Dust-jacket from the first edition
|Cover artist||Ann Twombly|
|Publisher||Northeastern University Press(publisher)|
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3568.O8433 O74 2000|
Oreo is a satirical novel published in 1974 by Fran Ross, a journalist and short-lived comedy writer for Richard Pryor. The book was almost forgotten and became out of print until Harryette Mullen rediscovered the novel and brought it out of obscurity. The book has since acquired cult classic status.
Born to a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she is two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a pack on her back to search for her father; but in the big city she discovers that there are dozens of Sam Schwartzes in the phone book, and Oreo's mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest. The ambitious and playful narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity, culture, and even the novelistic form itself; its quest theme is inspired by that of the Greek tale of Theseus.
Ross uses the structure of the Theseus myth to both trap Oreo and allow her to reinvent it. Oreo's white father, who abandoned her, forces her to live out this inherently white, male narrative. However, the trope of lost patriarchy is essential in black cultures so Oreo can reappropriate the myth and make it entirely non-foreign. Furthermore, Oreo reinvents the archaic myth by living a black narrative through it, suggesting that blacks can reappropriate themes from the white culture they are forced to live in. The search for paternity within the Theseus myth is essentially futile since Oreo gains nothing from finding her father, which undermines the importance placed on the search for paternity.
Oreo is a picaresque novel, that revolves around our picaroon, Oreo. It is a fictional tale about the adventures and conflicts she faces on her search for her father. It falls under the category of Post Soul Aesthetic, modern works that expands upon the possibilities of the Black experience, and arguably New Black Aesthetic, works that describes the black experience from the perspective of the culturally-hybrid, second generation middle class.
The novel is told from the perspective of an omniscient, third-person. The novel strays from traditional narrative form. The novel exemplifies the essence of postmodernism, fragmentation through its structure.The chapters are broken into subsections. The novel uses diagram, equations, menus, tests, ads, letters, other sources to break and supplement the narrative.
Identity, and it's flexibility, proves to be a strong thematic presence in the novel. We see Oreo take on many different characters throughout the novel to fit any given situation, and all of these seem to become absorbed into her already complex identity. Oreo surrounds herself with family members on community members who have created a self-imposed identity, which always seems unfaltering and give the characters a certain inertia (or, in James' case, a very literal inertia), and takes on all of their identities, encouraging and allowing for her journey. She uses her malleable identity to her advantage in finding her father. Even her name goes through manifold different permutations. Oreo's biracial familial history seems to give her the ability to meander about with different masks, becoming whatever will best fit her situation. She becomes a vessel through which her family history can be shone. This shifting identity brings into question, however, who Oreo is at her core.
Ross brings to the forefront new figures that are usually not represented in talks of Black identity. In Oreo she presents the characters of Jimmie C., the feeble-hearted, fainting nerd, Jimmie’s best friend, Fonzelle Scarsdale, a hyper-sexualized F-student with a choreographed heavy walk, the flamboyantly dressed pimp, Parnell, and Kirk the sexual beast with an oversized phallus. Our feminist heroine, Christine is constantly juxtaposed with weak, male-dependent women. One example would be her passive grandmother Louise who remains submissive to her immobilized husband in his stroke-stricken state for 15 years until she finally seeks out a replacement. Other examples are Parnell’s prostitutes; inherent to their job is the task of subservience to their “boss” and their “customers”.Through these characters Ross portrays variations of Black identity into the experiences and does not simply to create the antitheses of popularized Blackness that may accompany other stereotypes.
The novels uses a broad spectrum of languages including: AAVE, Yiddish, superstandard language, louise-ese, math, rhyme, singing. Christine’s skillful navigation among this broad array of languages points to her cultural hybridity. She is capable of code-switching and interchanging, and communicating with all these languages and their users.
Language is very much associated with social standing, intelligence, geographical climates, socioeconomic status, and race. Ross uses an array of different languages and styles of languages; causing the reader to step outside of what is deemed as normative. Knowledge of multiple languages is usually associated with the word "cultured," meaning that one has had both the resources and the intellectual capacity to experience different international environments and learn the language of those environments. Louise's character is interesting in this way, because though her speech indicates a black, ill-educated southerner - her cooking does not. Her food also causes others to have responses of pleasure and delight, in a way that her verbal communication would not. Her complexity is duped by the idea that on the exterior, no one can understand her. Ross causes the reader to be confused and confounded by language when the audience might easily judge others for their various levels proficiency (or lack thereof) in language. Oreo represents this massive motherboard of languages (ranging from the scholarly English taught by her professor, to her brother's incoherent phrases. Oreo knows how to mix and meld languages, change "accents" and dialects, and use vocabulary in a way that cannot be done by the reader. The displacement of the reader in this context gives the effect of the foreignness experienced by the characters in the novel; particularly by a bi-racial child.
Christine is the heroine of the tale is on a search for her father. This search is symbolic of her search for identity and history. Christine has few masculine figures in her life. Christine is abandoned by her father, who goes off to start a new family and commits suicide when she finds him. Her grandfather, one of the few present male figures in her life, is immobilized by a stroke. So Christine becomes the masculine figure. The heroine is an embodiment of masculinity. She is the brave, strong, rugged, and powerful protector. Ironically, she also embodies femininity. The narrator predicts that soon Christine “would be the ideal beauty of legend and folklore-name the nationality, specify the ethnic group. Whatever your legends and folklore bring to mind for beauty of face and form, she would be it.” She is beautiful, caring, and gentle, towards those she chooses of course. In Christine, we achieve this tender balance of empathy for both sexes, a woman who could not just “break your balls” but “twist your tits” . Christine disbands many male characters of their masculinity through WIT, her offensive self-defense system. . Christine devises this system in response to her mother’s biased lessons of femininity. Specifically in response to her mother’s theory that “men can knock the shit out of woman” and in her resolve she declares the motto “Nemo me impune lacessit-‘No one attacks me with impunity’”. The WIT system is her mode of protection throughout her journey and the manner by which she exerts masculinity on other male figures as she progresses through her journey. The character Christine is striking in the respect that she refuses to abide by the patriarchal social system and she claims power in society. Ross complicates Black masculinity through the character of Christine and redefines what Black femininity can entail.
