The New York Times
Black Girl/White Girlby Joyce Carol Oates
Fifteen years ago, in 1975, Genna Hewett-Meade's college roommate died a mysterious, violent, terrible death. Minette Swift had been a fiercely individualistic scholarship student, an assertive—even prickly—personality, and one of the few black girls at an exclusive women's liberal arts college near Philadelphia. By contrast, Genna was a quiet,… See more details below
Fifteen years ago, in 1975, Genna Hewett-Meade's college roommate died a mysterious, violent, terrible death. Minette Swift had been a fiercely individualistic scholarship student, an assertive—even prickly—personality, and one of the few black girls at an exclusive women's liberal arts college near Philadelphia. By contrast, Genna was a quiet, self-effacing teenager from a privileged upper-class home, self-consciously struggling to make amends for her own elite upbringing. When, partway through their freshman year, Minette suddenly fell victim to an increasing torrent of racist harassment and vicious slurs—from within the apparent safety of their tolerant, "enlightened" campus—Genna felt it her duty to protect her roommate at all costs.
Now, as Genna reconstructs the months, weeks, and hours leading up to Minette's tragic death, she is also forced to confront her own identity within the social framework of that time. Her father was a prominent civil defense lawyer whose radical politics—including defending anti-war terrorists wanted by the FBI—would deeply affect his daughter's outlook on life, and later challenge her deepest beliefs about social obligation in a morally gray world.
Black Girl / White Girl is a searing double portrait of "black" and "white," of race and civil rights in post-Vietnam America, captured by one of the most important literary voices of our time.
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Black Girl,/White Girl
I was wakened by this cry. I was wakened instantly.
It must have been Minette, my roommate. On the other side of my bedroom door. Minette Swift, in the outer room. This wasn't the first time I'd been abruptly wakened by Minette talking to herself, sometimes scolding herself, or praying. Ohhh God was one of her half-grunts/half-moans.
Immediately I was out of bed, and opening my door.
My roommate was standing with her back to me, oblivious of me. She was standing very still, as if paralyzed. Her head was tilted back at an awkward angle and she was staring at the window above her desk, where a crack had appeared in the upper half of the pane. Minette turned vaguely toward me, without seeming to have heard me. Her eyes were widened in wordless panic behind her childish pink plastic glasses and her lips moved soundlessly.
"Minette? What's wrong?"
I had to suppose it was the window. There was a shock in seeing it, a visceral reaction: where no crack had been, now there was an elaborate spiderweb crack that looked as if the slightest touch would cause it to shatter and fall in pieces on your head.
The previous night, we'd had a "severe thunderstorm watch" for most of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, which had included the 1,200 acres of land on the banks of the Schuylkill belonging to Schuyler College where Minette and I were freshmen. Local news bulletins had reiterated the warnings for hours and when Minette and I had finally turned out our lights, the worst of the storm appeared to have passed.
Each of us had a small bedroom that opened out onto our sparely furnished study room. Each of us had a college-issued desk and each desk was positioned precisely beneath a window built into perpendicular walls. It was the larger of the two windows, Minette's window, that had been damaged in the night by the fierce gusting wind.
At least, I assumed that the damage had been done by the wind.
But Minette seemed frightened, wary. She must have heard my question and must have noticed me standing only a few feet away but she ignored me, staring and blinking up at the window in the way of a stubborn child. Minette was one whom emotion gripped powerfully, and even as emotion faded, as adrenaline fades, still Minette seemed to wish to cling to her state of arousal. Coming upon her at such a moment was to feel not only unwanted but also invisible.
I thought She has forgotten she isn't alone. I should have turned tactfully aside as I'd learned as a young child to turn aside wishing not to see the eccentric behavior of adults, sparing both them and me.
I'd been born in 1956. My mother had liked to speak of me as a love child of the 1960s, the decade that had defined my parents' generation.
Minette spoke softly at last. It was like her to reply in a near-inaudible murmur to a question after so long a pause you'd forgotten what you had asked.
". . . got eyes, you c'n see."
Meaning, I could see perfectly well what was wrong: Minette's window was cracked.
I said, "It must have been the storm, Minette. Don't get too close, the glass might shatter . . ."
I hadn't meant to sound bossy. It was my mother's eager blundering way.
Minette sucked in her breath. Gave the belt of her bathrobe a tug, to make sure it was tight enough. (It was. It was very tight. Minette's belts and sashes were always as tight as she could bear them.) She said, again softly, but laughing, as if the fearful humor of the situation had to be acknowledged, "I wasn't going to, thanks! I'm not some damn old fool." Behind the lenses of her pink plastic glasses Minette's eyes shone beautifully vexed, as if I'd suggested she might perform an act not only dangerous but demeaning.
Minette had to be upset, she'd said damn. Minette Swift was a minister's daughter and a devout Christian who never swore and was offended by what she called "swear words" in the mouths of others.
In Haven House, as at Schuyler College generally, in the fall of 1974, Minette Swift was often offended.
I told Minette that I would report the cracked window to our resident advisor Dana Johnson. Wiping at her eyes, Minette murmured a near-inaudible "Thanks." Her nappy hair gleamed like wires in the sunshine pouring through the window moist from the previous night's rain, and the smooth eggplant-dark skin of her face was minutely furrowed at her hairline. I would have liked to touch her arm, to assure her that there was no danger from the cracked window, but I dared not approach her, I knew it wasn't a good time.
We were suite mates but not yet friends.
While Minette was using the bathroom in the hall, I dragged my desk chair to her window to examine the crack. It did resemble a cobweb, intricate in its design, lace-like, beautifully splotched with jewel-like drops of moisture and illuminated by the stark sunshine. I felt the temptation to touch it, to see if it might break.
I pressed the flat of my hand against the crack. Stretching my fingers wide.
Still, the glass didn't break.
Several feet beyond the window was an old oak tree with thick gnarled limbs. One of these had split in the storm and hung down broken, its pale raw wood like bone piercing flesh. I was reminded uneasily of one of my father's photographs, on a wall of his study in our home in Chadds Ford: a framed glossy photo of a young black man who'd been beaten by heavily armed Los Angeles riot police in April 1968 following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The young black man lay on filthy pavement streaming blood . . .Black Girl,/White Girl. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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