What America Can Learn from a Black Girl Named "Precious"

is one of the best films I've seen in a long time, and one of the few in mainstream theaters that dares deal with the legacy that slavery created.
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Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is one of the best films I've seen in a long time, and one of the few in mainstream theaters that dares deal with the legacy that slavery created.

Obviously, that connection isn't made in the film. But if you know your history, the thread is clear. Her life is the product of generations of oppression, bigotry, and neglect which explodes into a rage without an outlet. So it is internalized. It's a force that can turn a mother into a monster. Sadly, the monster is us.

By us, I mean systems of government that continue to fail black and brown people: our schools, courts, so-called aid agencies. As we see in this film, generational welfare turns will into complacency, self-worth into deflated souls. And it's journalists, the people who write the first draft of history, who were surprised by the poverty revealed by Katrina.

I hope people who see the film will connect those dots. It's time for atonement and to lift people in this situation with education and love. Precious's teacher, the aptly named Blu Rain, represents the difference we could make if we stop the judging and blaming and nurture those at the bottom of our society.

I wouldn't have made it out of poverty in Harlem if it hadn't been for caring adults who showed an interest in me. I can count those on one hand, but all it takes is one.

Many Americans will have a hard time understanding these connections I made. That's because they don't know archetype of Precious. For that reason, the interludes of escapism woven into the storyline are essential. The horror Precious experiences is too much to fathom, so those scenes of Precious daydreaming of being a BET music-video dancer help soften the blow for an audience that can't imagine what it's like to be beaten and berated by your own mother and raped by your father.

As anyone who tells stories knows, the way a narrative unfolds helps shape the way a society understands issues. Today, thanks to the likes of Lou Dobbs and others in the media with huge platforms legitimizing bigotry, the schema that's locked into America's mindset is that dysfunctional poor people are products of their own making.

It's an ideology that helps wipe the slate clean. So it's no one's fault that U.S. prisons are full of black and brown men from dysfunctional homes who never finished high school.

As a veteran journalist who spent 18 years working for newspapers, I am ashamed that stories of unrelenting poverty are largely ignored. In the 1980s, when I was still a student, I felt proud to be joining a profession that wrote so many exposés about life in urban ghettos. Much of that reporting came to a halt by the mid-'90s with a push on covering suburban (white) life for newspapers that were becoming increasingly segregated with zoned editions. (Advertisers wanted to target households that made $75,000 and up.)

What was inane is that newspapers, in an effort to diversify their staffs, would hire a few black and Latino reporters but then stick them in suburban bureaus. Even white reporters didn't want to write about zoning variances of upper middle class people. Meanwhile, the plight of poor people in cities (we're talking black and brown people here) wasn't adequately being covered.

In 2009, as traditional media is crumbling, that is where we remain, even as the white middle class is slowly sliding into poverty.

With the exception of voices such as Eugene Robinson and Wil Haygood of the Washington Post, Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald, and David Gonzalez of the New York Times, to name a few, there are too few voices of black and Latino folks in the media, those best able to understand and tell these stories.

If film winds up being the medium that can bring these stories back to our frontal cortexes, I welcome it. We need to hear more from the voices of people like Sapphire.

Cindy Rodriguez teaches at New York University and Hunter College and is the author of the forthcoming Pendeja No Más: A Latina's Guide to Liberation.

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