PHILADELPHIA (AP) -
Heroines don’t always show up the way that Fran Ross wrote Oreo. Oreo was cut from an entirely different cloth.
While Oreo shares many attributes with Blaxploitation heroines of the era, her quest has nothing to do with rescuing or avenging a boyfriend who’s in trouble or dead, like Sugar Hill or Cleopatra Jones. Her story isn’t fueled by surviving violent trauma like Foxy Brown. Foxy Brown’s rape in that 1974 film, as Morehouse cinema scholar Stephane Dunn has explained, becomes “a metaphor for racial power relations.” Consider the direction that Fran Ross took that same trope in her novel that same year.
Her Oreo infuriated a pimp after she humiliated him, so the pimp kidnaps her and plots for a man to violate her for revenge - a scene that sticks with many.
“He threw the unresisting Oreo to the floor,” Ross writes in the book, “stretched her legs wide in the ready-set position of a nutcracker, took aim, tried to jam his pole into her vault and - much to his and everyone else’s surprise - met with a barrier that propelled him backward and sent him bounding off the nearest wall.”
Yes, Oreo is a novel where you can spend time reading about how a guy gets repelled and sent flying repeatedly because the lead character installs a secret device in her na-na. The book is a rarity in many respects. It is one of few satirical novels written by a Black woman. It is Ross’ first and last novel.
The critical consensus is that Oreo is an out-and-out masterpiece, a virtuosic tour de force. Ross, now regarded as a genius, like so many Black visionaries, did not hold that regard in life. The book, much to her disappointment, received little attention when it was published. The novel was revived in 2000 and continues to gather new audiences. Ross, an intensely private person, died of cancer in 1985 at age 50.
Reading Oreo, filmmaker Tayarisha Poe, a West Philly native like Oreo and like Ross, was more than inspired. It was liberating, she said. Even today, she explained, there are lingering expectations in media that women characters, especially Black women, be punished. Ross had defied that.
“It’s like difficult for people to imagine not putting a woman in her place, period,” said Poe, who first read the novel in 2010, during her sophomore year in college. “And so rather than creating fictional worlds in which Black women have the opportunity to go on those odysseys and thrive, we just re-create the idea that, ‘Oh, if she does this, then we must see how she learns from her mistakes.’”
“When I was reading that book, I became obsessed,” said Poe, who treated Oreo as a model for the lead character of her debut film, Selah and the Spades. “The character Oreo kind of wrote herself into my brain as this is the archetype of a Black girl who does whatever she wants.”
Oreo is the story of a 16-year-old half-African American, half-Ashkenazi Jewish teen who leaves her grandparents’ house in West Philly to find her absentee dad in New York. She code-switches between the multiple dialects in her lineage along her journey, using wit, cunning, and a fearsome cane to find her own way.
The book, a recasting of the Greek myth of Theseus with Joycean ambitions in mind, is filled with the word play of many traditions, from literary jest to Jewish humor to Black auntie shade, and sometimes a cholent or gumbo of all of the above. Ross bypassed traditional storytelling formats, allowing the vignettes of her chapters to hold lists, diagrams, notes, menus, even math equations.
“It’s seamless, right?” said Pittsburgh writer Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. “You don’t see her hand in it.”
There’s a popular scene in Oreo where she’s reading a voice-over in a studio and a nonverbal Black soundman writes on a sign for her: “A LITTLE MORE JEWISH, PLEASE.”
Oreo finds inspiration in how her African American mother would use Yiddish terms, then lays it on thick.
“Passover is a celebration of freedom, of gee-dash-dee’s gift to our people,” Oreo recited. “So why spend precious holiday /time/ shopping and preparing? The ell-dash-are-dee has seen fit /to/ provide you with Tante Ruchel, a real bren … When it’s time for Seder, you’ll be able to sit back calm and cool and say, ‘It’s such a mechaieh to have Tante Ruchel for a friend.’”
The scene could be read as making fun of what Black performers faced working with white producers. The book is ceaselessly irreverent, so much so that some jokes can make you wonder if other people saw what she did, or if you even understood all of its meanings, or if you should be really laughing.
Philyaw and Scott Saul, a cultural historian at University of California, Berkeley, both consider Ross a trickster. That’s to say, she had the power to take societal norms and reinterpret them for her own ends. Saul describes Ross as a Black queer woman who was out to explode the boxes and limitations that she didn’t want to be placed inside.
“She dances carefully and cleverly, I think, with archetypes and also stereotypes. And that’s dangerous business,” Philyaw said. “How can we play with these taboos, these things that could … turn on a dime and be used against us and have been used against us? I think a lot of us just don’t even have the courage or the skill set to go there.”
Like a Br’er Rabbit tale, but also like a Kendrick Lamar album, Ross’ storytelling offers a full experience, shifting between voices from the different worlds she’s had to walk through.
“That’s a strategy of being fully yourself, being all these different kinds of people that you hold in yourself. It’s also a strategy for making your way in the world and for making a way out of no way, if somebody wants to trap you,” Saul said.
“I think that Oreo has a lot of success with that strategy,” Saul said. “I wish that Fran Ross had had that same success.”
