Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Precious' - It's Not a Black Thing, It's Universal

This weekend Precious goes into wider release and I expect to see it. Admittedly, I've had some reluctance, knowing the brutal story on which it's based, Push by Sapphire, and hearing the sounds of Mo'nique's words whaling on Precious, whose stolid face reveals her battered spirit in the movie trailer. But it's never been in doubt, I'm going. I'm in full moon love with the powerful message of this work, and want to witness the artistry of these actors and the director in this representation. Stephanie Zacharek in her piece "Precious" Mettle ( the hardships faced by Precious are overkill and threaten to make the film more symbolic than personal. But for me, it is just that layering of poverty, fat, sexual and physical abuse, and illiteracy, that made Push and Precious so compelling. The idea that even when you are beat down from the left, right, an uppercut and cross, a consistent love and belief in you can turn things around. Nor is it unreal that some black people are living these lives, and as Erin Aubry Kaplan, "Precious in the Age of Obama," ( says, there is a bit of Precious in many of us black folks.

Kaplan, a sister, offers a thoughtful review of the film. But the comments to her piece are what really stirred the pot for me, especially the ones in which some whites challenged other whites about trying to appropriate the black experience as their own. It happened when some whites suggested the film was not about the black experience but about any human being -- sharing an identification based on their own lives. And then came that well-versed line that any good art is universal.

Every time I run across that voice, a sick, resentful feeling rises in me, though its intensity pales now, compared to the past. Still, I hear it the same way: If I, of European descent, cannot relate to or find my experience in what you're writing about, it's not good. The particularity of your (black) experience is not valuable, or low in value. In the past, it translated to a burden on me, as long as I entertained it. Could I talk/write about my own experience without worrying about whether others can claim it as theirs too? Toni Morrison broke that wide open by as she says writing about her own experience and letting the mainstream come to her. Yet the Nobel Peace Prize didn't prevent a female interviewer from asking her if she would ever move to the mainstream, and include white characters, or eliminate the need for Morrison to pull her interviewer's coat about the racism underlying her question.

And so it was kind of refreshing to see the comments of two white males who understood how this universality claim that whites sometimes engage in feels to many black folks like a denial of the particularity of our experience, a white wash so to speak, that smooths all the edges of our pain as black people into one we are the world pain. I wish there had been less rancor in making their point. I mean I'd never seen STFU before, but I figured it out (shut the __ up). Interestingly, these two males, while privileged by their race, are marginalized by being gay in one case and transgendered in the other. One clearly had his own experience similar to mine, but in his case, at the hands of straight folks.

So here's my thought about what would be helpful here. Sure, everybody has pain in the world, and it's a good thing that any human being can empathize with the suffering of another. But if you're a poor, fat, white girl, or a well-educated white woman who's been badly abused by your parents, I can hear your ability to relate to the pain of Precious when you can do so without dismissing the particularity of the pain connected to being a black girl. Acknowledge the places you know, as well as those you can only visit through empathy. That's what Erin Aubry Kaplan did when she said there is "a bit" of Precious in nearly all of us black folks.

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