Google wasn’t around when Oreo was first published in 1974. You are hit with Greek mythology and Yiddish right away and just the look of the pages of Fran Ross’s novel about an Afro-Jewish girl’s quest to find her white father can discourage or intimidate. Oreo, by an African-American writer who died in 1985, promises a degree of difficulty; the chapter titles, paragraph titles (“Helen and Oreo shmooz”), different font sizes, a graph showing shades of blackness, letters, an elaborate five-page menu of a daughter’s homecoming meal, footnotes, and mathematical equations say this is no naturalistic tale of two ghettoes. The protagonist is called “Oreo” not because of the cookie—i.e., because she is mixed-race or reluctantly black, as in black on the outside but white on the inside. Her black grandmother had been trying to give Oreo the nickname “Oriole,” but couldn’t make herself understood to the family.
In addition to Greek myth and Yiddish, Ross makes use of black slang, popular culture of the time, puns, raunch, her own made-up words—but this is not vernacular, not jive. Ross’s voice is literary, and thrilled with itself, joking about Villon or Bellow, totally into what it takes to get up to outrageous parody. Nothing about the narrative is restful; you have to stay on the alert. Oreo is quick, obscure, sly, and every line is working hard, doing its bit. Ross makes Oreo relentless in her shtick. “Oreo was soon engrossed in ‘Burp: The Course of Smiling Among Groups of Israeli Infants in the First Eighteen Months of Life,’ the cover story in Pitfalls of Gynecology.”
In fractured, short chapters, Oreo decides arbitrarily that she has fulfilled a given task and therefore deserves another cryptic clue from her father. Ross gives us not a send-up of Theseus’s journey of labors, but her appropriation of his battles as her structure, her frame for her provocative urban picaresque.
This is going to be fun. I am having a whale of a time, the omniscient voice seems to say on every page, and you should, too, and so Oreo isn’t a novel that makes assumptions about a reader’s type of education, but one that makes it clear pretty soon that no reader is expected to get it all, or even can. As a puzzle, Oreo is rigged from the start. All is playfulness, but a serious act of insinuation or trespass is going on—a woman, either the author or the protagonist, is carrying on, giving attitude like a man and getting away with it in a literary world made by Plutarch, Cervantes, Sterne, Joyce, Vonnegut, Pynchon.
A word about weather
There is no weather per se in this book. Passing reference is made to weather in a few instances. Assume whatever season you like throughout. Summer makes the most sense in a book of this length. That way, pages do not have to be used up describing people taking off and putting on overcoats.
Oreo’s Jewish grandmother died of a “racist/my-son-the-bum coronary” when he told her that he was marrying a black girl and dropping out of school. Oreo’s black grandfather had a stroke and the text provides an illustration of the half-swastika he resembled, rigid in his straight-back chair. He’d hated Jews, but made money in the mail-order business selling to a Jewish clientele a range of Jewish merchandise, including dreidels for Hanukkah, wine goblets for Passover, and the Jewish History Coloring Book. Oreo’s parents fight on Mondays and Thursdays, and when they break up, her father tells her mother to send their daughter to him when she is old enough and he will reveal to her the secret of her birth:
From the Jewish side of the family Christine [Oreo] inherited kinky hair and dark, thin skin (she was about a 7 on the color scale and touchy). From the black side of the family she inherited sharp features, rhythm, and thin skin (she was touchy). Two years after this book ends, she 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, honey.
The narrative progresses through digressions—about Oreo’s black grandmother, one of the great cooks of her time, and food; about her black grandfather’s impaired mental processes after his stroke. Oreo’s mother sends letters from her life on the road. She went to work as a singer or pianist after Oreo’s father left. Her head is full of childhood memories. We meet Oreo’s “tutors” as she grows up in Philadelphia. For instance, the loquacious milkman has an “udderful of theories” about life:
Now, kinky hair. Kinky hair—like that beautiful fuzzy cloud you have—is not really kinky. It doesn’t zig and zag. Kinky hair is actually coily. That’s right—coily. Each little hair is practically by way of being a perfect circle. Now, these millions of coils on your head are all jumbled up, coiling around each other. That’s why it hurts you to comb your hair. You’re pulling in one direction, the coils may be pulling in sixteen other directions. But—and this is the main thing—while the coils are doing that, they are also forming air pockets. Now, air pockets do several things. One, they keep your head warm in the winter. Two, they keep your head cool in the summer. And, three, they protect you from concussions by absorbing the shock of blows to the head. Therefore, kinky hair is certainly more useful than straight hair. It is obviously advanced hair. I mean, the evolutionary wheel had to take a couple of wrong turns before it came up with kinky hair.
