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By Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman
After more than a year or so of procrastinating I finally watched Lee Daniels’s critically and commercially successful film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” (This is not a review of it.) I’d needed to view the movie for a commissioned essay on Sapphire’s Push and Daniel’s adaptation of it, but had not felt personally driven to watch it—owing likely to the many shameful distortions of urban black American life in popular media. Finally, late one night last week, after getting my brilliant, precocious child to bed, I grabbed my partner (a consummate artist and a filmmaker these days), a handful of cashews and raisins, and watched “Precious.” I was not traumatized by the film, as I had expected to be, but I was disappointed and deeply disturbed. The film obscures the novel’s strident critique of structural racism and welfare reform in favor of a more familiar—and more palatable—trauma narrative of black familial dysfunction, which accounts in part for its mass consumption and massive success.
To be clear, Sapphire’s Push presents a terrible tale of black familial ruin; it is, after all, a story about father-and mother-daughter rape and physical abuse. But in its almost unbearable depiction of African American poverty in Reagan-era Harlem, the novel takes to task state agencies (schools, welfare offices, shelters, hospitals, etc.) for failing to protect the bodies and the interests of black women and children. This critique is largely absent from Daniels’s film, which valorizes state supports in favor of a heavy-handed indictment of Precious’s abusive mother. The story the movie tells is certainly one in need of telling; far too many children suffer at the hands of neglectful, psychotic, abusive parents. But the book manages to tell the story of child damage in the midst of wider sociopolitical critique. It is unfortunate that, by simply rehearsing the Moynihanian, black matriarchal thesis of what ails black America, Daniels’s film foregoes the opportunity to provide a necessary, new millennial critique of welfare reform and its continued disastrous effects on poor black families.
In a period overrun by protracted wars in the Middle East, an economic downturn nearly as severe as the Great Depression, and the election of the first black president, issues of racial poverty have been put largely on the back burner. When they are addressed, the focus tends to be on the mass incarceration, inadequate educational attainment and joblessness of black men. The constriction of public assistance (under the guise of “welfare reform”) must be understood as one feature in a broader state practice of rescinding the legislative gains of the Civil Rights Movement and it must remain at the forefront of any progressive agenda for sociopolitical and economic advancement in poor communities of color.
For the past three decades, welfare reform has exemplified the national refusal (at the popular and juridical levels) to allow African Americans ordinary rights of national inclusion or to extend to them ordinary resources of the state. The idea of the “welfare queen,” a young, unmarried woman of color who has numerous children with different partners to increase her “benefits,” continues to dominate public thinking about welfare. This sickening caricature implies that single mothers living in utter destitution have discovered in (historically racist) state institutions and economic policies a workable get-rich-quick scheme. This caricature has also provided further justification for the erosion of rights attained by black people under Civil Rights legislation, as it was Civil Rights legislation that guaranteed the extension of public assistance to black women in the first place. Because the nation has not consented to the entitlement of black women and children to economic support, equitable education and suitable housing and healthcare, black families receiving public assistance have been stigmatized in national culture as thieves, as illegitimate recipients of the privileges of citizenship and as the largest drain on the material resources of the nation.
Far from facilitating entry into the workforce and economic independence, welfare reform monitors and regulates the sexual and reproductive activities of poor women of color. It is a punitive state apparatus that removes women from home-spaces and puts them into positions of menial labor. The overhaul of welfare that began under the Reagan administration, peaked with Clinton’s signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, and was reauthorized in the 2006 Healthy Marriage Initiative effectively limits stipendiary support to growing families, restricts allowable timeframes for families to receive public assistance and requires women with children over the age of one to enter the labor force, whether as skilled or unskilled laborers or as unpaid Work Experience Program (WEP) workers. Rather than alleviating poverty, WEP and other such welfare reform initiatives actually intensify it.
Purportedly designed to give welfare recipients work experience, WEP mandates full-time employment for public assistance clients who are not compensated by wages but by welfare stipends. I have, for example, a female relative who gave birth slightly over a year ago after completing a master’s degree in Education. Throughout her pregnancy my relative suffered severe health problems, resulting at one point in her being admitted to an Intensive Care Unit. We learned eventually that three surgeries were necessary for her to be restored to health. During the year in which my family member addressed her health problems, she also cared for her small infant and studied for a New York state teaching license to prepare for a teaching career in the New York City public schools. She turned to public assistance to cover her basic expenses that year. It was the most exhausting, humiliating, and painful experience of her life. She was ordered to work full-time as a maintenance worker at a senior citizens center for her stipend (less than $600 a month!)—despite having notes from doctors attesting to her poor health, a graduate degree in Education and a full-time position as a teacher on the horizon.
Like my family member, young black mothers constitute a sizable portion of the urban poor and are in need of viable means of social and economic survival. As we who are cultural producers and cultural critics make our way through the second decade of the new millennium, we have a responsibility to keep the concerns of impoverished families of color at the forefront of our thinking, our work, our activism.
Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman is Assistant Professor of English at Brandeis University. Her areas of scholarship include African American literature and culture, multi-ethnic feminisms, critical race theory, and the intersection of religion and political struggle. A two-time winner of the Darwin Turner Award for Best Essay of the Year in African American Review,she has published widely on topics ranging from the relation of sexuality and social order in slave narratives to the impacts of Civil Rights retrenchment on black familial formation and function in present day. Abdur-Rahman’s first book, The Erotics of Race: Identity, Political Longing, and Black Figuration, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. She has recently begun research on a new book project, tentatively titled, Millennial Style: The Politics of Experiment in Contemporary African American Culture.