Finding Hope in the Margins


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What can we learn from Claireece Precious Jones? This is my presentation at the 2010 annual conference of the National Association for Multicultural Education in Las Vegas.

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Finding Hope in the Margins

  1. 1. N.A.M.E. Conference (National Association for Multicultural Education) November 4, 2010, Las Vegas, Nevada “Finding Hope in the Margins: What can we learn from Claireece Precious Jones?” by Jo Foy, graduate student, K-State, C&I ( My session will be an interactive dialogue with other educators on the use of Push (Sapphire, 1997) and “Precious” the movie (Daniels et al., 2009) in the teacher education classroom. If there are secondary educators present, the conversation could also include appropriateness at the secondary level since The Color Purple (Walker, 1983/2007) was banned as recently as 2008 in Morgantown, NC because of “parents concerned about the homosexuality, rape, and incest portrayed in the book”1 . What if Push and “Precious” are similarly banned in U.S. school districts? What can we learn from Claireece Precious Jones? What do we learn about how public schools view Claireece? How did changing schools affect Claireece’s point of view about education? About her possibilities? Daniels, L., Winfrey, O., Heller, T., & Perry, T. (2009). Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire [Motion picture]. United States: Lionsgate. Sapphire. (1997). Push. New York, NY: Random House. Walker, A. (1983/2007). The Color Purple. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1 See “Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century,” American Library Association, 2010. Retrieved from reasonsbanned/index.cfm
  2. 2. Excerpts from “I Hear You Now: How the Obama presidency has raised expectations and inspired truth-telling,” Race, Gender, & Class Journal 17(3-4), pp. 51-63 and “I See You Now: Changes in the landscape of truth-telling as a result of the Obama presidency,” presentation given at the American Association for Advancement of Curriculum Studies, April, 2010, Denver, Colorado. The main character, Claireece Precious Jones, is an obese 15-year-old who is pregnant by her father for the second time. She is suspended by the principal from her middle school for being pregnant (NPR, 2009). The principal recommends an alternative school and through her teacher, Miss Rain, she learns to read and to write. With the encouragement of Miss Rain, she leaves the apartment of her abusive mother and moves into a shelter. By the end of the movie, only one year has passed. Precious is still only 16 years old, she is reading and writing; she is living independently from her mother; she is caring for her two children; and she is ready to enter a public high school. What we learn from Claireece Precious Jones and her mother, Mary Johnston, about intergenerational poverty and incest are dangerous truths: a dangerous truth being one which does not conform to the dominant ideology. In U.S. Education today approximately 5 out of ten students in classrooms look like (and *may* have similar home lives) to their middle class White female teachers. Another 2 students out of ten are either Black or American Indian and living in poverty. A small percentage are Asian, Hawaiian Native or Pacific Islander. And the remaining students, approximately 3 out of ten students are Hispanic (which is a very large umbrella term) and living in poverty. If my math is correct, somewhere between 3 and 7 out of ten students are living in poverty and are non- White with a middle class teacher who is a White female. This disparity is important because non-White students may be English language learners, they may have different learning styles from White students, and they may come to school with the knowledge that generations of their own family members have been failed by public school systems in the United States. In “Precious”, the first White person we meet is the math teacher. He pays little attention to the back of the room where Precious hides. The second White person we meet in the movie is the principal who expels 16-year-old Claireece from middle school for being pregnant the second time by her father. The movie provides us with a clearly visible disconnect between the White world and Claireece Precious Jones. Within the theoretical framework of power, knowledge, and self, Foucault proposed that knowledge and power are intertwined. Foucault described “regimes of truth” as “the types of discourse which it (society) accepts and makes function as true” (Foucault, 1972/1980, p. 131). Building upon Foucault’s definition, McLaren (2009) notes that “dominant discourses” are “those produced by the dominant culture” (p. 73). Therefore, when a truth is spoken that is outside the dominant White culture, it may be considered dangerous. Within Greek culture parrhesia, “the Socratic practice of truth-telling,” was “a specifically ethical practice” with the theme of “care of the self” (Gutting, 2005, p. 141). Foucault uses educational institutions as an example of regulated and concerted systems driven by goal-directed activities and systems of communication (Foucault, 2003b, p. 136). Allocation of space, regulation of times and schedules, who comes and goes are carefully
