LITR 5731: Seminar in American Minority Literature

University of Houston-Clear Lake, Fall 2004
Email Exercise for missed class on
Song of Solomon & Push

Assignment for email exercise (posted 23 Sept. 2004)

Jennie Branch

Song of Solomon:

Perhaps one of the most compelling characteristics of Song of Solomon is the motif of flight.  Though flight is widely known as a symbol of escape or freedom, here it holds a double connotation.  For Solomon and Milkman and to a small extent, Macon Dead Jr., their flight, whether taken literally as part of the deeply intertwined magical realism that Morrison so often employs, or metaphorically, leads to their eventual escape, but the abandonment and scarring of the ones they have left behind.  It is no coincidence that the ones scarred and abandoned are women.  Solomon’s flight leaves his wife Ryna alone to bear the burden of their 21 children, and while a peak in the town was named after Solomon, a dark and threatening gulch was named after Ryna--the woman who broke under the absence of the man who had found his own freedom.  Milkman’s flight away from Michigan leaves Hagar in emotional and physical disarray so severe it is the inevitable cause of her death.  Macon Dead Jr.’s attempt to flee from the problems of race and the greed of a white population leaves his wife hungry for attention and love: she is a weak character who seeks this attention in other unhealthy forms.  Pilate is perhaps the only character whose flight does not disrupt the lives of those she loves, but as Milkman’s observation indicates, perhaps this is because her feet do not leave the ground.  Does this pertain possibly to The Dream?  Does this insinuate that for every dream there is a cost, and for every flight there is someone left behind?  Assuming that this is correct, than it can further be implied that one of the costs of escape, The Dream rather, is that not everyone makes it, not everyone can find their wings.


The overall tone of Push is one of both pain and triumph, as Sapphire forces the reader along the road to literacy with Precious.  A literate voice could not possibly explain the difficulties or pain involved in being illiterate (perhaps one of the most painful moments in the novel is when Precious, in tears asks Miss Rain if she is in the right class), and what we have is a first-hand account of what Precious must endure.  The great accomplishment of the voice in Push is that Precious does not necessarily recognize her situation as one that must be endured.  She does not try to gain sympathy from her audience, but merely retells her life.  It is because of this juxtaposition, that the audience feels such sympathy.  It is very similar to Hip Hop music in that it tells of a struggle from a first person perspective.  This struggle is perhaps better represented by some artists than others (Ghetto Boys, Kanye West, the Roots tend to produce music with a single meaning, describing a particular pain or problem).  The issues touched by Precious are very serious issues that lend a heft to the novel that could first be considered unexpected, but the use of a sub-literate character in the telling of very literate issues would certainly be worthy of a class like ours. 

Follow-up by Michael Russo

I loved your analysis of Song of Solomon, and I think it’s right on the money.  As you point out, “flight” can mean freedom, and it can also mean “escape” from responsibilities.  If you consider the theme of escape as it relates to literature in general then you have to think of “escapist” works as compared to works that comment meaningfully on the human condition.  Most readers choose escapist fiction when browsing through the titles at the local bookstore.  Are these readers comparable then to Milkman prior to his epiphany?  Are they running from their responsibilities by closing their minds to reality?  I think Morrison has a message for anyone who deals with reality through escape.  What’s interesting to me about Song of Solomon is that it uses standard escapist plot devices to reel in the reader, then forces the reader to consider important and serious themes.  Like Milkman, we are grabbed by the adventure and promise of a treasure hunt, but there is no gold at the end of the rainbow beyond self-enlightenment.  We are tricked into a dialogue on responsibility.  And of course the treasure hunt isn’t the only example of a common escapist fiction device.  There is Hagar’s deadly stalking, reminiscent of a thriller.  There is Guitar’s murderous game, reminiscent of something out of a crime action book.  The gold hunt definitely smacks of adventure.  But Morrison doesn’t resolve these storylines in the traditional way.  Hagar’s pursuit fizzles.  And Milkman’s actual fight with Guitar isn’t dramatized because the action itself is beside the point.  By holding back the climactic action scene that one would inevitably expect from an escapist work, Morrison is saying that the value of her story lies elsewhere.  So I think the “flight” theme can be taken past the characters and right to the reader himself or herself.  What a fantastic novel.

