Sunday, April 15, 2007

Black Girl / White Girl

Black Girl / White Girl is the story of two 1974 Schuyler College freshmen roommates who could not have possibly been more wrong for each other. Gemma Meade, on the one hand, is a descendant of the college founder and has been raised by ultra-liberal parents to feel somewhat guilty about the privileged circumstances of the Meade family. She feels compelled to prove that she does not consider herself to be better than her black roommate. Minette Swift, on the other hand, is a black teenager who has been raised by her ultra-conservative preacher father to be suspicious of the motives and objectives of whites who go out of their way to befriend her. She sees Gemma's offer of friendship as more condescending than genuine.

Both girls arrive at Schuyler College somewhat flawed by the families in which they were raised. Gemma's father, an attorney who not only defended Civil Rights activists and terrorists of the day but hid them when they were on the run and helped to fund their illegal activities, was away from home as much as he was there. Her mother, an alcoholic ex-hippie herself, was more a burden to Gemma than she was a parent. Minette's father, a "prominent" Washington D.C. preacher, raised her to disdain those who did not share her strong Christian beliefs and to find racist tendencies in others where they did not always exist. He was a proud and articulate man who spoke his mind at all times, quick to see "racism" in the words of others.

Reading Black Girl / White Girl is a bit like simultaneously watching two train wrecks. Predictably, Minette Swift becomes the victim of racist taunts despite the fact that she is not the only minority student living in her dormitory. She is so unlikable, in fact, that another black student is suspected of being involved in the incidents that occur. Gemma's efforts to shield Minette from the taunting ultimately backfire and cause as much harm as good for both girls. At the same time, Gemma's father is being pursued by the FBI who suspect him of being more than a defense attorney and who suspect that Gemma knows the details.

Joyce Carol Oates has created two memorable characters, unlikable as they may be, who reflect the times in which they lived. The 1970s were filled with guilt ridden whites who were very likely seen by blacks as naive and condescending when it came to the racial issues of the day. The two groups were a product of the '60s era that produced both peace loving, doper hippies and militant blacks and they found themselves working together in the '70s, not always comfortably, in the still relatively young Civil Rights movement. In the world of Joyce Carol Oates, good intentions and innocence can be a dangerous combination and Black Girl / White Girl is no exception to her rule.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. Sounds like an interesting story. Quite a risk for her to take on, too. The white/black divide seems to be more pronounced in American literature than Canadian. Though we do have quite a few books that deal with other racial tensions- english/french, whites/first nations, etc.

  2. Is this a new Oates book? It sounds intense.

  3. John, it's definitely an interesting book. It's not one that will leave you in a very cheerful mood, but the insights that it offers into those couple of decades are important reminders of how dangerous a time the '60s and '70s were for this country.

    Oates has used the white/black thing in previous books; that conflict fits in well with her darker vision of what the world is really like. The woman has no fear when it comes to subject matter, that's for sure.

  4. Stefanie, it's a book from late 2006. In fact, she has a new novel coming out sometime in May called "The Gravedigger's Daughter." I tried buying an advance reader's copy of the new one on eBay three or four different times but kept getting I'm looking forward to when it hits the bookstores.