  3. 3. defined. Specific demands (rewards and punishments) on student (and teacher) performance are regularly monitored and behavioral expectations carefully scripted. We might be tempted, therefore, to ask, “How can the subject be liberated?” Foucault argues, “the individual is not something that needs to be liberated rather the individual is the closely monitored product of relations between power and knowledge” (O’Farrell, 2009). For Foucault, becoming liberated was a matter of ethics. “Ethical work, says Foucault, is the work one performs in the attempt to transform oneself into an ethical subject of one’s own behavior, the means by which we change ourselves in order to become ethical subjects” (Olssen, 2006, p. 153). A common critique (or “misreading”) of Foucault is that he “offers little possibility for agency” (Mayo, 2000). Mayo adds, “he points to the immense difficulty of negotiating freedom while avoiding the traps of normalizing power” (p. 112). Therefore within educational institutions power is synonymous with resistance. That is, power and resistance operate within and among students, teachers, administrators, school superintendents, school board members, and parents. Negotiating one’s freedom within these power relations and under assumptions of resistance requires daily ethical decisions. In the movie, “Precious”, we see Claireece Precious Jones evolve from being pretty much at the affect of the middle school she has been attending to being an ethical subject. This movement in Foucault’s terms is the care of self; a type of agency which lies within the interplay of power and resistance. This is not the agency of social movements which feminists would like for us to prefer; but it is a “struggle against normalization to free ourselves: nothing more than the task of education in its best sense” (Mayo, 2000, p. 113). “Precious”, the movie, provides us with a visual, graphical example of ethical self- formation within a social, cultural, and educational system where everything is stacked against her. The main character, Claireece Precious Jones, is an obese 16-year-old who is pregnant by her father for the second time. She is suspended by the principal from her middle school for being pregnant (NPR, 2009). When tested, she reads at the 3rd grade level; however, she has always gotten good grades in school. Precious is at the effect of her mother, the school principal, and the sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by her mother (Mary Johnston) and her stepfather (Carl Jones). Yet, in this story, Precious persists. She learns to write and to read at the 8th grade level. She becomes independent of her mother. When Claireece tells the truth about her family situation to the social worker, this is not a truth we necessarily want to hear; it does not conform to dominant beliefs. The dominant hegemony says to young girls like Claireece, “keep quiet”, “Be a good girl.” The mother also tells the truth to the social worker. The truth Mary Johnston tells frees Claireece. This is also not a truth we want to hear in the dominant White culture, where the messages are to “keep silent”, ”never admit culpability,” and “deny anything is wrong.” With her mother’s confession, however, Claireece finally knows that she is not the cause of the abuse. She is a free subject. Claireece leaves the social worker’s office refusing the welfare check and taking full custody in that moment of her two children. In that moment she changes the ecology and living environment of her life.
  4. 4. Who made the difference for Precious? Miss Rain (played by Paula Patton), Cornrows (Sherri Shepherd), the social worker (Mariah Carey), the male nurse (Lenny Kravitz), and her classmates all influenced Precious in one way or another. These individuals were deciding factors in how Claireece responded to being expelled from middle school. You could say they “drove” her to the transformational changes that occur within her life as portrayed in the movie. What changed for Precious? Reading at an 8th grade level. Journaling (creative inspiration). Motherhood (both children with her now). Independence (living away from home). Motivation (to finish high school). At the end of this movie Claireece has more than just a “fat, black, welfare, pregnant teen subjectivity” (J. M. Ray, February 6, 2010). If we look at some of Foucault’s later writings, he suggests that care of self actually produces the subject, and “Precious” the movie exemplifies this idea. In the case of Claireece Precious Jones, her care for herself, through improving her reading, journaling, taking full responsibility for her children, becoming