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Sapphire (Ramona Lofton) (b. 1950)  
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Bisexual African-American novelist, poet, and performance artist Sapphire came to public attention with works that focus on the harrowing realities of inner city existence. She depicts the lives of her protagonists not only with brutal honesty, but also with a compassionate faith in the possibility of transformation and transcendence.

She reveals the humanity of individuals who are too often treated merely as statistics or only as examples of social pathology.

Born Ramona Lofton on August 4, 1950 in Fort Ord, California, Sapphire was the second of four children of military parents. Her father was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and her mother a former nurse in the Women's Army Corps. As an "army brat," she lived in several cities and countries during her childhood.

Although her family maintained a façade of middle-class, church-going normality, it was riven by internal divisions and emotional tensions. When she was thirteen, her father decided to settle in Los Angeles after his military career. Her mother, who was battling alcoholism, refused to join them, and eventually abandoned the family.

In the 1970s, Sapphire attended San Francisco City College, where she studied chemistry and dance. She received an Associate's degree, but decided to forego her plans to pursue a medical degree.

After dropping out of school, she immersed herself in the Bay Area's lively counterculture. She flirted with the Black Power movement and experimented with drugs. She also began writing poetry and performing public readings of her work.

It was at this time that she adopted the name Sapphire. She chose the name because Sapphire in African-American culture signified a belligerent, overbearing black woman. That stereotype, she told an interviewer, "was somehow attractive to me, especially because my mother was just the opposite. And I could picture the name on books."

In 1977, Sapphire relocated to New York. She supported herself by taking jobs ranging from housecleaning to topless dancing. On occasion, she worked as a prostitute, but she never lost sight of her goal, which was to become a writer.

She became a visible presence in New York City's lesbian community. She joined an organization named United Lesbians of Color for Change Inc., which met on West 4th Street.

Sapphire resumed her college education by pursuing a degree in modern dance at City College of New York. After graduating in 1983, she took a job as a parent-child mediator for the Children's Aid Society and later worked as a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and the Bronx, teaching students primarily from poverty-stricken backgrounds.

The year 1986 was a difficult one for Sapphire, but pivotal in her development as a writer. Not only did her mother die in 1986, but she also lost her brother, who was murdered in Los Angeles. Other friends succumbed to AIDS. "Those were really dark years, '86 to '89 or so," she confided to Newsweek's Jeff Giles, and added, "But it was then that my writing started to change."

In 1988, she underwent an intense examination of her life and her family. She came to the conclusion that she had been sexually molested by her father when she was a child. Her sister revealed that their father had also abused her. In addition, Sapphire came to suspect that her father also molested one of her brothers. (Their father, who died in 1990, denied the accusations.)

While group therapy also helped Sapphire cope with the psychological stresses she experienced during these years, she credits her writing with helping her retain her sanity. "Had I not been able to write, I think I would have lost my mind," she told a Harper's Bazaar interviewer.

In the 1980s, Sapphire published poetry and short prose pieces in lesbian journals, but decided that they were best suited to poetry readings delivered in her own voice. She thus became a participant in the "slam poetry" movement just as it was getting underway. She performed her work at such venues as the Nuyorican Poets Café and Gap Tooth Girls.

In 1987, Sapphire self-published her first book of poetry, Meditations on the Rainbow, which received very little attention. But she was soon thrust into the literary limelight when a poem she published in a small glbtq journal, The Portable Lower East Side Queer City, in 1992, became a central exhibit in the conservative assault on the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Sapphire (Ramona Lofton) at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.
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