When the time comes, Oreo goes overland not to Athens, but to New York. The dangers, the beasts, are at the station, on the subway concourse, or on the train. She follows clues that take her from the East Side of Second Avenue to Riverside Drive. Up in Harlem, seeing a pimp leading five white prostitutes and five black ones,
It was as though the pimp were swimming down the street, a swan breasting the current for his cygnets. The cob would take two stroking steps, glide to a stop, flutter his arms ostentatiously to his hips, turn to see that he was still followed at a respectful distance, and continue downstream. His clothes seem to grow out of him, hugging his lithe, sigmoid torso more snugly than a suit of lights a torero’s sinuosity. He was fledged in a suit of pearlescent pink velvet, a soft dawn-gray shirt, a blushing-rose string tie. His long-billed velvet cap raked this way and that as he skewed about to check on the progress of his brood. The rake’s progress, Oreo thought, and laughed to herself. Occasionally he paused to buff his nails, perking his chest with anseriform hauteur. When he stopped, the women stopped; when he moved on, they followed. Oreo decided to name him after an adulterer and, as a student of British history, dubbed him Parnell.
Oreo meets at last with her father on the Upper West Side and the remainder of the novel is a long, deliberate anticlimax of daughterly disappointment and revenge. “Of course, the clues had been meant only to make Oreo think of the legend of Theseus. They had nothing to do with any of her actual adventures.” Yet Ross appends “A Key for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.” in which she gives an outline of Theseus’s story, notably his contest with the Minotaur, and a list of which figures in it correspond to which characters in Oreo’s story. “Aegeus—Samuel Schwartz.”
Her story begins with absolute primogeniture: her father leaves the first set of clues under a rock for her, not her younger brother. Then, Ross will stop at nothing:
Oreo’s menarche had been at age eight. She had been minding her own business, experimenting to see whether her pet turtle would try to mate with an army helmet, half a walnut shell, or a swatch of linoleum (the “bottom-shell hypothesis”), when she felt a slight contraction in her lower abdomen. She was vague about the area—it happened so fast—but it was somewhere below the pupik and above the mons veneris. She went to the bathroom to check on a stickiness she felt—and saw the blood. “Oi gevalt,” she said, “what the fuck is this shit?”
Along the way, from Philadelphia to New York, the baddies whom Oreo subdues are men caught in the act of oppressing someone. Oreo relishes physical retaliation. She punishes the men, beats them with her cane, subjects them to mighty blows. She is a martial arts specialist. “She sure got womb, that little mother,” her uncle said of her when she was still a child. “She is a ball buster and a half.” Ross was a committed feminist. The only thing the novel doesn’t target is Oreo herself. In a touching afterword, Harryette Mullen points out the ways in which Ross’s work is different from most fiction by women, black or white, in the 1970s.
This edition of Oreo also includes a gripping foreword by Danzy Senna, remembering when Oreo was reprinted in 1997 and its embrace by black bohemia in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for all the reasons it failed to gain much notice when first published twenty-three years earlier. Throughout the novel, Ross’s narrator talks in various ways about the story being composed:
She read the first and last words of the treatise, titled Lying Fallow, or What You Should Know About Federal Subsidies, and started and ended her essay with similar words. In Lying Fallow, the first word was snow and the last word was potatoes. In her book-length essay (Secretaries of Agriculture I Have Known, or God: The First Economic Agronomist), Oreo experimented with monsoon and broccoli as her first and last words, but decided they were too exotic, and, what is more, monsoon had too many syllables. Already she had strayed from the obvious pattern Fallow’s author had established with his forceful yet sensitive first and last words. After an evening with Roget, Oreo decided that her first word would be rain and her last word rice. She was more than willing to sacrifice syllables (her two to Fallow’s four) for alliteration. She quickly filled in the middle section of her essay, using the same technique. What she sacrificed in cogency, she gained in mechanicality (her serendipitous assembly-line gobbledygook against Fallow’s numbing agroeconomic clarity). Thus a typical sentence in Fallow: “Wheat farm B showed a declining profit-loss ratio during the harvest season,” became in Oreo’s manuscript: “Oat ranch wasp played the drooping excess-death proportion while a crop pepper.”
Or, in an uptown recording studio:
Oreo could hear the strange permutation of words speeded up and slowed down, rushed backward and whisked forward, the barbaric yawp of words cut off in mid-syllable (the choked consonants, the disavowed vowels), burdened with excessive volume, affecting elusive portent. Words were all over the floor. Words and time. What word was that there in the corner, curled up like a fetus? And this umbilicus of sound, what caesarean intervention had ripped it untimely from its mother root? Sound boomed off the walls, rocketing around the hallways as it charged out of an open door marked CONTROL ROOM B.
Is that not Ross in that room, manning the controls?
Fran Ross was born in Philadelphia in 1935, where she graduated from Temple University. She was not of mixed-race parentage. Her family came from North Carolina. There were Russian Jewish immigrants in her Philadelphia neighborhood when she was growing up. Ross moved to New York in 1960 and found a position in publishing. Mullen and Senna tell us that in 1977, thanks to Oreo, she went to Los Angeles to work as a comedy writer on The Richard Pryor Show. However, Pryor bristled at network censorship and the show ended after only four episodes. Ross could not find other work in television comedy. She returned to New York, where she died of cancer at the age of fifty.