In terms of Push, I do agree that the novel deals with endurance and perseverance.  You point out that Precious herself does not try to elicit sympathy from her audience, and while that may be technically true, I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing the author’s voice, rather than the character’s voice, time and time again, and that was distracting.  The author definitely is trying to elicit sympathy for her character, and at times it feels too manipulative.  To “Push” something can also mean to “force” something, and I think that’s what we have here.  This novel seems forced and contrived to me.  Too much is heaped on the reader all at once.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel the kind of sympathy for Precious that you apparently felt.  You say that the serious issues of the novel lend it a “heft,” but I wonder, do you think that there are too many issues heaped into this novel?


Danny Corrigan

1. Song of Solomon

I see the novel as the journey of Milkman Dead from a state of personal ignorance into an understanding of his family heritage and hence, himself. Milkman travels from innocence to awareness, i.e., from ignorance of origins, heritage, identity, and communal responsibility to knowledge and acceptance. He moves from selfish and materialistic pursuits to an understanding of brotherhood and his place in the world. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that if you surrender your ego, you will become reunited with the universal life energy from which we all originate, thus becoming one with the “white light at the mouth of infinity”. Thus, it can be interpreted that with his release of personal ego, Milkman is finally able to find a place in the whole. He journeys from spiritual death to rebirth, a direction symbolized by his discovery of the secret power of flight. As with many world religions and mythologies, liberation and transcendence follow the discovery of self. When Milkman discovers his family's past it finally helps him to connect meaningfully with his contemporaries. Ultimately, he understands himself because he now knows how he relates to others, and that he is part of a community and not an isolated individual. To quote the novel’s preface, Milkman now knows that “The fathers may soar, And the children may know their names”.

2. Push

In some ways, this novel can be read as a Hip Hop “Catcher In the Rye”, i.e., both texts telling the life stories of emotionally disturbed narrators via the vernacular language of the time. In “Push”, the novel’s nightmarish brutality is offset by the narrator’s optimism and fierce intelligence. In her attempts to create her own identity and self-image, different from the one forced upon her by her family and society, Precious Jones allows her to follow her on her path of self-discovery. Like most seekers of “The Dream”, her journey is beset with many obstacles and delays, including rape, sexual abuse, her own illiteracy, having a child with Downs Syndrome and contracting HIV, but she never allows herself to be defeated. Her literacy allows her to find her own voice and her true self, which inspires her to seek a better life for both herself and her children. This novel certainly deserves to be studied in literature classes, particularly in minority literature classes, because it presents many of the problems minorities face as they attempt to assimilate into the dominate culture, i.e., poverty, lack of education, limited opportunities, etc.. As for the language, yes, it is crude and vulgar, but if it were not so, it would not be an authentic representation of the world in which Precious Jones lives.

Follow-up by Jenny Branch:

Milkman’s personal journey from ignorance to enlightenment is very much a salient theme in Song of Solomon.  It is also interesting when seen from the perspective of creation versus destruction.  The word destruction alone conjures up such a negative tone that it can be difficult to see that it is only thorough this destruction that creation can take place.  Milkman had to destroy his ties to his family, his relationships, his image of self, his ignorance, in order to synthesize his past and present into a cohesive understanding of who he was and where he came from. 

I cannot believe that in reading Push, I never made the comparison to Catcher in the Rye, but Danny is undeniably correct in this correlation.  The same intrinsic qualities of colloquialism and rough character traits lend to the full comprehension of both novels when written for the audience from this first person perspective.  I further agree that the issues involving literacy tend to be the paradigm for success and triumph in Push.

Susan Cummings

Song of Solomon.

