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Book Review: Black Girl White Girl


Paperback: 304 pages Publisher: Harper Perennial (May 29, 2007) Language: English ISBN-10: 0061125652 ISBN-13: 978-0061125652
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | January 21, 2011 16:56
Tags : Black Girl White Girl | book review | Max | Veronica | Genna |

Imagine a plot. In a liberal art college in mid-70s, a White-Caucasian, Conservative girl, who believes in the infallibility of Christianity shares a room with a Black, Liberal girl, who is also an atheist. Won't the storyline be simple? Predictable? Well! The life is not that all easy.


Now do a permutation. What happens when the White-Caucasian girl turns out to be a liberal and atheist and the Black, a Conservative, Jesus-hugging type. Can you predict anything? Tough call. And it indeed is. The life and times of in 70s America (or for that matter, world) was not linear, and neither is it today. And that gives us Joyce Carol Oates' brilliant piece of literature, Black Girl White Girl.

To her credit, Joyce Carol Oates has always tried to venture into the murkiest of the corners of American culture. She has never shied away from violence, and her characters have never been simple to understand. But what really sets her apart from the crowd is her penchant for capturing the psyche of her characters and to juxtapose it in various situations.



Genna Hewett-Meade, the white girl, is the daughter of a ultra-radical, ultra-leftist, activist attorney, Max Meade whose defense of anti-Vietnam war protestors and asylum to the Black Panthers and several ultra-left-wing runaways from justice has meant that he and Genna's mom, the marijuana-infested and evasive Veronica, are perpetually under track by the FBI. Genna's ancestors were erstwhile Quakers who established (fictitious) Schuyler College, her alma mater and the setting of the novel.

Minette Swift, the black girl here, is a daughter of an eminent Washington DC Minister, Reverend Swift; who like her family believes in the infallibility of Christianity, and she needs, as she says, no one but Jesus.

Both of them are allotted the same room at Schuyler College where Minette has come on merit scholarship. On the face value, the girls, expectantly, are as different as chalk and cheese. While Genna turns out to be hangdog privileged, humbling and anxious to gratify, Minette likes to be secluded and walks as if the world owes her and she wants to collect now. As a believer, she 'naturally' feels virtuously, religiously and, god forbid, rationally superior to atheist Genna. Minette's attitude wins her no friends and she is hated with equal passion by both white and black girls in her hostel. But Genna, always eager to friendly overtures towards Minette, remains fiercely loyal to her roommate.

Shortly, Minette starts facing a series of racially abusive pranks. Even-though the racial pranks stuns students and faculty alike, misgiving bit by bit grows that Minette might not be altogether a victim in the affair. Genna loyalty remains with Minette even after she comes to know the truth. Somewhere in the back of her mind, due to her love for Minette, Genna is even ready to play the race martyr. Minette eventually moves out to other hostel where she dies in mysterious circumstances.

Genna, on her part, receives one rude awakenings after another as she tries to adjust her life outside the shell. However, as the story is her narrative, Minette's character remains mysterious and unexplainable, for good or bad, till the end.



A provocative plot turn well into the second half of the novel leaves a deep imprint on the soul. Albeit, the end appears to be rushed at times. The book runs several parallel themes but largely plays with the motif of the reverse racism born of white guilt.

But equally interesting is the motif that deals with the failure of liberal left in America. Oates flirts successfully with the failure of civil rights movement in the personal sphere too.

Max Meade ends up in prison where he languishes for 35 years while his estranged banker son doesn't even care so much as to pay a visit. The complexity of dysfunctional relationship between Max, Veronica, Genna and her brother reflects too bad with closely knit Swift family.

Conservatives are despicable Genna, but they are not hypocrites. But you will find a lot of that breed among liberals,” the ferociously radical Max Meade enlightens his daughter.

It comes as a heartbreak, but wakes you up from the slumber.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017