered into a business situation with my product and we sold it-what's the big deal?

Carl- Of course.

Saphire- I didn't get like Stephen King and them get, so what's the big deal?

Carl- The big deal is "Who is this Black Dyke Bitch and how dare she get as much as I have or could get when I am White or Republican or heterosexual or male- The patriarchy!"

Saphire- Exactly! Right! This is the real issue, isn't it? It's not so much that somebody got the money, it's how dare me get it! How dare a black woman! How dare a sexual outsider! How dare someone who we consider less get more! That's the real issue- who got it. In many ways I have been deemed by this culture as unworthy. As less. As someone who people perceive as less- who is perceived as racially inferior, intellectually inferior, sexually misguided and sick- I'm no Yale graduate. I'm a City College kid... All that, and still got paid! (High five) It was-uh- no miracle I got paid. I had self esteem enough to go get a good agent with this manuscript. I had enough sense to negotiate, so I had something to do with getting paid...

Carl- Earlier, we talked about vague and sometimes not so vague concepts of exploitation. From what I understand, there was immediate excitement from your agent and eventually publishers over your novel. Were you at any point suspicious of that? Did you ever feel like the same Middle America that rejects you also wants to exploit you? To have you exploit your overweight sexually abused protagonist, Precious Jones, and her pathetic incestual family in a contemporary impoverished Harlem? Another kind of family to counterbalance the 1980's Cosby era?

Saphire- No. I'm not afraid of people thinking that I'm being exploitative. I want to bust up the Cosby myth. The day the Cosby show went off the air, I think that was the same day South Central erupted in flames. The Cosby show presented a myth- or I will say a lifestyle I don't know about. This is happening, what's happening in Precious Jones' family is happening- Yesterdays New York Times showed two black women who had murdered their children. Okay? So we know it's happening! What am I doing that the New York Times isn't doing? Except I show you these people as humans and caught in a web that they can't escape from, on some level, without help as opposed to showing fucking monsters over and over and over again. I give them an alternative, I show you a way out- that even in the most desperate situations there is a way out. So I feel fine with the publication of the book and the book being put out in a major way. During the writing of it I had a horrible time...just in getting it done and relationships and what have you- I'd never dealt with big companies before- the one thing that sustained me was the thought that one hundred and sixty thousand copies of this book would be published and of that many many black people would read it...white people are gonna read it, I know that...but specifically young black people and gay people...a lot of people are going to get to see this...listen, the first print run of American Dreams was two thousand copies...I knew as fine a book as I thought that was/ and I had deep respect for my publishers/ I knew that within my lifetime I wanted to reach my genre, if at all possible...this is what I'm living for. I'm an artist. There's nothing else I really care about. If I can get it out to millions, I'll get it out to millions. If the next book I write could sell like a Color Purple, or a Toni Morrison, or a Terry McMillan, that is fine with me. I do not feel exploited or exploitative because I want to reach millions. I would've felt exploited if I had died with that novel in my file cabinet and someone came in my house after I'm dead and started looking through my papers and said "Look what this bitch did here!" -and then the state of New York published it and gets the proceeds. So I've done the right thing. I've done what we all supposed to do. I did what Zora Neale did! I got behind my work and put it out there. I'd like to see everybody- instead of going berserk- do the same thing. Because that is the real exploitation, after you're dead, your parents come in your house and burn your notebooks when they find out you're gay, when they find out you fucked Sammy Sue on the rooftop and they're ashamed of it and all that-

Carl- Sammy Sue?

Saphire- (Big Laugh) Uh-huh...yeah...So I feel good. I feel that my art did not die in shame. My art did not get torn up. I did not cut my wrists. I did not dissolve into drugs and self hate. I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of my sexuality. I'm proud of my race. I'm proud of my class background, and I've taken my work to the world. And with my class background, working class- we don't publish- I'M NOT THE TALENTED TENTH! You kow what I mean? And my shit is out there, and I'm very proud of that! I was not living in Scarsdale. I lived in Harlem for thirteen years. The building I put Precious in is where I lived! I taught at that (GED Prep ) school (in the novel)! So I was not no voyeur! I have a right to this story. It's my story too! I didn't come out there with no video camera. I was there. I was trying to figure out how are we going to change this? Who are these people coming to me, living life like this? Why is a girl twenty and thirty years younger than me going through what I went through? Why hasn't it stopped? I was raped as a child. Why hasn't it stopped? That's the consciousness I went there with.

Carl- Have you ever read Wallace Thurman's Enfants Of The Spring?


Carl- Thurman himself was allegedly part of that talented tenth, or supposed to have been. And he died, on Randall's Island, broke and drunk and young. In Enfants of The Spring, he creates a character based on another writer, Richard Bruce Nugent-

Saphire- Yes, of course.

