“I got self, pencil, and notebook”: Literacy and Maternal Desire in Sapphire’s PUSH

Marlo D. David, Purdue University
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 2016), 173-199

This essay examines themes of black motherhood and literacy in Sapphire’s controversial novel PUSH (1996) through an analysis of its central character, a poor black teenage mother named Precious. PUSH was published in a social and political moment characterized by intensified scapegoating of poor black mothers, and the novel invokes the controlling image of the “welfare queen” in order to reimagine the subjectivity and citizenship of this denigrated racialized figure. Throughout the novel, Precious draws on her desire to give birth to and mother her children as motivation to learn to read and write. Literacy provides opportunities for Precious to escape the social silence and invisibility imposed upon her by her race, class, and gender, exemplifying a tradition in black women’s fiction that links literacy, motherhood, and resistance. In addition, Sapphire’s novel uses intertextual references to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) to encourage readers to consider how motherhood conceived through rape and incest can be reclaimed for black women characters. The portrayals of disturbing themes of sexual abuse and the experimental narrative structure of the novel have contributed to its marginalization within criticism. This essay seeks to provide alternative interpretations of the novel in order to revive critical interest in its politics and aesthetics.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]