We still don’t really know all of Ross’ story. She gave up a riverview apartment in New York to head to Los Angeles in the 1970s and write for Richard Pryor for a television project. That comes up a lot with mentions of Ross; not so much does the fact that Pryor decided not to go through with that show, to Ross’ dismay, that comedian Paul Mooney was surprised at the presence of a Black woman comedy writer to begin with, or that a production assistant consoled her by explaining that Pryor had been hiring all men anyway. Ross, who, Saul said, had ghostwritten for Jewish stand-up comedians, ultimately returned to New York with her dream of writing for Pryor dashed.
We do know that she grew up in West Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s as one of three children, on Pearl Street. West Philly today is changing. It was changing when Ross was coming up, too. Back then, the Rosses lived among Jewish neighbors, as the area was becoming more Black.
According to poet and literary scholar Harryette Mullen, Ross heard Yiddish in her youth from the shopkeeper’s family at the corner store next door to where she lived. Ross graduated at 16 from Overbrook High School then headed on to Temple University. Ross, a bookworm who’d been in the literary club, the art club and debate team in high school, had trouble finding work in Philly after graduating in 1956, Mullen wrote in the afterword for the 2015 edition of Oreo. The author moved to New York in 1960 and landed a job in publishing.
As Saul details in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ross, in spite of where she’d worked, couldn’t find a major press that was interested in Oreo at all. Illustrator Ann Grifalconi, her longtime partner in work, art, and love, put the book out through her own indie press, Greyfalcon House.
“Fran Ross had trouble finding a place for herself. Nonetheless, she did find a group of gay women who were really so important to her,” Saul explained to The Inquirer in an interview. “And so if we want to understand where Oreo came out of, how it even got published, we need to go back to the world of early-1970s, feminism and the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, and her involvement in these various worlds.
“And then we can understand that, although she has written the stuff that does very much speak to our time and seems cutting-edge even now, experimental even now, the only reason she got to that experimental edge was because there were these crosscurrents in history that were lifting her up and that she was so attuned to,” Saul said.
Kinohi Nishikawa, a professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University, said the book remained “a kind of underground classic” for years. Its obscurity began to change in the 1990s, after Mullen found Oreo in a New York City bookshop. She began bearing the torch for the novel and singing its praises to many, including fellow UCLA professor Richard Yarborough, which led to publication of the book’s second edition. From there, the book gained many champions.
“African American book clubs embraced it as well as literary scholars and ‘mainstream’ readers,” Mullen wrote in an essay.
Researchers such as Mullen, Saul, and Nishikawa have been working to track down more details on Ross’ life.
“How do we get a sense of her? I mean, that gets back to the trickster,” said Saul. “She really didn’t tend to write autobiographically. She tended to write through masks.”
The mask is still visible in the traces she left behind. Photos and letters of hers are difficult to pin down. She wrote some essays but the record only reflects back bits and pieces of who she was. We’re left to wonder what could have been if no masks were necessary.
What becomes of the legacy of a genius the world hardly got to know? For Fran Ross, her power has only enhanced with time.
“The book, in its skewering of white supremacy, in its skewering of the sort of chauvinism of Western culture, (so-called) classical civilization, really anticipates and gives us a lens to understand and critique the persistence of such supremacy and chauvinism today,” Nishikawa said. “And that’s never dimmed. That’s always been there.”
Ross’ lessons, Philyaw explained, took time to absorb. At first, there was the lesson that she never got to put out a second novel, and how precious (and scarce) time can be. Later it made Philyaw see that her writing had been a little safe. Because of Ross, her hero, Philyaw started to give her characters more freedom.
Imagining a Black girl who could do whatever she wanted became a writing prompt for Poe, the filmmaker. Oreo made Poe dream differently.
“Seeing myself in her and seeing her as myself gave me so much strength to just try things and not just try things in my life, but to try things in terms of the work,” said Poe, who considers Ross a creative ancestor.
“So for me personally, like I feel like this character changed my life.”
To her nephew, Gerald Ross, now a magistrate judge for New Castle County, Delaware, Ross was the down-to-earth aunt to chat and chuckle with about movies, football, plays, and pop culture. He would see her as she made visits to see family in Philly. She dressed “almost hippyish” and never let go of her Afro. Gerald Ross and his aunt used to vibe, discussing the NFL players and actors of the day.
In their last conversation, his aunt told him she was hoping to see who he and his cousins would become.
Oreo was released when he was a teenager. He didn’t read it back then, and only returned to his aunt’s book more recently. He marveled over her use of language, as her many fans have.
Her polyglot shenanigans were no family shtick. When they spoke, she didn’t use the big words, Yiddish or Latin. They would just have “regular talk.”
“I found myself constantly Googling information while reading Oreo. For example, do you know what a schmendrick is? It’s an ineffectual foolish or contemptible person in Yiddish,” Gerald Ross said. “It was unique then, and it stands out even today for its originality. And what reverberates as I read each chapter is her high intellect.”
A French film production company has purchased the rights to Oreo, to bring it to silver screen. Just the chance of that makes her nephew excited.
“I bet you,” he said, “she would’ve been bowled over by that.”
Staff videographer Lauren Schneiderman contributed to this article.
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