When worlds collide
Enter a world in which differences, secret resentments and ulterior motives tear relationships apart. It could be 2007, but it is actually 1975. Vietnam anti-war protesters have quieted. Nixon’s resignation has become yesterday’s news. Civil Rights “matter” and activism is supposed to breed tolerance. Most adults have never heard of the Underground Railroad.
Such is the stage for Black Girl/White Girl, a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, in which two girls upset the status quo and watch their separate worlds collide. Fall of 1975 brings these two girls to Schuyler College, a women’s university in Pennsylvania.
Oates’ characters represent the white world and the black world. An offspring of hippie-activists, Genna Meade enters college with tolerance, intelligence and idealism. Her father is a criminal attorney on the run. Her mother is a drug addict trying to find herself outside of motherhood.
Genna is glad to learn her college roommate is black. Traditional, stubborn, independent Minette Swift brushes off Genna’s presence entirely. Minette’s family is one of unity and strength, Christian values and hard work. Minette regards everyone in defiance. She only needs Jesus and an attitude to make it through the day.
The girls upset 20th century traditionalism. White protagonist Genna lacks the expected strong, supportive family, and black protagonist Minette is fierce, unafraid and believes in her own strength. Stereotypes are as dangerous then as they are today, for they blur an individual’s perception of truth. Oates’ book offers a rare glimpse of courage when the girls step outside of their stereotypes and connect, trying to understand what another world might look like.
Oates writes with intensity and precision. Her complex plot unfolds subtly. Through perfect placement of key words, she creates grand gestures and vital moments. A whole character transformation might occur within a single, masterfully placed utterance. Minette calls Genna “friend” in a quiet moment of sharing a homemade muffin.
Throughout the story, Genna and Minette transform both physically and emotionally. The fall of winter darkness in December, Minette’s new tortoiseshell glasses after Christmas, and Genna’s weight loss throughout the year signify physically the changes occurring conceptually. The girls’ friendship grows. Racial slurs and family problems cause chaos. Anger and betrayal yield vindication. The tragedy that befalls Minette shocks and scares Genna, proving that despite her personal capacity to forgive, the human race lacks forgiveness.
The title of this novel provides great insight into the various shades of meaning the story holds. The obvious significance of Oates’ title indicates race. It also represents the black and white personality differences in the girls. Genna is fragile and easily discouraged. Minette is obstinate and rough. Agreement between them is a rare scene, of which there is a glimmer throughout the novel but only in moments of great effort and compassion.
Finally, Black Girl/White Girl solely can represent Genna’s character. Her family is a black sheep in the white world. She lives in the black shadow of brokenness, as her family is the picture of classic American tragedy. Perhaps she is white, but her life is cloaked in emptiness.
This tale is timeless. The betrayal, fear and epiphany can translate through generations by erasing the date and writing a new one. Oates illustrates the experience of human tragedy through life’s unexpected moments, no matter what year, “as if in a cruel fairytale your wishes come true, but too late to matter.” Oates eloquently and cleverly creates a story of hope—hope that is dashed time and time again. Hope that the reader holds onto throughout the entire book. Hope ultimately lost by both the black girl and the white girl.