Reference Entry

Sapphire

Ondra Krouse Dismukes

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Sapphire

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poet, performance artist, and novelist, was born Ramona Lofton at Fort Ord military base near Monterey, California, one of four children. Sapphire and her family lived on and off army bases in California and Texas for the first twelve years of her life. She suffered sexual abuse from her father as early as age three. When Sapphire was thirteen, her father retired from the army and moved to Europe. Following her parents’ separation, Sapphire and her siblings moved with their mother to South Philadelphia, her mother's hometown. Soon after their move her mother abandoned the family, and Sapphire moved back to California with her siblings, to Los Angeles.At age twenty-one Sapphire hitchhiked to San Francisco, where she attempted to reconstruct her life after bearing the burden of being guardian to her two siblings. In 1973 she enrolled in San Francisco City College as a premed student. Despite excellent grades, she soon lost interest medicine and transferred to a private college in California, where she studied dance and other performance arts. She began keeping a journal while living in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Influenced by Ntozake Shange's experimentation with choreography and poetry, Sapphire began to perform her own poetry on the stage and in nightclubs in the late 1970s. She also read the poetry of Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), Sonia Sanchez, and Jayne Cortez.A follower of the New Age movement, she legally changed her name from Ramona to Sapphire. During this time she decided to pursue a career in dance. Sapphire left California and moved to New York City, where she made ends meet working as stripper. In 1977 Sapphire had her first publication in Azalea: A Magazine by and for Third World Lesbians. Later that year Sapphire co-created NAPS, the first known black lesbian performing group in the United States, with Aida Mansuer and Irare Sabasu.In 1983 Sapphire earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Davis Center for the Performing Arts. In the same year, her mother died, and her brother, then homeless, was killed in a public park. She moved to Harlem that year and in addition to her writing and performing began to teach reading and writing to teenagers and adults in Harlem and the Bronx. In the course of this work she encountered firsthand accounts of students who had been sexually abused by their parents, many of whom were pregnant before their teens. Her primary literary influence during this period was Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland. This novel's treatment of physical battery of women by meninformed much of Sapphire's later work.Sapphire published her first book of poetry, Meditations on the Rainbow, in 1987. The collection captures Sapphire's spirit as a black lesbian, feminist, and survivor of abuse. Meditations comprises seven “colorful” poems: “yellow,” “red,” “black,” lavender,” “green,” “blue,” and “white.” Each color reflects the poet's perception of how color relates to the world around her. For example, the section “blue,” a metaphor for the blues, offers a melancholy reflection on a black American nightmare of rape, racism, stolen music, and stolen dreams. Similarly, “lavender” describes the trials of lesbians and gays ostracized by a society that would prefer for them to hide their homosexuality.In 1990, when Sapphire staged her last major performance, a fifty-minute choreopoem titled “Are You Ready to Rock?,” her business manager challenged her for what she considered her one deficiency as a writer: that she had never published a novel. This same year, Sapphire celebrated her fortieth birthday, marked by what she described as a midlife crisis. Sapphire recalled that, compared to her mentors like Shange, who was a prolific author by age 39, she recognized in herself a lack of confidence and sustained commitment to any one project, which stifled her pursuits as a writer.Committing herself to becoming a writer, in 1993 Sapphire earned an MFA in Modern Dance from Brooklyn College, where she worked under the tutelage of the poet Allen Ginsberg. His use of abrasive language and controversial themes influenced Sapphire's poetry.In 1994 Sapphire published American Dreams, a collection of poetry and prose that collectively represents the American dream deferred. The title poem, “American Dreams,” explores themes of racism among blacks, murder, and global warfare. Short prose narratives, such as “Reflections from Glass Breaking” and the transcribed “Are You Ready to Rock?” employ a child's voice to relate the experiences of young rape victims.In 1996 Sapphire published her first novel, Push, the story of Claireece Precious Jones, a black, illiterate, sixteen-year-old HIV-positive mother of two, struggling to find her place in a society that constantly fails her. Precious fights to overcome the pain of a father who is also the father of her two children, and a mother who physically abuses her because she faults Precious for taking her husband. Like Sapphire, who began writing in a journal in her early twenties, Precious finds a sense of freedom from a world of pain when she enrolls in a literacy class, learns to read, and begins keeping a journal. The novel concludes with a series of poems by Precious and three short personal narratives by her classmates, who also were raped and molested. These narratives reinforce the fact that Precious's story represents the voices of many, including Sapphire and the students she had taught in Harlem and the Bronx. The book received renewed attention in 2009, when the film adaptation Precious: Based on the Novel Push, by Sapphire, was released. The widely acclaimed film, directed by Lee Daniels, earned multiple awards (including an Academy Award for the actress Mo'Nique) and brought the book and its intense subject matter to the attention of a wider audience. Sapphire has described her writing as witnessing and testimony. She has identified herself as a black person and a woman who has changed from heterosexual to lesbian to bisexual. Through her writing, Sapphire has sought to counter the idea that racism is the only challenge affecting people's ability to live happy, peaceful lives. As a feminist, she has remained dedicated to eradicating the oppression of all women.

Reference Entry.  1069 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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