independent, and becoming motivated to finish high school and attend college, she transforms herself into a new subject. This transformation then also becomes an ethical response to her dilemma and an act of resistance to the many power relations still barring her way. Miss Rain made the difference for Precious in this movie. There is a scene where Miss Rain asks Precious what she does well. Precious replies, “I don’t know.” Miss Rain says, “Everyone does something well.” As Precious begins to write about her life, to express herself, to find her voice, she learns to read and to write. At the beginning of the movie, Precious is writing at a 1st grade level; at the end, at a 6th grade level. Only a few months have passed. In addition, Precious has begun to care for herself. Precious is writing her truth; she is deciding what her truth is; she is finding her voice. In Foucault’s terms, she is becoming a free subject. As a free subject, she uses her voice, her writing, to resist the societal forces that are still very much acting against her. These ethical acts, finding within herself and writing her own truth, are also a form of care for herself. The dangerous truth that she tells, we are now able to hear because she has found her own inner voice. In “Precious” the movie, the will to knowledge--that is, Precious finding her voice and her truth in her place and in her time—culminates in a scene in the office of the social worker played by Mariah Carey. Carey has invited Precious and her mother to meet with her to discuss the next welfare checks. Prior to this time, the mother has manipulated the visiting social workers into continuing to provide her checks by pretending that she (the mother) is caring for Precious’ first-born, a little girl with Down syndrome. As Precious has gained some autonomy by moving into a shelter away from her mother, the question of who will receive the welfare check arises. The social worker is obligated to find out the details of what has gone on in this family. There are tears in the eyes of the social worker as she asks the questions and hears the replies of both the mother and the daughter. My friend asked me “Does voicing the ugly truth make way for change?” (J. M. Ray, LMSW, personal communication, February 6, 2010). In Foucault’s terms, this discourse, this telling of the truth, seems to be the result of change that has already taken place in Precious. Precious is caring for herself. She is caring for her second child. She wants to also care for her first-born.
  5. 5. In “Precious” the movie, Claireece comes to care for herself in spite of the abusive behavior of her mother. This care for self in Foucault’s work is an ethical act and a conscious practice of freedom (Foucault, 2003a, p. 28). Claireece’s care for herself arose through the pedagogical relationship between her and her teacher. In addition, she and her classmates began to care for each other. I believe Claireece began to care more for herself because others (her classmates, her teacher, Cornrows, the male nurse at the hospital) began to care for her. Caring was contagious. When Claireece Precious Jones told her social worker that she was carrying her father’s second child, she spoke a dangerous truth. It was dangerous because her social worker was then ethically bound to investigate that fact before she approved additional welfare checks. The investigation led to Precious’ mother confessing to her cooperation with her husband’s sexual abuse of Precious. The mother’s confession to the social worker is also a dangerous truth. She admits her own complicity and, in doing so, frees Precious. What can we learn from the speaking of dangerous truths? How do power relations shift when the truth is told? In the final scene of “Precious” the movie, our heroine, Claireece Precious Jones, is walking down the steps of the Welfare office building with both of her children in hand. She is still only 16 years old. But she has a support network, she is prepared to attend a regular public high school, she has a place to live away from her abusive mother, and she has the certainty that no matter what happens to her, there are people who will stand by her. I believe “Precious” the movie offers a counter-example that might be used in classrooms, along with the book, “Push” to examine dominant beliefs about African-American girls and women. The counter message is that Claireece Precious Jones has Hope. She is choosing to forsake the Welfare system, to take full responsibility for her children, to complete high school and go on to college. Claireece Precious Jones is the stereotypical Black girl being left behind by the U.S. educational system. If you cannot read, you cannot even take a standardized reading test. Precious was being passed from each school grade with high marks. She was not learning. The Hope and the Joy of this movie comes from the possibility, as Oprah suggests (, n.d.), that even one Precious Black girl sees herself in Claireece Precious Jones.