Toni Morrison's use of the Flying African motif is useful in the sense that it gives a physical quality to a spiritual/emotional/social journey. The idea that humans can fly is a fantasy, just as is the idea that 20th Century African/Black Americans can completely shuck the psychological and sociological bonds we have inherited from our country's history of slavery. The idea of flying its freedom, its power, its appeal necessitates a foundational belief in one's ability to defy the laws of nature. The manifestation of flying is found in the daily choices people make that defy the law of man or the unwritten laws of society. That Morrison opens and closes her book with African American men taking wing and meeting their death, Morrison forces the issue of hope or the lack thereof. If the only way a man can be free is to lose his life, what does that say about time between his entry into the physical realm and his leap into the next? One last comment: I find it interesting that the first man Morrison writes about is an insurance salesman. Insurance, as an industry, capitalizes upon our fears of death, injury, and poverty. Buying insurance is like saying one is doomed in the first place. Perhaps all those years of preying upon the fears of the black community simply reinforced his own sense of hopelessness.

Follow-up by Danny Corrigan

Song of Solomon: All of Ms. Cummings comments are relevant and demonstrate an acute, sensitive and in depth reading of the text. Her comment concerning the insurance salesman and his sense of hopelessness is particularly interesting. Yes, insurance does pray on people’s fears, but it is also a way of hedging your bets, if you will, to try to protect yourself from any future misfortunes, so, to a certain degree, it may be seen as a form of hope. We are all doomed, but at least we can attempt to do something about it. This relates to both Mr. Smith and Milkman attempting to fly and losing their lives in the process in the sense that their deaths don’t necessarily have to be seen as acts of hopelessness. It can be argued that the purpose of religion and mythology, both cultural and personal, is to not only provide hope for the next world, but also important life lessons for living in this one. Mythology, in particular, not only provides people with a sense of cultural identity, but also personal identity as well. We don’t know enough about Mr. Smith to fully understand his motivations, but by the end of the novel, we know that Milkman is aware of his family’s heritage and how he fits into that ancestral mythology, as well as into society as a whole. By discovering his own identity, Milkman completes the hero’s quest, and essentially achieves a state of transcendence as a result of his epiphany. Having achieved that enlightenment, his soul, unburdened by everything that had weighed him down, was able to fly away home, not out of hopelessness and fear, but in hope and freedom.

Susan on Push

The raw and riveting story told in "PUSH" shakes the reader with its repellant language and narrative while it draws the reader closer to a more realistic, though, filtered knowledge of one urban life. Like Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," "PUSH" can be criticized for offensive language. Like Twain, Sapphire would not be true to her time or subject is she did not use that language. It's like Twain said "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." Sapphire's message would not be so powerful if she refined the language. An academic audience should not turn from the language. Like hip-hop, it reflects the time in which it was created and in doing so is relevant to that time. Only in the future will we know if Sapphire's language choice will enlighten audiences the same way in which she enlightens her contemporaries who are members of another class.

Follow-up by Danny Corrigan

Push: Ms. Cummings use of Twain’s quote is a perfect summation of this novel. “Push” has to written in the hip-hop vernacular because that is the world in which Precious Jones lives, and any attempt to refine the language would seem insincere and inauthentic. Whether this novel withstands the test of time or not is yet to be seen, but it is certainly worthy of academic consideration for the fact that gives a voice to a minority segment of society which may otherwise not have a voice.

Brendan Foley

With the second part of Song of Solomon, we see the conclusion and resolution of Milkman's "quest." Initially, spurred by a desire for independence by material means, which is what the forgotten gold at first represents for Milkman, Milkman achieves his own and independence and a sense of unity, remember his feeling fragmentation in the first part of the novel, through the discovery of his family's past. In essence, the transformation is not a result of material gain, we can see this in Macon's character that "owning things" did need lead him to higher level of awareness or personal character, but through gaining personal and spiritual knowledge. However, with this transformation Milkman has to accept a few things about himself that he was willing to avoid in his life up to this point. Primarily, these revolve around the knowledge that his life and actions do have an effect on the lives of others and in some cases, his actions do carry a price, to a degree such costs are paid by Hagar in the novel. However, as a result of this new self-awareness and in conjunction with the knowledge of his familial history, Milkman achieves a sense of pride in who he is and where his family comes from. As a result this allows him to achieve and make, at least, a separate peace with his family, and ulitimately, he has the courage to cofront Guitar and take that final leap into the unknown borne upon the wings of his new self-knowledge and the knowledge and pride he has found from the past.

