My original post on biracial narratives was posted in April. You can read it here.
While I was in California last month, I read Fran Ross’ Oreo, a 1970s farce about a biracial, half Jewish young adult. A couple years ago, I read Rebecca Walker’s Black, White, and Jewish, which is a memoir of growing up the daughter of Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal. It should be obvious why I picked these books up. If there were a memoir called Black, White, Jewish, and sort of Chicana, either I would be really intrigued, or I would be the author of it. When I heard about Oreo, I was pretty surprised, because I haven’t found a ton of people who are mixed and Jewish. I’ve met one person who was all black and considered herself a Messianic Jew, but Messianic Jews aren’t Jews, so that’s moot. And the only other black (possibly he was mixed; I don’t remember) Jew I’ve met turned out to borderline stalk me, so I haven’t had the best experience with other mixed Jews, and my biracial and Jewish experience is maybe slightly different in the technicalities, because I’m Jewish by adoption. Still, a common thread I noticed in these two books is humor. It makes sense, when you consider the similar cultural values and history of African Americans and American Jews, that they would intermarry and that in interracial families and in biracial individuals, humor would come up as a way to deal with and/or explain identity.
The humor in the narration of Oreo works first because the novel is a farce, so it’s necessary for the genre. But the character of Oreo also uses humor as a form of deflection, especially when she is dealing with issues of abandonment, identity, and family. In Walker’s memoir, which I’ll admit is not super fresh in my mind at the moment, she also uses humor as a way to assuage her mixed feelings about the way her parents raised her. Since styles of humor are so based on nationality, language, culture, race, and ethnicity, using humor in these narratives also defines who will be the best audience for the book. Oreo’s black mother has a Jewish fetish, and the book is peppered with enough Yiddish that it’s not just common Americanisms that come from Yiddish, but it’s full of things that you would have to be Jewish to understand. At the same time, it also uses slang and jargon rooted in the black seventies experience, which could possibly alienate the same group it just brought in with the Yiddish. The fact that the book lies in two literary and linguistic ghettos could either broaden or shrink its possibilities for a receptive audience. Then again, Jewish humor at least is commonly seen and understood at least by American audiences, since Hollywood and vaudeville are rooted in American Judaism, which means that the general American public is at least somewhat familiar with the style.
That’s another common thread in these two books, though I think a lot of it is just chance. Both protagonists, even though one is fictional and one is not, have divorced or separated parents. Coming from “broken homes,” I noticed that both protagonists identify more with their black families and parents (who in both books do the majority of child rearing) but also do not want to be seen as just black.
In my own experience, and in Walker’s and Oreo’s, the discovery and formation of racial identity as a mixed person rather as one or the other are shaped by, or the young women try to shape them through, sexual experiences. Both women have what would probably be seen as unorthodox or non-traditional sexual lifestyles and habits. Since sexual identity and experience do much to shape anyone’s identity, I can see why this would play a huge role in a narrative about being biracial, because personal identity doesn’t always go with outward appearance, and that leads to issues of fetishization, exoticization, or just plain confusion. The men and women that Oreo and Walker sleep with have various ideas of what kind of person Oreo and Walker are, and both books deal in part with trying to find a partner that understands, or at least acknowledges, that mixed is not the same as white, not the same as black, and not the same as Jewish.
In my own life I’ve seen how men assume that I’m African American, and I respond incorrectly to their social cues because they are not part of my life experience. I’ve seen Jewish guys treat me as an exotic piece that they can still bring home to Mom. I’ve been too white or too Jewish for Mexican guys, too Mexican for white guys, too hipster for black guys, whatever. Many biracial or racial narratives deal with being not enough of something, but I think when it comes to sexual experience and romantic relationships, often the problem is being too much of something, not too little.
Even though my age and lack of lots of experience in African American culture kept me from totally feeling like an insider when I read Oreo, I still felt it was a really positive contribution to the biracial canon, and I’m so glad that NPR did a story on it and that Harryette Mullen edited a new edition of it so that I could discover it. Humor is a really good way to illustrate to non-mixed people how complicated the mixed experience is, while sexual experiences are a very honest and true-to-life display of the limitations and struggles of mixed young people becoming adults.
Next in this series I’ll probably talk about The Latte Rebellion, but after that I really need to do some digging to find other books about the biracial experience.