A grim interracial outcome

Oates looks behind a death at college to mores of society, families

Review Novel

November 26, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Black Girl/White Girl

Joyce Carol Oates

HarperCollins / 272 pages / $25.95

Joyce Carol Oates is America's most prolific female writer. There is no genre she's left untouched, but it is on the novel she has made her greatest mark.

Oates's strengths are manifold, but among them are her longevity and her attention to the politics of America, past and present, as well as on our social strata. In her latest novel, Black Girl/White Girl, Oates stakes out the territory of the 1970s. Her focus: racism and classism in white America.

This is not new territory for Oates. In 1990 she published one of her best novels, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, about an interracial couple and a murder. It was classic Oates: The dark side of human relationships meets the dark side of social stigma. It was a brilliant book, set in the 1950s, in which Iris Courtney, who is white, and Jinx Fairchild, a black basketball player, become lovers. Then Jinx, while protecting Iris, kills a white man. Oates was in rare form in Bitter, exploring every aspect of race relations in Jim Crow America.

Black Girl/White Girl depicts a different interracial "couple:" Genna Meade and Minette Swift, roommates at Schuyler, a posh Pennsylvania liberal arts college for women (a combination of Middlebury and Bryn Mawr).

The era, too, is different. The Vietnam War has just officially ended, but the civil rights movement is still in full swing and the nation is most definitely in flux. That flux is apparent at Schuyler, where the two 19-year-olds clash with a student body still resistant to integration, still expecting bowing and scraping from black students who are expected to be thrilled just to be in such elite company. Except Minette, who misses her father and home, isn't.

In their freshman year, Minette dies. Her death is horribly violent, and before it she had been experiencing racist assaults at the college thatsent her into a deep depression. Genna had tried to protect Minette from those attacks, but to no avail (the novel begins with a broken window in their dorm room, which may or may not have been caused by a thunderstorm).

Minette is a scholarship student, daughter of a black minister. Minette is also not as intellectually astute as her peers, and she rails repeatedly against the "gift" of her scholarship and the eliding of her grades to allow her to maintain that scholarship. She doesn't feel grateful - which others clearly see as "uppity." There were few other black women at Schuyler and none who stood out the way Minette does, none who seem so ungrateful for their opportunity at the nearly all-white school. There was reason for Minette to be fearful. And reason for Genna to question what eventually happened to her.

While Minette comes from a quietly lower-middle-class black family, Genna comes from privilege - the school was founded by one of her forebears. Feeling her privilege like a huge weight, Minette's death haunts Genna, and 15 years later she sets out to uncover what happened to her roommate.

The irony in this search for truth is that Genna never really liked Minette and Minette didn't like her, but Genna had a sense of fealty to her because of her parents' liberal attitudes (her father, Maximilian - "Mad Max" - was a William Kunstler-type attorney, representing SDS types; her mother, Veronica, a needy hippie addicted to prescription drugs) and her fealty to them.

Minette was consistently rude and off-putting to Genna and Genna overly nice, in the way of white paternalism. It was a bad fit, but one Genna was compelled to alter, driven by the white liberal guilt she inherited as well as her own guilt about her privileged life. Their friendship is stiff and fraught, but endures. Genna works hard to protect Minette from the racist assaults she suffers. Minette, true to form, is not gracious.

Then Minette turns up dead.

Genna tells the reader in the opening lines that this is a "text without a title," a revisiting of a time past but unforgotten - and unresolved.

Why did what happened, happen? Why were the girls unable to truly connect? Was their failure to connect due to race, class or the brutal intractability of the times? Is Genna's guilt warranted? Should Minette have been more "obedient" - more "good Negro" - and would that have saved her? Is death a fitting judgment on lack of obedience to anachronistic mores?

All these questions are raised and answered to greater and lesser effect by Oates as she deconstructs not only Minette's awful death and Genna's residual guilt, but the social mores and prejudices that led not just to Minette's death but to the schisms within Genna's own family.

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