  6. 6. References (n.d.). Oprah, Monique, Paula Patton and Gabby discuss Precious. [online]. Retrieved from Churchwell, S. (March 6, 2010). A ‘Precious’ message. The Hindu [online]. Retrieved from Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews & other writings, 1972-1977. C. Gordon, (Ed.). New York, NY: Pantheon. (Original work published 1972). _______. (2003a). The ethics of the concern of the self as a practice of freedom. In P. Rabinow & N.S. Rose (Eds.), The essential Foucault: Selections from the essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984, pp. 25-42. New York, NY: New Press. _______. (2003b). The subject and power. In P. Rabinow & N.S. Rose (Eds.), The essential Foucault: Selections from the essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984, pp. 126-144). New York, NY: New Press. Gutting, G. (2005). The Cambridge companion to Foucault. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Mayo, C. (2000). The uses of Foucault. Educational Theory, 50(1):103-117. Retrieved from direct=true&db=tfh&AN=3112539&site=ehost-live McLaren, P. (2009). Critical pedagogy: A look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, M. P. Baltodano & R. D. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (2nd ed., pp. 61-83). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. NPR. (2009, November 6). Sapphire’s story: How ‘Push’ became ‘Precious’. Retrieved from =120176695 O’Farrell, C. (2009, October 30). Key concepts. In Retrieved from Olssen, Mark. (2006). Michel Foucault: Materialism and education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. Sapphire. (1997). Push. New York: Random House.
  7. 7. How do Precious (the movie) and Push (the book) relate to the conference theme of “Empowering Children & Youth: Equity, Multiculturally Responsive Teaching & Achievement Gaps”? Girls like Claireece Precious Jones walk into classrooms everyday. How teachers react to the many Precious children in their building can make a difference in their students’ academic achievement. When the movie begins, Claireece is 15 years old, and she writes at the 1st grade level even though her grades are (and have been) mostly A’s. She is pregnant for the second time by her biological father, and she has been expelled from her middle school for this pregnancy. During the movie Claireece forms a relationship with Miss Rain, her alternative school teacher, and her classmates that is so effective that Claireece is reading and writing at a 6th grade level as the movie ends. Claireece has a long way to go, but she is in custody of both of her children, she is living independently, and she is nominally ready for the next step in her life: high school. Miss Rain demonstrates both equity and multiculturally responsive teaching in her alternative classroom, and Claireece’s academic outcomes benefit from Miss Rain’s care and concern. Why is the story of Claireece Precious Jones important? In this theoretical paper Foucault is used to illustrate the power relations among the characters in this universal story of multigenerational poverty and incest. Foucault saw power as net-like and dispersed; it is all around us. In educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities) there are multiple layers of power relations and constant surveillance permeates school buildings. What I believe Claireece Precious Jones illustrates for the movie watcher (and illustrated in the book, Push [Sapphire, 1987]) is academic advancement within the many levels of power relations, including the social welfare system. I believe that the use of this movie within teacher education preparation programs could provide a visually compelling example of the options and choices of urban youth, particularly. However, I also believe that youth like Claireece exist everywhere, including in majority White communities. Mary and Carl Jones are also White members of White communities. Discussion of Push and “Precious”, I believe, provide an opportunity to consider the life experiences students bring into the classroom that have little or nothing to do with their homework. Yet these experiences have the potential to enrich and enliven the public school experience.
  8. 8. Finding Hope in the Margins: What can we learn from Claireece Precious Jones? How did Claireece cope with her situation? How did Claireece feel when the principal kicked her out of school? How did Claireece respond to the principal coming to their apartment? How did Claireece respond in the alternative school? If a student like Claireece were in your classroom, what would be your first thoughts? What would be your expectations of her? How would you try to connect with her? What if you were teaching math or science, instead of English or language arts? Claireece saw herself as a good math student, but was her perception of herself real? What if you knew you had a student who was as young as 16 and had two children? How could you adapt to that knowledge? Are there things you would do differently? With whom would you pair Claireece? In what kind of group would you put Claireece? How would you see her fitting into your classroom? What if Claireece started missing school because her children were sick? What would you do then? In your building would Claireece be considered a special education student? As an educator, in your opinion, should Claireece be considered special education? Do you think she could learn equally quickly in say, social studies or science? What new questions come to mind as you consider Claireece?
  9. 9. Areas of Interest: • Characteristics of Precious—How do we see her? How do classroom teachers see her? • Characteristics of School Staff—How do others see her? o White principal of the public school o White math teacher o Cornrows o Miss Rain • Characteristics of the Schools—How is she seen within school structures? o Public School o Alternative School
  10. 10. Areas of Interest: • Characteristics of Precious—How do we see her? How do classroom teachers see her? • Characteristics of School Staff—How do others see her? o White principal of the public school o White math teacher o Cornrows o Miss Rain • Characteristics of the Schools—How is she seen within school structures? o Public School o Alternative School