In Oreo, the main character Christine and her entire maternal family is cultured in both Jewish and Black cultures. She is a thriving hybrid, capable of switching from the languages of Yiddish, Standard English, and African American Vernacular English and transforming herself depending on the situation at hand. She is capable of fitting within the Black world because of her skin color and due to the cultural knowledge she possesses of the Jewish cultural background of her maternal family, she is able to blend in within Jewish social spheres. Although Oreo is an example the New Black Aesthetics’ concept of a cultural mulatto,Oreo is more thematic of Post-Soul Aesthetic since it introduces a very unusual Black-Jewish cultural mulatto that conflicts the practice of erasure,the practice of removing other races from the discussion of race and focusing on the White-Black binary. Though Oreo is able to switch between languages (which is another way she is capable of Style- Shifting throughout the novel to show solidarity with the different aspects that make up her genetic and social make-up) of Yiddish and English, almost being able to adapt to any situation, according to Trey Ellis' "New Black Aesthetic" she exists in the world as a "neutered mutation." A "Neutered mutation" is one that conforms to mainstream society by ridding themselves of their "blackness." Oreo would be deemed a "neutered mutation" because she is in search of her "whiteness" and not her "blackness." Oreo does subtle things to stray away from what she believes is authentic "blackness." In doing these things she is trying to avoid her "blackness" as if she is not really apart of the Black community but because she has been immersed in it since she was a child then she cannot get away from it, she's forced into it. Oreo believes by searching for her Jewish father her identity will take shape and she will finally be whole when in actuality her identity has already taken shaped because of her constant interaction with the Black community. Oreo is in search of something that she believes will almost rid herself of this feeling of emptiness. Her longing for her “whiteness” can be interpreted as her longing to get away from her “blackness.” Oreo can also be viewed as searching for her identity, since she feels that neither "Jewish" nor "Black" fully define her experience. Oreo is in multiple spaces where others assume her identity and treat her according to their assumptions. Oreo never had the opportunity to immerse herself into both of her racial designations, and she believed that finding her father would give her the missing piece of her identity. She was trying to transcend race and find her individual identity.
The Minor Character: Miss Hap
Towards the end of the novel, Ross introduces the relatively minor character, Miss Hap (196), who plays the role of the hired cook/caretaker of Oreo's father's family. While Miss Hap is only present for a few chapters, her role in the grander scheme and themes presented within the novel is potentially significant. In light of the novel's relation to the Post-Soul Aesthetic, Miss Hap is the only character that fully exhibits the one-dimensional and stereotypical qualities of the literary Mammy figure. This is especially evident in her speech, small mannerisms (197, 198), and dialogue directed towards a relatively antiquated, southern slave narrative. She is positioned in direct opposition to the rest of the characters Oreo encounters within the warped world of the novel, who all, in some way or another, muddy the waters of black and white dichotomies. She serves, in a way, as a dialogue between the new and the old, and while she is viewed as a slightly comical character, especially in her literal naming, it is she who serves as a final tool and solution for the end of Oreo's quest (203).
Upon its republication by Northeastern University Press in 2000, the then nearly thirty-year-old novel was praised for being ahead of its time. Oreo has been hailed as "one of the masterpieces of 20th century American comic writing." Furthermore, one critic elaborated that Oreo was "a true twenty-first century novel." The novel's "wit is global, hybrid and uproarious ... simultaneously irreverent, appropriative and serious. It is post-everything: post-modern, post-identity politics, post-politically correct." Novelist Paul Beatty also included an excerpt of Oreo in his 2006 anthology of African-American humor Hokum. In June 2007, Cultural critic Jalylah Burrell listed the book on VIBE.com as the number one work in African-American literature that should be adapted into a major motion picture, writing, "Quirky comedy with surrealist elements, i.e., Wes Anderson meets Kaufman/Gondry."
Mat Johnson chose Oreo for his 2011 appearance on the NPR program You Must Read This, describing it as "one of the funniest books I've ever read, but I've never quoted it. To do so, I would have to put quotations before the first page and then again at the last." He too stated that as a "feminist odyssey", published eight years before Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, the book had simply been ahead of its time: "A truly original view of our world is what we yearn for in fiction, but sometimes when something is so original, so many years ahead of its time, it takes time for the audience to catch up to it. It's a statement of how far we've come that for this quirky, hilarious, odd, little biracial black book, that time is now."
- Paul Beatty, "Black Humor", The New York Times, 22 January 2006.
- William Wilburt Cook; William W. Cook; James Tatum (1 April 2010). African American writers and classical tradition. University of Chicago Press. p. 300. ISBN 978-0-226-78996-5. Retrieved 10 March 2011.
- Johnson, Mat (9 March 2011). 'Oreo': A Satire Of Racial Identity, Inside And Out, You Must Read This, NPR. Retrieved 10 March 2011
- Ross, Fran (1974). Oreo. Northeasten UP.
- Trey Ellis, "New Black Aesthetic"
- J's Theater, May 2007.
- Women's Review of Books
- VIBE.com, June 2007.
- Harryette Mullen, l "Apple Pie with Oreo Crust", JSTOR, 2002