Black Girl / White Girl is a searing double portrait 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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About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
Black Girl/White Girl
By Joyce Carol Oates
Copyright © 2006
Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.
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
"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
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
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
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
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 ...
Excerpted from Black Girl/White Girl
by Joyce Carol Oates
Copyright © 2006 by Joyce Carol Oates.
Excerpted by permission.
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