Carl- And Nugent, was homosexual and proud and an outcast in that Talented Tenth Literary canon- and like his friend Thurman, kind of living in the margins. They were friends and colleagues of Hughes and Cullen and Hurston and Bontemps. But Thurman remained incredibly angry about his personal lack of success- and aside from one short story and a few poems, Nugent never published a book in his lifetime. Yet, Thurman thought of Nugent as one the most brilliant writers of the so called Harlem Renaissance. In the story, Thurman creates a Nugent prototype that has written the most important manifesto of the era. On the night that he completes it, he places the handwritten manuscript on the bathroom floor, runs the bath water, and slits his wrist in the tub so that his work would be discovered and published posthumously. Unfortunately, the water overflows and washes all of the ink off of the pages. What's left is a body. This I think, is a powerful image. It leaves an indelible mark. This is the legacy left for artists who are living in the margins of society. To never produce work during their lifetime that profits them. To-

Saphire- To be a victim. I have great admiration for the literati. I admire Toni Morrisson and all them. But I'm a homosexual. An ex-prostitute. I've been an addict. I'm outside of that. I could never go in. And I'm not gonna spend all my life being mad that I'm not them. Just the fact that I am who I am meant I was able to create this kind of art- and I'm not saying my art is better or worse, it's different. And I probably would not have been able to create it had I been to Howard and Radcliffe and went on- you know what I mean. I wouldn't have been able to write this book had I been living a closeted life. I wouldn't have been able to write this book had I had a good teaching position at Columbia! I was teaching in these types of literacy programs. I think we need to value more of who we are. I think of literature as a pot-luck. Everybody brings something different to the table. No, I'm not bringing what the Talented Tenth brought to the table, but the table would be very empty without what I bring.

Carl- You're bringing ham hocks, greens and pussy to a table of good wine and cheese.

Saphire- (Throwing her head back, laughing) Yeah- Exactly!

Carl-You identify yourself as a homosexual/ a bi-sexual, an ex-prostitute-

Saphire- A sex worker.

Carl- The writer Jewelle Gomez also identifies herself this way, and Dr. Aisha Mae Holland is another acclaimed writer who shares some of these same experiences in interviews and in her work. Perhaps the personal heroics of their overcoming tremendous obstacles to be who they are is part of the acclaim they receive. Bravo for the brevity of making it, and living to talk about it. But when I think about Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange, I recognize them as Black women writers identified as heterosexual and middle class/ writers who have become part of a certain canon. Still, I know they produce work with their ears to the ground. Like Mary Helen Washington said, "to know the herstory of black women is to know more than the tragedy and despair, is to recognize the mute and inglorious ways these artists devised to retain their creativity." Shange did come from some privilege and lived in urban communities and went to better schools- but I don't know that any of that mattered. She heard the voices. I don't know that the product is restricted by privilege or determined by disadvantage. Harold Cruse used that as a means of criticizing Lorraine Hansberry for writing about a working class family she didn't personally grow up in. But I think there are many disadvantages even in advantage. In "Women Of Crisis", Dr.Coles and Mrs. Coles make it clear when they question "where does a woman begin with resentment and moral, personal outrage? turn on herself and (be willing) to explain her predicament- at once personal, social, and...intellectual."

Saphire- Right. Exactly.

Carl- Ishamel Reed criticized Shange twenty years ago for creating Black men who throw their babies out of tenement windows. Alice walker received a lot of flack from Black Male critics for her portrayal of women-beating Black men in The Color Purple. In your novel Precious Jones has two children by her father who has been sexually abusing her since she was in first grade. What do you think about these criticisms as they may come up in relation to your work and it's potentially large readership?

Saphire- I think that white cultures elevate whatever they want to elevate. Eldridge Cleaver wrote a book about raping white women, and they made it a number one book. I don't think he did that because that's what he was doing, and I don't think he wrote that book to sell-out or anything.

Carl- Do you think he was pleading a Black case?

Saphire- How do you mean?

Carl-When responding to a question about Toni Morrison's work, Henry Louis Gates quotes writer/cultural critic Albert Murray in the New Yorker as saying "I think it's tainted with do- goodism , I think it's redressing wrongs...we don't have to condescend to no Goddamn Jane Austin...we don't need special pleading for anything and the same goes for Blackness."

Saphire- (Unimpressed) Well...I don't know who he (Murray) is...I'm not well versed in who he is...

Carl- (Chuckle) No one is. I think that's the point of Gates' article.

Saphire- I Know Stanley Crouch elevates him...but what can I say? I don't really have a response to all that. When Precious is asked in the book what she thinks about people trying to stop the showing of the Color Purple, her response is "This is men as I know them." She only knows one man, her father and Farrakhan (from a poster), and now her son- she has hope for the son. She loves her son. How does she even get that within her? So every time she can love she does love, but the reality of her experience is rape, abuse and ridicule. Now, I'm sorry- we need to talk about that. That's just like white people asking why are Black people always talking about racism- because it's's happening...I feel a lot of bitterness and anger in these Black men's comments-but I'm not writing for them. It never crossed my mind- Albert Murray reading my books- I'm writing for somebody like Precious- somebody who could understand her...Precious would be invisible to the invisible man. Ralph Ellison's character would not see her-would step over her. She is the ultimate in invisibility. It's an act of one of the great forces of nature that she can see herself- that she hasn't disintegrated like a Precola Breedlove. and women are perpetrators too. All her father does is fuck the child. The mother hits in the head with a frying pan and fucks her it is not that women are good and men are bad- when people are put in positions of disempowerment and deep poverty, they turn on each other. Rats do that . Women will do it even more because they have more access to helpless people. It's not about one gender being good and the other is bad. Change the condition people live in and they wouldn't act like that anymore...That whole argument is so... I would think men would be thinking about how they can sit down and hold hands, and how to stop following each other home and beating each other on the head, how to stop male rape in prisons...I would think we'd be making quantum leaps by now...

(Lights fade slowly to black on an East Village street. The conversation, un-ended. A Black Cowgirl saddles herself and rides up 9th street- Bullet holes everywhere she walks. Tongue and fingers and closely cropped hair and push- up ninth street. A girl for flowers and a place in the picture. Conversation un-ended.) End of Act One...

Originally published in aRude magazine, 1996

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