(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Sapphire is a New York poet of unflinching honesty and humility who calls herself a working-class survivor. Last month she performed segments from her Life in Progress as part of the Feminism, Activism and Art program curated by Rupert Jenkins of SF Camerawork and Laura Brun of the Lab.
Experiencing the characters Sapphire creates in her poetry results in a broad and difficult learning process. It also creates an unavoidable shift in one’s sense of self.
Her work dealing with colonialist representations of blacks as cannibals in Prologue 1959 depicts a little girl looking to TV for role models. Feminist Photographer turned the shutter back on itself, examining the cycle of oppressive representations in our culture.
Two other works intimately explored, on a more violent level, the eruptive faces of two racially charged incidents in New York City. Sapphire performed Strange Juice in the voice of a dead black girl gunned down by a Korean grocery store owner. She followed this with Wild Thing, a poem written from the point of view of one of the black boys who disfigured a white woman jogger in Central Park.
After the show that night, Sapphire talked about her work and some of her views about culture, politics and identity.
Elliott Linwood: One distinction between your work and that of others I’ve seen or read, is how you assume the voice of the perpetrator as well as the victim in performances, reflecting the complexity of abuse. How do you maintain the personal integrity for each character?
Sapphire: Part of being able to go in and out of both roles was realizing that they are both in me. Someone once asked me what was the significance of me wanting to stick a lit cigarette up a cat’s ass in one of my poems. I’d written that part in the ‘70s, just that little section. Somehow I knew that it was important.
For me, not avoiding, or, reclaiming that particular experience in my anger and rage while things of mine were being destroyed, made me see how, for example, my father had been able to come in and do things like that to me as a child. I didn’t have to make him up like a monster from a movie. Instead, portraying different voices made me see that this behavior is not so bizarre.
The perpetration of violent behavior is not something that the Jones’ do. t’s something that lives in part of all of us. That was a big leap for me, and it took me out of denial about my father and myself. I’ve always felt close to the victim, but proximate to the victimizer as well.
The question of violence and women’s relationship to it has become a challenge for feminism. The old camp has often declared that women are not violent, only men are.
It’s not true. I see this as denial. It pains me and is becoming a point of separation for me from some lines of feminism and some areas of lesbian feminism.
I went to my last music festival, which was my first lesbian one, modelled somewhat on the older Women’s Music Festival. One of the things so horrifying to me happened around the issue of bringing male children to that event.
My attitude is flexible. For example, why not just leave all the kids home so grown women could have a place for themselves? But things weren’t stated that clearly. In the brochure it said you may bring children up to the age of seven.
A woman of color brought a three-year-old male child, and this baby boy so enraged some of these women that they went out in the night while the woman was asleep and put signs on the trees all around her cabin that said things like, “kill the prick” and “die little bastard.”
So this woman gets up the next morning and steps out of her place thinking she’s in violence-free, feminist utopia, and these messages, like ones the Ku Klux Klan used to leave, traumatize her. That was my last woman-only event. I decided I didn’t need this separatism, if it’s a mask for evil and violence.
There’s nothing a fucking three-year-old can do except be a child. That trauma had to go all through his mother’s body and get transferred to him in some way – the fear and revulsion, just because of his sex.
One of the things that we’re learning as a human culture is not to romanticize the oppressed. Oppression does not breed compassion. Oppression reduces the human capacity to feel and to respond in a fully human manner. The more someone is oppressed the more likely they’ll turn around and act out that behavior or be greatly reduced as a human being. I don’t think oppression makes superhuman beings.
When you read Wild Thing, it was from the voice of one of the rapists. I experienced that identity as you performed the work and learned something that would, otherwise be highly prohibited and hidden. In all your poetry, however, I haven’t been able to detect a discernibly lesbian voice. Why is this?
This has struck a lot of people. It’s important for me to say that I am lesbian, bisexual or whatever and writing this work. At this point in my life I’m not particularly attempting to speak as a lesbian. And I’m certainly not attempting to speak from the closet or from a hidden position either. It’s not the voice that I feel most prominently in my 40s. The time I felt strongest as a lesbian was in my late 20s and early 30s. Everything then for me was women loving women. It’s changed as I’ve done this work.
For example, part of my reasons for originally embracing lesbian separatist culture so very deeply, was not entirely positive. It was a safe hiding place, rather than a reflection of all the complexities of who I was. And from that period I went on to deal with all the incest issues I had. I’m again at a place of trying to discover who this woman is at the age of 42. It’s just not consuming me in a certain way in my writing quite so much now.
It is very important for me to say I’m a lesbian, however. One of the things many people do whenever they have bisexual tendencies is attempt to erase themselves. To me this is homophobia. My next emergence will be attempting to forge a sexual identity not so laced with past fear. That if I’m with women, I’m with them not because I’m afraid of men. I wouldn’t want to fall into the claws of fundamentalist Christians promoting ideas of bisexuality and lesbianism, as simple reactive responses to male oppression.
How do you think black culture recycles the abuse and oppression meted out by dominant culture?
I only know dominant culture from down under. The thing about abuse in black culture is that in many ways it’s the only model we have. What happened during slavery is that any remnant of our family structure – which didn’t resemble the nuclear unit in any way – was completely erased.
So in this country the only model that we had involved the nature of slavery. And the nature of slavery is incest. We were bred like animals. J. California Cooper has an excellent book called Family. In it, the slave master fucks the black woman, comes back years later to have her break in the grown son and then fucks that baby when it’s grown. This system of production and reproduction historically became the only model many blacks ever had for quite a while.
Anita Hill has recently critiqued the rhetoric of “family values” as patter for a unit that never applied to black and many other people. From this perspective, morality becomes a thin veneer for a politics of exclusion, while additionally greasing the gears of a perversely hidden economic agenda.
Valuing that particular unit doesn’t mean a thing to a lot of people. Some of the shifts that are occurring, however, I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime. I’m overjoyed that we are beginning to lose false barriers and false enemies contrived by Cold War mentality.
I’ve often seen America functioning like my schizophrenic brother, running around pointing at the devil, the Russians, etc. But now we really have to look within. I think that’s what the L.A. riots provoke. They are a wake-up call to look at ourselves, whereas the Persian Gulf conflict was a fucking made for TV battle.
That war sent me into a deep depression, I wrote journals but no poetry about it because I felt defeated again, just hearing this freak get up and talk about bombing people and ancient cities back to the Stone Age. War has formed me in many ways. My mother was an enlisted woman. My father was in two wars. That’s how they met. So, I got more than my share of “God Bless America” as a black person.
I woke up jubilant about the recent election results, even with my reservations about Clinton. In the New York Times there were disparaging essays about Clinton as coming from a dysfunctional family. I’m less troubled by some of the narcissistic jargon in the recovery movement, if it means we’re going to start looking at our own tendencies with.