follow-up by Susan Cummings:

Brendan makes the case well "Solomon" as the story of one man's quest for identity and meaning. In fact, Milkman's journey is the similar to the journey made by every male, and because of that, the novel is accessible to any reader who understands the psychological journey men make to adulthood. We commonly understand it as the "hero's quest" at varying levels. As Brendan notes, a successful journey is not about material gain, but about spiritual enrichment, a sense of place and accepting responsibility. Milkman gains all of that. Ultimately, though, those gifts of the journey empower him to take one final step toward maturity that leads to his demise. It is a Christ-like transcendence.

Brendan on Push:

Regarding the opening chapter of Push, I believe that it could be argued that to a certain audience of readers, primarily white middle-class readers, the novel could generate an initial negative response similar to the response that many members of this same group might carry towards Hip-Hop music. Reading this initial chapter of Precious' story certainly evoked a response in me. Her language, and here I mean her profanity, certainly was abrasive to me, especially when I thought about its source, a sixteen year-old girl, and the graphic descriptions of her abusive home life were truly disturbing. I think in many cases an average reader may put the novel down after this chapter if not sooner. I think it could be argued that in some cases these qualities are what may turn many white listeners off to Hip Hop music because at least with the limited exposure that I have had to the genre those same qualities are what are always brought up when it is being condemned. Howerer, and I say this after finishing the novel, such qualities are there for a reason in Push, and without them the novel would not carry the same power that it does by having them. I think the same could be said about certain forms of Hip-Hop. That beneath its language and graphic depictions there is a deeper message to be heard. The question that has to be asked is are we willing to take the risk to listen to it?

follow-up by Susan Cummings:

Brendan points out the value of Sapphire's language and material choices by noting that the story would not have the same power if the rough edges were taken off Precious and her life. Most people would have little concept of the life of a black teen girl in rough urban American without such stories. Are those people better off by knowing these stories? Are the people represented by the characters better off because someone outside their immediate sphere and class knows their stories? The answer is yes only if change is the result. Change in attitude or change in action. Brendan asks if audiences are willing to take the risk of reading such a painful, unpleasant story. My suspicion is that most aren't. Dominant Culture America's reluctance to take that risk is all the the more reason for this book's inclusion in literature classes.

James Hood

The latter portion of Song of Solomon finds Milkman attempting, as Objective 3 states, to “reconnect to the past,” although his original motive for doing so might have had more to do with “looking to the future,” since he had hoped to find (and put to use) the sacks of gold that were rumored to have been cached in the cave where his father and Pilate had hidden after running away from home. Milkman becomes more intrigued instead with piecing together the story of his family’s past, which, as Objective 3 also suggests, is “traditional but disrupted.” When Milkman does focus his efforts on reconnecting to his past, he not only discovers the story of the “Flying African,” but seems to understand its significance, as witnessed by his having “taken flight” himself—even literally so at the end of the novel. The story of the Flying Africans perhaps serves also as an allegory for the African American “Dream” taking wing.

While Song of Solomon deals, particularly near the novel’s end, with a reconnecting to the past, we witness the protagonist in Push trying to distance herself (justifiably) from her own past, which is painful. In recounting this painful past, Precious uses a gritty narrative style that compels us to read on, much as we might find ourselves staring at a grisly wreck. Is it Aristotle who writes that having this distance between ourselves and danger is precisely what allows (or compels) us to become “involved” with a text?

