Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.
I love novels that break all the rules, and that become something even more awesome than they would have been if they’d just quietly followed the conventions of the modern novel (which, of course, was developed mostly by white men). Fran Ross’s 1974 classic Oreo definitely falls into this category.
It follows the journey of Christine Clark—a half Jewish, half black teenager nicknamed Oreo—as she tries to “discover the secret of her birth,” i.e. track down her father using a very obtuse set of clues (“sow” is one, as well as “the sword and the slippers,” which turns out to be a mezuzah necklace and a pair of socks). This, as you may have guessed from the clues, is not a serious novel. Ross uses hyperbole, crazy metaphors, improbable circumstances, and actions bordering on the fantastic to create what has rightly been called a “hilarious” novel by Paul Beatty, whose novel White Boy Shuffle is one of our Black History Month book list picks.
Terrance Hayes, a pretty famous local black poet who picked both White Boy Shuffle and Oreo for us, had this to say about the two novels:
The book that comes to mind as a provocative Black History Month work is, White Boy Shuffle, the 1996 debut novel of Paul Beatty. I read it in one fevered sitting twenty years ago. The protagonist, Gunnar Kaufmann, is an irreverent, poetry writing, basketball playing, black kid. In the novel Beatty satirizes Race, America, education, Blacks and Black history with a radical mix of ridicule and ridiculousness. It’s very much in conversation with Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, another bildungsromanic book about a smart and smart aleck young black protagonist—a half black half Jewish teen girl. Ross was one of Richard Pryor’s comedy writers so you can imagine the book’s hilarity. In fact, Beatty and Ross take cues from Pryor’s style: scathing, self critical, unapologetically funny and smart. Both books celebrate creative freedom; both celebrate Black History by freely satirizing Black History.
The novel doesn’t start with Oreo’s journey, however. It starts way back with her family history, and slowly works up to Oreo, who is sort of like an every-day superhero. Ross doesn’t rely only on straight prose or text to give the reader a glimpse into the minds of her characters. She uses equations, menus, dialogues, logos, and other textual and non-textual ephemera.
The effect, in whole, is to create a novel that destroys (and in doing so comments on) traditional novel structures and rebuilds them in a new way. Considering the time period in which the book was written, this makes sense. From the afterword:
Under the banner of the Black Arts movement that emerged as the cultural component of Black Power politics of the 1960s and 1970s, African American writers and artists struggled to define and practice a distinctive black aesthetic that departed from traditions based in the history and values of European cultures. The Black Arts movement was fueled by the desire to use art to recover—or, if necessary, to create or reinvent—an authentic black culture based in the particular historical experience of Americans of African descent.
Oreo isn’t just based in black culture or the Black Arts movement, though. It’s also firmly rooted in Jewish culture and tradition. Although Oreo’s parents got divorced when she was too young to remember anything about her Jewish father, her mother adapted some Yiddish into her everyday speech. And then there’s her grandfather, who made it his life’s mission to get rich from creating products meant to trick Jews. (I assure you, though, this is handled in a hilarious way, not an offensive way. The grandfather is portrayed as being ridiculous and maybe a little crazy.) If you don’t know a lot of Yiddish, some of the book’s subtler points might be lost, but not knowing doesn’t detract from the book’s enjoyment.
Although I didn’t really get into this book until Oreo has embarked on her journey to find her father and gets tangled up in all sorts of adventures, the beginning is still, objectively speaking, hilarious.