2. The Genre of the Slave Narrative
3. Differences to the Slave Narrative
3.1 The Urban Perspective
3.2 Black Parents Instead of White Masters and the Depiction of Sexual Abuse
4. Similarities to the Slave Narrative
4.1 The Theme of Abuse and Exploitation
4.3 The Transformation of Precious Jones
4.4 Escaping and Becoming a Free Member of Society
Sapphire’s first novel Push (1996) is told in the African American vernacular voice of obese and illiterate 16-year-old Claireece Precious Jones who lives with her abusive mother in Harlem. The novel begins with Precious being pregnant with her second child by her father, who has been repeatedly raping her since childhood. After being expelled from high school due to her pregnancy, she is placed in an alternative school program where she learns to read and write with a group of other young women. As she becomes literate, her life begins to change.
The research question of this essay is, to what extend can features of a slave narrative be incorporated into a contemporary novel as Push and which features have to be altered in order to reflect specific cultural realities. Of the several essays written on Push most authors have focused on topics such as race and social class, food consumption and obesity, disability and the female body, rape, incest and trauma as well as on the topic of transformation. Only Riché Richardson has established a relationship between Push and the slave narrative in his essay “Close Up: Push, Precious, and New Narratives of Slavery in Harlem” by showing recurring slave narrative motifs including “Precious’ detachment from her mother and father, her sexual and physical abuse, and her quest for literary and freedom” (163).
In this essay, I will go a step further and not only focus on the similarities between Push and the slave narrative, but also discuss which impact the differences such as the replacement of the antebellum South into an urban setting and the replacement of slave holders into abusive and exploiting parents have on the narrative. I will begin the essay with a contextual chapter on the genre of slave narrative and its defining features. Then, I will focus on Sapphire’s Push and illustrate the differences to a slave narrative focusing on the urban setting of Harlem and the parents as tormentors. In a next step, I will discuss the similarities between Push and the slave narrative focusing on the themes of abuse and exploitation, as well as literacy, transformation and finally on escaping and being a free member of society.
2. The Genre of the Slave Narrative
The slave narrative is an independent African American literary genre which emerged in the 18th century and has developed into a widespread text genre under the abolitionist movement combining elements of autobiography and captivity tale with the experiences of slavery (Zapf 118 f.). Out of the estimated 6000 written slave autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is considered to be by far the most prominent one. Although Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself (1789) is considered to be the first genuine genre of African-American writing and therefore is regarded as the true beginning of modern African literature (Acholonu 1 f.), it is Frederick Douglass who had the most influence on the genre of the slave narrative as well as on the abolitionist movement of the 19th century in the United States. In a three-step structure of separation, transition and incorporation he describes his escape to the North as a progress of self determination emphasizing his acquisition of literacy as an important key moment (Zapf 119). Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is regarded as the most influential slave narrative written by a woman dealing with the exploitation of manpower and moreover the exploitation of the female body as an undeniable aspect of slavery, which has been usually neglected by male authors.
In his essay ““I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, their Status as Autobiography and as Literature”, James Olney argues that slave narratives although being autobiographies are not “a unique production” (46), but are rather characterized by an “overwhelming sameness” (ibid.). Following his observation that slave narratives are being “so cumulative and so invariant, so repetitive and so much alike” (ibid.), he has identified a master outline including an engraved portrait, signed by the narrator, a title page with the claim “Written by Himself” and a preface written by a white prominent abolitionist or a white editor in order to prove the authenticity of the author, followed by a poetic epigraph, the actual narrative and finally an appendix composed of documents proving the author’s narration of events (ibid. 50). Furthermore, Olney has identified twelve characteristics of the classical slave narrative which usually begins with the sentence “I was born …”, then provides a vague account of parentage, as well as the description of a cruel master, mistress or overseer, the difficulties of slave literacy and descriptions of religious slaveholders, food, clothing and slave auctions. Moreover, slave narratives consist of descriptions of failed but also successful attempts to escape which are followed by taking a new last name to accompany the new social identity as free men. Finally, slave narratives use to end with the author’s reflections on slavery (ibid. 51). Usually slave narratives are associated with huge plantations and set in rural areas of the “Old South” where the author has spent a major part of his life before being moved or sold somewhere else or in the best case escaping to Northern states or even other countries.
In the mid-twentieth century, especially during the civil rights era, the slave narrative experienced a rebirth in the form of the neo-slave narrative, which is a modern fictional work set in the slave era written by contemporary black authors (Bell 245). While slave narrative was “presented as nonfiction”, the neo-slave narrative is regarded as “autobiographical fiction” (Foster x). Famous novels of this sub-genre include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).
3. Differences to the Slave Narrative
3.1 The Urban Perspective
The most conspicuous difference to a classical slave narrative is the setting of Push. The setting has been transferred from a rural Southern environment to the hustle and bustle and the anonymity of the big city. And with the metropolis New York City, Sapphire has chosen the ultimate urban setting for her heroine Precious.
According to the scholars of The Chicago School of Sociology, the defining features of city life are that it consists of city dwellers practicing every day customs and communicating with each other. Furthermore, the city is constructed by constant social interactions of strangers who are not bound by family relations or group membership (Balshaw 18). But Precious fulfills none of the criteria that would qualify her as an urban city dweller. Neither does she have a place to develop urban everyday customs as her daily activities only consist of being at home with her mother and compulsory education nor does she interact socially outside of school.
According to Hazel Carby, the urban perspective is important because “some of the most crucial and urgent issues of the cultural struggle […] have to be faced in the cities, the home of the black working class” (175). Since Precious’ family is entirely dependent on welfare, it is arguable if they can be considered working class. She and her family rather belong to a group called “ghetto residents” or “black inner-city residents” (Wilson xv) being the most impoverished segment of the “lower class”. Being neither a city dweller nor a black working class girl, Precious is nevertheless a victim of the “multilayered issues affecting the black community and black women in particular: racism, poverty, sexual abuse, illiteracy, colorism, self-hatred, obesity, inadequate social institutions, and AIDS” (Dagbovie-Mullins 435). Those exact problems can be found in the city in its concentrated form. Therefore Farrah Jasmine Griffin calls Push a product of its time “documenting the destination of so much of contemporary black life” (30). Precious’ “neighborhood is […] the Harlem of today strewn with trash and crack addicts […] being even in its despair “a cosmopolitan […] space” (ibid. 23). The setting and the circumstances in which Precious finds herself are those of a late twentieth-century metropolis as well as the characters who she meets on her journey who consist of a Puerto Rican ambulance driver, a white male math teacher, a Southern black women nurse, an African-American lesbian teacher, and classmates who include African-American lesbian, a young Jamaican woman, and a young HIV Puerto Rican woman. This wide variety of multi-racial characters is a realistic picture of our diverse society, especially in large cities.
 Push has also been made into the film Precious. It debuted 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival and won several prices. The film received six Academy Award nominations and won two of them. In 2011, Sapphire published the sequel The Kid focusing on Precious’ son Abdul’s childhood and adolescence.
 Frederick Douglass’ autobiography begins on a plantation in Maryland. He spends most of his young adult life in Baltimore before escaping to New York and later moves to Bedford, Massachusetts. Harriet Jacob’s life story begins in an unspecified Southern town before going to New York City, Boston and also England.
 William Julius Wilson has indentified four African-American classes consisting of middle class, working class, lower class and black-inner city residents. In the latter case Wilson used to call this class “underclass” before abandoning the term and changing it to “ghetto residents” or “black-inner city residents”.