The language that Precious uses contributes to our being drawn into the text as well, since it requires more than a passive reading to understand it. The issue of literacy is foregrounded by the fact that Precious conveys her thoughts through a narrative that reflects her lack of education, which speaks also of the issue of “tracking” in the school system, since its use is tantamount to deciding who is—and who is not—worthy of the finite resources available in our overburdened schools. The use of this vernacular, however, illustrates that although the method of delivery is unorthodox, there are still messages that need to be heard, a theory that might explain the popularity of “Hip Hop” music. If the message has meaning, then whatever method the writer uses for conveying that message proves that the form has legitimacy.

follow-up by Brendan Foley:

The aspect that I find most interesting in James' comments is the fact that in both novels both the main protagonists, Milkman and Precious, are, initially, trying to suppress, escape, or ignore their own personal and/or familial histories.  For a character like Precious, it is certainly understandable for the reader to understand why she might.  Milkman's reasons may be a little more of an enigma, but certainly,  he does have an unease about his past.  What becomes more interesting is that in order for each character to progress or develop, and I certainly am jumping ahead with regards to Push, but I figure most of us have probably read the whole novel,  they each have to recover their past in order to either begin healing or enter into a new level of maturity. Certainly, both are a prime example the course objective James has mentioned, and if we were to take the time we could certainly place the Slave Narratives into the discussion as representations of the "initial wounding" that the first Africans suffered when they were brought across the Atlantic on slave ships.  I believe we could then trace in both novels the overt and covert ways they attempt to address and resolve the historical complications that the African-American has encountered within the larger American culture (I won't use the term dominant culture, after taking Drs. McNamara's & Reddy's Race in American Writing course, perhaps that's an issue to discuss in class at some point).   It would seem to be an interesting avenue of investigation with just this small sample of what we have read in this course, but also certainly would be applicable to a larger section of African-American literature to see how the genre represents this issue and see where the commonalities and the differences lie, especially in regards to how the genre represents the idea of  resolution or closure within its own cultural texts.

Nicole Jackson

The culmination of The Song of Solomon willfully and successfully challenges the conventions of the literary canon (as explained in course objective 5b) inasmuch as Morrison refuses to write within literary confines that seem to suggest that African Americans and their cultures are monolithic.  Morrison gives a voice to the harsh social realities that many African Americans face on a daily basis thereby subtly critiquing the age-old concept of black invisibility.  Additionally, Morrison illuminates the effects of the social constructions and larger implications of race and gender, which allows one to easily assert that the post-Civil War stratification of black Americans is more comparable to a color-caste.  In this erroneous color-caste, Morrison succinctly explains that lighter skinned blacks gained an economic advantage and often perpetuated black oppression and economic exploitation.  I believe this is similar to bell hook’s explanations of internalized racism/internalized oppression.  Still, if art truly imitates life, Morrison could not have chosen a better character in which to explore the fragmented identities of African Americans (course objective 1c).  For Milkman Dead—contextually—becomes humanized when he decides to travel south.  Although the idea of striking it rich is Milkman’s initial motivation, the reader witnesses his progression because though he never finds the gold, he finds wealth in acquiring knowledge of his ancestral past via a song.  This discovery leads Milkman to his own redemption and affords the opportunity for him to confront the complexities of the politics of identity.  After securing that missing link, Milkman excitedly explains, “Tell him Sweet.  Tell him my great-granddaddy could fly…Tell Guitar he went back to Africa” (328).  It’s as if Milkman frees himself with the allegorical song, yet Morrison introduces a twinge of bitter dissent in this quasi-utopianism, as Milkman dies before he is able to free his family with his newly acquired knowledge of their past. 

By dealing with complex subject matter (rape, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, and so forth), Sapphire undoubtedly introduces an element of the proverbial “shock and awe” to the academic community in her novel Push.  Though I am not a stickler for novels with such content in the classroom (out of fear that a “neo-minstrel” show will be created), I argue that this novel is highly appropriate because Sapphire weaves a thought-provoking novel by way of phenomenal narration.  This short novel contains many research-worthy components: the shifts in the black vernacular speech patterns (clearly Precious’s speech patterns both reflect and deflect speech patterns in the slave narratives and the classic African American writings), black male and female relationships in literature, and so forth.  Because hip-hop is such a large and expansive genre, I cannot sufficiently compare this novel to hip-hop music or assume that a relationship exists between this novel and hip-hop music.  Since African American music seems to generally convey a tinge of rebellion and/or resistance, it will take more research on my behalf to ground this novel in a comparable music genre.   

