Posts tagged ‘Joyce Carol Oates’

Black Girl White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates – A study of being too nice.

Black Girl White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates, Published 2006

I loved this book.  The story is narrated by Genna Meade and begins “I have decided to begin a text without a title. It will be an exploration, I think. An inquiry into the death of my college roommate Minette Swift who died fifteen years ago this week: on the eve of her 19th birthday which was April 11, 1975.” And just like that you’re in. I mean reading-until-1:00 a.m.-on-a-weekday in.

Genna comes from a rich family but has led a terribly lonely existence.  Her father, Max, is a civil rights lawyer who has crossed the ethics line one to many times both professionally and personally. Her mother, Veronica, is a self-medicating, self-absorbed 60’s burnt out hippy.  Genna goes away to college, the college her rich family founded, and, as requested, is roomed with an African-American girl, Minette.   Minette, to me, was as unlikable as possible. She comes from a deeply Christian family but uses her religion to righteously separate herself from the other students and from Genna. Her constant use of ” ‘scuseme” is as  obnoxious as it is rude. While poor Genna desperately wants to be liked by Minette and does everything possible to accommodate her.  Minette is at the school on a scholarship but seems unable to spell or perform well in her classes. I could not tell if this was Oates’ commentary on affirmative action or just a statement about Minette as a character and her eventual mental deterioration.

However,  when Minette’s textbook is stolen and then reappears ripped and ruined, and someone sends Minette a misspelled racist note (Niggr go home) things come to a head for Minette, Genna and the college as a whole.  The college faculty seeks to educate the student body about racism, Genna becomes indigent and defensive of her roommate, and Minette begins sinking.  Genna comes home to her roommate soiled and slovenly.  Minette becomes even more withdrawn as time passes and gains weight.  The college begins excusing her from classes and allows her to turn in papers late.  But as the story continues, the question becomes has Minette created her own demise in more ways than one?  And Genna, poor Genna, just keeps trying to reach out to Minette. As a reader you begin to think would Genna make the same efforts if Minette were white? And I believe that is the road Oates is leading you down.  Eventually, Minette dies, Genna loses her ability to cope with all of the information she has on both her roommate and her family and her grief results in dire consequences for herself and her family.

I think Oates makes an interesting study of what happens when racial tensions or just racism becomes an issue.  The caucasian desire to distance ourselves or “hug it” away falls extremely short of what is needed.  Minette – though in many ways a caricature – is both the catalyst and the tragedy.  She may cause the racial tension (you have to read the book to understand what this means) but the school and even Genna’s desire to just make it all right does not help Minette’s rapid unraveling or perhaps catch what her problems are which may have been there all along. And while she continues to exhibit obvious signs of mental disease, everyone around her merely focuses on making sure not to offend her.  And this ends badly for both Minette and Genna, this dance of niceties and platitudes kills one and changes the other forever.  Leaving the reader (and in my case the white reader) challenged and uncomfortable, in a good way.


For more Joyce Carol Oates recommendations visit the New York Times Featured Author reviews and archives.

July 12, 2011 at 9:28 pm Leave a comment


There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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