Her only novel makes fun of the oi-veying Jewish aunt as well as the mush-mouthed black grandmother. Perhaps this equality of mockery helped to make Oreo a book hard to classify back in the 1970s. Moreover, black–Jewish relations had fallen apart when Oreo was published—partly because of tensions between Jewish members of the teachers’ union and the black community of Ocean Hill–Brownsville in Brooklyn during the teachers’ strike of 1968, and especially because of what had happened to the Palestinians in the camps in 1973. The cultural climate was one of not wanting to deal with the question of the black–Jewish coalition anymore.
Because Ross is taking off from myth, Oreo is a tall tale, but at a time when black writers such as Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara were seeking to honor black America’s origins as an oral culture, Ross didn’t bother to disguise the elitism of the learning on display in her comic novel, which sometimes parodies the folk voice.
Norman Mailer may have urged white hipsters to model themselves after badass black men in his essay “The White Negro” (1957), but not long afterward, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), Mailer said he was tired of Negroes and their rights, sick of the tyranny of soul music, bored with Negroes late to their appointments, and depressed by black inhumanity to black in Biafra. And the young of the Black Arts Movement were weary of black writers behaving, forgiving, explaining. The Problem Novel about race had been strengthened in the era of integration. It took a while for the militancy that had overtaken much work by black poets and black playwrights in the 1960s to find expression in fiction, because it was difficult for black writers to free themselves from the narrative traditions of double-consciousness. In fiction, the movement took the form of escapes from realism, from the pieties of the black condition.
Henry Van Dyke, whose comedies call up Ronald Firbank, published Ladies of the Rachmaninoff Eyes in 1965. It recounts the tempestuous love between a white spinster and her paid black companion as observed by a merry black teenager. William Demby, a black novelist, is the narrator of William Demby’s The Catacombs (1965), about an interracial affair in Rome. Charles Wright’s The Wig (1966) is a weird spoof on the picaresque and the coming-of-age-novel and a put-down of Great Society optimism about black advancement.
William Melvin Kelley’s dem (1967) appears to be a “raceless” novel, until it is slowly revealed that the white advertising executive protagonist has been cuckolded by a black man. The linguistic daring of Kelley’s Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970), with its puns and neologisms, is part of the decomposition of the novel that was going on in America in general. Black writers were as free to experiment with the form as anyone. The author spontaneously combusts at the end of Clarence Major’s Emergency Exit (1979). Satire and caustic humor seemed to go with the times. We were, after all, at war, at home and abroad. There was no shortage of the Problem Novel and realism, but black culture relaxed its vigilance and made room for John Oliver Killens’s broad slapstick about self-image problems in The Cotillion (1970) or Bill Gunn’s hurt-filled satires about blacks in Hollywood, Black Picture Show (1978) and Rhinestone Sharecropping (1981).
When we think of irreverence in black literature, we turn immediately to Ishmael Reed and his allegorical burlesques and pastiches of the fantastic. Mumbo Jumbo (1972) has its scholarly apparatus, but in this, his best-known work, Reed is vehemently against Western culture and offers “Neo-Hoodooism” as an alternative history and a philosophy of black cultural nationalism. Oreo was published the same year as The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Ishmael Reed’s novel that kicked off his public quarrel with feminism. Charles Johnson’s first novel came out in the same year. His Faith and the Good Thing is a harsh fable about modern black women.
Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982) is a stunning reinvention of the slave narrative but what comes through strongest in the writing is Johnson’s saturation in Eastern philosophy, like Schopenhauer or Seymour Glass. Reed and Johnson are the company Fran Ross keeps—or the male preserve she invaded. In Mumbo Jumbo Reed makes his “Curator of the Center of Art Detention” complain:
Son, these niggers writing. Profaning our sacred words. Taking them from us and beating them on the anvil of BoogieWoogie, putting their black hands on them so that they shine like burnished amulets. Taking our words, son, these filthy niggers and using them like…god-given pussy.
Ross makes sure that Oreo is an inveterate crotch-watcher, expertly measuring up men, putting them in different categories, laughing at her own use of shlong, dong, pecker, dick, etc.
Image control, Charles Johnson said, had been the aim of black literature since the beginning of black literary production. Therefore that was also its problem—the ancient faith that language and literary art would clarify the black experience. Johnson went on to say that the black experience in literature exists only in literature and therefore varies from writer to writer. Oreo has the atmosphere of a special time and place. The dialogue is like the conversation of a mad bibliophile in a secondhand bookstore on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, a place of sanctuary for the blacks and Jews who still shared a cosmopolitan New York culture.