follow-up by James Hood:

Nicole’s observation on Morrison’s linking of a post-Civil War “color-caste” system of stratification in which “…lighter skinned blacks gained an economic advantage and often perpetuated black oppression and economic exploitation” is an interesting concept. I agree with Nicole’s take as well that Milkman’s reconnecting with his family’s past serves as a balm to soothe some of the psychological scars that he carries as a result of having been “disconnected” from that past in the first place. Nicole also points out that Milkman “frees himself with the allegorical song” that celebrates his great-grandfather’s having flown away from this life of oppression, the patriarch winging his way “back to Africa” and his own roots.

I also believe that Nicole shares many of the same thoughts on Push that the rest of us do. The author’s language is very graphic—at times, perhaps even “over the top” with regards to what we are accustomed to reading—but the subject matter (particularly incest) that Sapphire is addressing in this novel is itself just as taboo in our society, and may therefore warrant such a departure from convention. Like Nicole, I do not feel as though I know enough about the genre of hip-hop music (I am still in mourning over the loss of the only all-classical music format radio station in our area) to make any specific connections between Sapphire’s writing style and that of hip-hop music, but I do think that the ends—in this case, the message concerning illiteracy and the social issues of race, class, and gender that this writer is foregrounding—possibly justify the means of presenting her thoughts. Even if reading the narrative makes us uncomfortable for a moment, it does make us think, and I believe the author is more focused on that goal than being concerned about offending readers.

Kristy Pawlak

Regarding Song of Solomon-
Something that has struck me from the beginning of this novel is the confusion among familial relationships.  Depending on the development of such issues in Push, I will probably develop something along these lines for my midterm.  I first noticed this early in the novel when Pilate, Reba, and Hagar first meet Milkman and have a discussion about the difference between Hagar and Milkman being called brother and sister or cousins.  Of course, this re-emerges later when Milkman uses their kinship as a reason for ending the relationship.  In class, we briefly discussed the fact that Macon and Pilate have an atypical sibling relationship, but I think more interesting is the relationship between Ruth and Pilate.  There is a brief passage detailing how much they have in common-communing with dead fathers, etc.  Finally, the sibling relationships are interesting in the book.  You don't get the feeling that there are particularly deep ! feelings among any of the Dead children until late in the book when Milkman actually tries to act in Corinthians's best interest by revealing her relationship with Porter and Lena is deeply hurt by his apparent betrayal of their sister.  On a different thread, to briefly hit what Milkman learns in the novel, I was really struck in various parts of the novel by the fact that Milkman is not nearly as shallow as we tend to discuss him as.  I think, rather, that he recognizes and is overwhelmed by the contradictions in the arguments and life choices around him.  Does he react to this in a deeply intelligent manner?  No, but he does recognize the inherent flaws in arguments such as that of Guitar's rationale for the action of the days.  He resists "buying into" Guitar's logic because he recognizes the inherent problems with the group's position that Guitar justifies using almost every logical fallacy in the book.

Nicole Jackson’s comments on Kristy Pawlak’s Response to Song of Solomon::

