Black Girl/White Girl

Black Girl/White Girl

4.2 12
by Joyce Carol Oates
     
 

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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,

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Elissa Schappell
Joyce Carol Oates has never been shy about peering into the darkest corners of American culture. Her best books—Blonde, Zombie and Black Water—showcase her fascination with violence, her almost vampiric ability to tap into the subconscious of her troubled characters and her taste for appropriating real-life tragedy. Oates's latest offering, Black Girl / White Girl, is no exception.
—The New York Times
Lisa Page
Oates is deliberately provocative with this intellectual exercise about America's racial dilemma, but where is she going? She seems to suggest that the left is deluding itself, but surely the left is more nuanced than this when it comes to race, and we'd expect a novel to explore that nuance rather than oversimplify it. Oates dares to ask, how well do we know each other? But in her attempt to explore the duality of American racism, her truth is one-dimensional, even as it makes for fascinating reading.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In 1975, racial tension still runs high at Genna Meade's mostly white Schuyler College in Pennsylvania. Her outcast black roommate, Minette Swift, is a D.C. preacher's daughter; Genna is descended from the college's founder. Minette misses home desperately; Genna, in contrast, avoids her "hippie" mother's phone calls while yearning for a visit from her absentee father, activist lawyer Maximilian Meade. Despite their differences, the girls muster an effortful friendship, due to the near-fetishization of black culture that Genna's parents have inculcated in her. When racist incidents begin to plague Minette, Genna tries to protect her, but Minette lapses into an antisocial, dangerous depression. Meanwhile, Genna has her own problems-she's gradually piecing together clues to a mystery whose solution may lie far too close to home for comfort. Eventually, Minette's downward spiral prompts a shocking epiphany for Genna that will alter the course of her family's life. Oates bravely grapples with the fallout of the Civil Rights movement, the early '70s backlash against Summer of Love optimism, and the well-intentioned but ultimately condescending antiracist piety of privileged white liberals, but this anecdotal novel feels slight compared to her best work. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The amazingly prolific Oates follows High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006 with a short tale of fractured relationships and psychological horror. Narrator Genna Meade meditates on the long-ago, terrible death of a 19-year-old girl who might have been-maybe should have been-her best friend. On entering tony Schuyler College in the mid-1970s, Genna, a liberal and well-meaning prep-school grad, is looking forward to rooming with devoutly religious African American scholarship student Minette Swift. But the girls have little in common, other than an uncomfortable shyness with each other and uneasy relationships with adored but flawed fathers-Minette's dad is a charismatic minister, while Genna's dad is an attorney notorious for defending anti-Vietnam War radicals. The girls' tentative moves toward friendship and loyalty are undermined by the stresses of their first year of college and a series of hateful encounters that ends in tragedy and grief. This dark, suspenseful portrayal of fatal failures to communicate may prompt more than one reader to ponder the state of our society's moral condition. Recommended for most fiction collections.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's billionth is a brooding analysis of racial relations and white liberal guilt, which partially echoes her eerie novella Beasts (2001) and earlier major novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. It's a fragmented "text without a title," composed in retrospect by Generva "Genna" Meade, recalling her undergraduate years at prestigious Schuyler College, founded by a member of the truculently progressive Meade family. Genna's story details her unequal relationship, in the mid-1970s, with her standoffish black roommate Minette Swift, daughter of a Washington, D.C., minister, and a scholarship student who's defiantly not grateful for the "favor" white society has bestowed on her, and the college's endless tolerance of her academic failures. Genna's awkward efforts to bond with Minette are rudely rebuffed, as is her dismay and shock when ugly racially based insults rain down on her roommate. Genna's distracted urge to do what's right is also tested by her relationship with her counterculture-vulture parents: unstable pill-popping mom Veronica, and her father "Mad Max," a left-wing attorney notorious for supporting and funding protest demonstrations and suspected of complicity in a terrorist bombing that left a black security guard dead. In other words, the deck is tightly stacked. And Oates misses no opportunities to underscore and overstate her characters' ingrained attitudes (Max's abrasiveness, Minette's sullen religiosity), runaway emotional states (notably Veronica's) and utter incompatibility. There is some power in Genna's desperate wish to identify with Minette, and thus prove to herself her own liberal goodness-and in the tragic outcome of thewhite girl's insistent intimacy with the black girl. But Oates shifts the narrative abruptly in the closing pages, revealing the real "text" Genna has been writing, and the bitter small victory she wrests from it. It's jarring. Characteristically strident and forced-and it's a real shame. This could have been one of Oates's better books.
BookPage
“Masterful…Black Girl/White Girl is another success for its author.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061862441
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/13/2009
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
9,345
File size:
0 MB

Read an Excerpt

Black Girl,/White Girl

Chapter One

Crack

Ohhh God.

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.

"Minette...?"

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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