This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at #MeToo and Literary Studies with posts from the collection’s contributors.
Guest post by Robin E. Field
Precious Jones was introduced to readers 25 years ago, when Sapphire’s debut novel Push was released in June 1996. Almost immediately Precious became as beloved a figure as her inspiration, Celie, from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. While Precious must endure sexual abuse from her father and mother, physical violence from her mother, and mind-numbing poverty, this Black teenager pushes herself to learn to read, emancipate herself from her mother, and become a positive role model for her infant son. The end of her narrative reveals her sitting in the sun with her baby, Abdul, thinking, “In his beauty I see my own.” However, the novel concludes with her poem, the last lines of which remind readers of the limited time she has left because of HIV: “tick / tock.”
Ten years ago, readers met Precious and Abdul again in Sapphire’s sequel The Kid, released in July 2011. Critic Danielle Evans says, “the mission of ‘The Kid’ is to punish those readers of ‘Push’ who found even the faintest glimmer of hope in Precious’ journey.” Precious dies of AIDS in the early pages and Abdul is placed in foster care, where he is violently raped by another boy. Soon afterward, he moves to St. Ailanthus School for Boys, where he is assaulted by the Catholic brothers and other boys. Most shockingly, Abdul himself becomes a perpetrator of sexual abuse, as he rapes his friend Jaime (whom he claims to love) and five-year-old Richie (whom he claims “wants it”).
Sapphire challenged societal skepticism and ennui about incest recovery stories in 1996 by depicting Precious as worthy of love and admiration. (Indeed, the 2009 film adaptation, Precious, also celebrates the Black heroine and launched the career of Gabourey Sidibe.) Yet in The Kid, Sapphire allows readers none of these positive emotions toward Abdul once he begins assaulting his schoolmates. Indeed, one of the key questions of the novel is how to maintain sympathy—and empathy—for an abuser, even when he too is a victim-survivor, like his mother, Precious.
I ask this question in my chapter, “The Other Men of #MeToo: Male Rape in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Sapphire’s The Kid, and Amber Tamblyn’s Any Man.” It would be easy to put down The Kid after reading the explicit descriptions of the violence that Abdul enacts upon other children. Instead, Sapphire challenges readers to push beyond horror and repulsion to recognize how our society has failed this boy. Unlike Precious, Abdul is not allowed a recovery process as he shuttles from the control of one abuser to the next. Indeed, at the end of The Kid, Abdul has never acknowledged his violent actions.
If readers can feel empathy for Abdul after learning that he perpetrates sexual abuse upon others, we may move toward tangible action in the real world to help victim-survivors to heal—and thus not replicate that violence upon others. Should we put down The Kid and dismiss Abdul as irredeemable, this boy becomes invisible, just like the countless boys whose own abuse was ignored until the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and at Penn State revealed the extent of this predation upon boys. If readers reject Abdul, we are implicated as a part of the societal failure that erases these male victim-survivors and blames only them for the violence and pain they pass on.
At the end of Beloved, Toni Morrison writes that this was “not a story to pass on.” I contend that The Kid is not a story to pass on by. Sapphire’s novel demands that readers recognize Abdul as a rape victim-survivor and works toward changing the rape culture that persists in the United States. While The Kid may not be as celebrated a novel as Push, it is an absolutely necessary one.
Robin E. Field is Professor of English at King’s College in Wilkes-
Barre, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on ethnic American
literature, women’s studies, and South Asian diasporic literature.
She has published essays on Jhumpa Lahiri, Sandra Cisneros, Alice
Walker, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Ayad Akhtar. Her most recent
book is Writing the Survivor: The Rape Novel in Late Twentieth-
Century American Fiction (2020).