While I agree with Kristy’s astute observations about the bizarre familial relationships in Song of Solomon, I don't agree with her comparison of Milkman and Guitar.  I contend that Milkman is neither more rational nor intelligent than Guitar.  As both characters negotiate their identities (which are contingent upon many factors like socioeconomic statuses, family ties, race, gender, and political persuasions), Morrison invites the reader to see both their fragmented selves and the ways in which the characters emerge from their fragmented identities in their attempts to construct a larger reality and thus become whole.  Still, Morrison’s characters’ understandings of people and history determine their formations of identity.  Milkman Dead, who hails from an intelligent professional class of post-slavery African Americans, uses people (Hagar, Pilate, Sweet, and so forth) for personal gain.  By the time he travels to the South, Milkman is already dehumanized and seeking an escape via the gold.  Yet, he finds his redemption in a song, which explains his (family history) paternal roots, but Milkman chooses an escapist position.  Instead of vowing to share his newfound knowledge with his family and trying to offer assistance to the mislead Guitar, he leaps to his death.  On the other hand, Guitar uses his love for “his” people as an excuse to kill.  Even though it is admirable that Guitar is politically consciousness despite the fact that he has had not participated in a formal higher educative process, Guitar is controlled by the unjust political history that African Americans encountered.  That is why Guitar determines that Pilate (who remakes herself into a subservient Mammy for the white authorities) and Milkman (who lives a comfortable middle class and is unconcerned about a lack of political power and economic disparity in the larger black community) aren’t “black” enough towards the end of the novel.  So, he thinks they are fit to die.  I think Morrison suggests certain contradictions in her characters: Milkman becomes the enlightened coward who commits suicide, and Guitar becomes the heartless killer who claims to have a potent love for African Americans. 

Regarding Push-
I must admit that I do not really feel ready to make any academic or even pseudo-intelligent comment on this novel.  I think for me the inherent benefit of class discussion is to help sort out initial impressions of a work unlike others I've studied.  But, I will briefly try to comment on Dr. White's two questions.  First of all, I would say that the novel is compelling to academic audiences if for no other reason than it represents a world that is both foreign and unsettling to most members of the audience.  Personally, I struggle with the fact that I would not watch a movie with such pervasive use of vulgar language and subject matter--whether or not it fit the story line.  I must therefore try to separate my reading for entertainment self from my reading for academics self.  I must realize that there are segments of the population where such expression is both common and acceptable.  I think this idea blends with the question of Hip Hop.  Like Dr. White, I do not like Hip Hop or Rap, though otherwise my musical tastes are rather eclectic.  But, what I do think is that Hip Hop relies heavily on its shock value to mainstream audiences.  If you'll notice, one of Hip Hop's largest consumer bases is suburban white youths.  They use the music to both shock their parents and rebel against the status quo.  This seems a fair assessment of what literature like Push does in the academic world.  Sorry for my less than competent comments on this one, but I'm not really there yet.

Nicole Jackson’s comments on Kristy Pawlak’s Response to Push::

Again I applaud my classmate’s honesty and sincerity in tackling two very tough questions.  I can understand Kristy’s description of the unsettling effect that a novel like Push has on an academic community.  The content and language are, at first, shocking.  However, it is this same content and language that makes the reader cheer Precious on as she stands in the midst of life’s trials.  Let’s not forget what Sapphire has really done here.  She has taken a traditional fairytale plot and twisted it such that it represents someone’s harsh social reality.  Additionally, I agree with Brendan Foley’s observation, “I believe that it could be argued that to a certain audience of readers, primarily white middle-class readers, the novel could generate an initial negative response similar to the response that many members of this same group might carry towards Hip-Hop music;” still, I add that this is the trickery in this novel.  I think Sapphire wants us to question why these readers would respond negatively to this.  Is it because they have a generalized perception of impoverished blacks?  Is it because it rocks the boats of comfort for both black and white middle-class constituents?  Is it because the storyline depicts a true “victim”?  Moreover, we (as both graduate students and future/current educators) have to remember that the educational institutions are but a microcosm of the larger society.  So, as global capitalism continues to dominate the world and gaining a decent job becomes harder, American educational institutions will have to service impoverished people like Precious who want to see their struggles in the literature that they read (think multiculturalism).  Yet, the larger question is how can you critique what you have little to knowledge of?  So, I think at some point, we have to familiarize ourselves with this culture of poverty.  Honestly, save for the differences in speech patterns (which deviated from standard American English), Push reminds me of Bastard Out of Carolina.  Finally, I think we also have to look at our current preoccupation with pain and violence in America.  This goes beyond hip-hop music.   


Michael Russo

What does Milkman learn?

Milkman’s trip to the past takes the mystery out of his family’s history.  It replaces myth and ignorance with informed understanding.  Most of the characters in Song of Solomon make flawed decisions out of ignorance.  Macon breaks off ties with his sister over gold that does not seem to exist.  His relationship with his wife is destroyed because he doesn’t care to understand Ruth’s relationship with her father.  Guitar too, who in so many ways shows great promise, turns villainous because of a reality that exists only in his mind.  Pilate saddles herself with a bag of bones because she doesn’t understand her father’s ghostly message.  Hagar holds herself responsible for Milkman’s decisions, a misunderstanding that results in her death.  Milkman’s trip into the past teaches him to let go of the past, accept that to live is to struggle, and to embrace challenges with fearless resolve.  He learns to act, and he also learns to understand and accept the potential consequences of action.

How do Push's compelling and painful qualities offset each other? What kind of journey is the reader started on?

The “compelling” qualities of the novel keep the reader “pushing” through the “painful” qualities of the novel.  In somewhat of a paradox then, the “painful” qualities help create the “compelling” qualities.  The first chapter of this book is ugly, but then “ugly” in its various forms is one of the work’s primary themes.  The novel compares the painful process of labor to the rigors of trying to succeed in a difficult world full of obstacles.  The journey of the reader then might be something akin to labor itself.  It’s painful, but full of purpose, and if the novel does its job then the reader will be transformed by the experience in one way or another.

Can Push's impact on a proper academic audience be compared with the impact of Hip Hop music? What other comparisons to Hip Hop?

The impact of Hip Hop music on whom?  An academic audience or its intended audience?  Clearly this novel is quite “in your face” with its choice of words and base crudeness at times.  Critics of Hip Hop have often complained about explicit lyrics.  Well, this story contains explicit lyrics.  Although not a fan of Hip Hop, I think it’s fair to say that the genre reveals the desire of its artists and audience alike to be “heard” and understood.  That too is a theme of Push.  On Page 31, Precious says, “I want to say I’m somebody.”  She goes on to talk about her invisible man-like existence, comparing herself to a vampire or a ghost.  She notes how nice it is to be looked out for on page 27.  This is a person with potential in need of opportunity.

Although a good read, so far I would have to rate this novel well below Song of Solomon in terms of any display of literary mastery.  Perhaps a fair comparison would be The Catcher in the Rye, although it’s hard to make any concrete judgments about the work at this early stage.  The biggest problem I’m having so far is that the scenes of child abuse being described through flashbacks, although absolutely horrible and ugly, don’t seem to be “earned” at this early stage of the novel.  Compare that to the suicidal insurance salesman at the beginning of Song of Solomon.  While sad and melancholy, Morrison is smart enough to know not to expect too much of an emotional response from her audience at that early stage of the game.  So instead she focuses not on the character of the salesman, but on the nonchalant reaction his act of desperation gets from the community.  Perhaps I’m misjudging, but Sapphire seems to be inviting shock and horror and outrage.  I think that’s a lot to ask in the first chapter and is counterproductive to the author’s goals.

follow-up by Kristy Pawlak:

I agree with much of what Michael says about these works.  Particularly, I had the same sense that Milkman, so often treated as the character without intellectual depth or drive by the other characters, is the one who really evolves into a more complete person. We see in this novel various examples of the fact that sometimes passion and zeal for a cause, a goal, or a ideal can be mistaken for intelligence, validity, and credibility.  Milkman seemed not to have the passions of the other characters, but his ability to question and his refusal to accept an impassioned argument as the truth in all cases allow him to grow and as Michael points out "replace myth and ignorance with informed understanding."  As far as his comments on Push, I agree largely with what he said.  I especially like the comment that "Sapphire seems to be inviting shock and horror and outrage."  In my mind I was thinking of it as an author who might be trying too hard.  The desired effect on the audience almost takes over and some of the subtlety used by a more skilled author like Morrison.  When I finish the book tonight my opinion might change, but as of now I'm with Michael on his opinion of the overall quality of the work (but I'm not sure I'm even willing to call it a "good read" and I like The Catcher in the Rye).