The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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Blackness Symbol Icon

In the racial milieu of the Dominican Republic (as in America), skin color takes on significance beyond simple melanin. Blackness represents misfortune and poverty, whereas lighter skin tones symbolize success and wealth. Characters are warned not to get a tan for fear they will look Haitian (that is, black), and be treated with the disrespect that poor Haitians are awarded. Beli and Oscar, the two darkest-skinned characters in the novel, are each taken as ill omens by their families at birth. Many of the characters that the de León family encounter pity their color, because they think that black skin will lead to unhappiness. Even in the novels and popular culture that the characters consume, black skin is reserved for villains and monsters.

Yet the de León family themselves do not buy in to this color coding. Lola and Oscar refuse to apologize for their black skin, eventually coming to terms with their Dominican heritage despite the racism they encounter. As a young woman, Beli insists that her immense beauty is because of her blackness, rather than in spite of it. This alternate reading of blackness as power is supported by the Mongoose, a magical creature with pitch black fur that works for good in the universe of the novel. Thus, the novel reminds the reader that all symbolic meaning, such as the idea that black must stand for evil, is not based in reality and can be rewritten.

Blackness Quotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao quotes below all refer to the symbol of Blackness. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Riverhead Books edition of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao published in 2008.
Book 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Dominicano soy.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Oscar de León (Oscar Wao)
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout his life, Oscar struggles to find his identity. As a Dominican American, he has trouble fitting in with both Dominican and American culture. When he goes to college at Rutgers and must try to find his way without the support of his family, Oscar realizes that both cultures find reasons to reject him. White students see his black appearance and then refuse to engage with Oscar on an intellectual level, resorting to an “inhuman cheeriness” that makes Oscar into “the other” and keeps him at a distance. Meanwhile, the other students of color quickly realize that Oscar does not act in the stereotypically Dominican way that they expect. Oscar is not suave or sensitive, like Dominican ladies’ men are supposed to be, and his speech is heavily influenced by the science fiction and fantasy novels that he reads. This interest in historically “white” genres means that Oscar does not fit in with the students of color either. Oscar is forced to continually reassert his heritage, as Yunior repeats “Soy Dominicano” (I am Dominican) to emphasize this point.

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Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her
so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked
who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Yunior sets up much of Beli’s character in her first description (which takes the form of a kind of poem). Beli is both incredibly dark-skinned and incredibly beautiful, flipping the stereotype of black skin being undesirable that is seen elsewhere in the novel. Yunior invokes a female deity (the Creatrix) that created Beli with a purpose, but one that she might not be able to fulfill because the Creatrix blinked and accidentally made her too dark. The sense of destiny strongly affects Beli, as she is always striving for some undetermined goal.

Beli’s “yet-to-be-born daughter” Lola, who has already received her chapter on running away, is simply carrying on her mother’s tradition. Both Beli and Lola share a constant restlessness, something that Yunior says they would have shared no matter where they had been born. He associates this restlessness with New Jersey. According to Yunior, people who live in Jersey naturally want to prove themselves and reach somewhere better—probably because of their proximity to the “better” and more famous New York. Notably, the family history repeats with Beli and Lola because Beli never shares the lessons that she learned with her daughter.

…you could argue that the Gangster adored our girl and that adoration was one of the greatest gifts anybody had ever given her. It felt unbelievably good to Beli, shook her to her core. (For the first time I actually felt like I owned my skin, like it was me and I was it.)

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral (speaker), The Gangster
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

Beli’s second great love is the Gangster, a man who commits awful acts for Trujillo, but treats Beli like a princess. The Gangster adores Beli, telling her from their first meeting that Beautiful is her name and worshipping her body when they are intimate. Beli has received plenty of attention for her body, but the Gangster’s complete acceptance of every part of her appearance, including her extremely dark skin and the scar on her back, is a new and welcome experience. Beli’s parenthetical addition to Yunior’s narration makes it clear that she had never felt truly comfortable in her skin before the Gangster, but that his love helped her “own” her skin and thus own her identity as a black woman. Yet though the transformative power of love carries a lot of weight in the book, Beli’s self-acceptance does not last, because it is so dependent on the validation of another person. After the Gangster leaves Beli, she loses confidence in herself and does not celebrate her black skin when her children inherit it.

Book 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Beli (Hypatia Belicia) Cabral
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

When Beli is born, her extremely dark complexion cause some of her family to say that she is the first sign of the fukú curse on the whole family. In the Dominican Republic, black skin signified low-class poverty because it was supposedly the mark of the hated Haitians from the other half of the island. Beli’s dark skin, despite her family’s elite social standing, was the first signal that her family was truly falling into disarray after her father Abelard’s arrest. Yunior laments the hypocrisy in this part of Dominican culture. Though a large majority of Dominicans have skin just as dark as Haitians, the values of colonialism and white supremacy are still so strong that Dominicans are forced to deny that natural part of their appearance. Beli’s dark skin follows her throughout her life, becoming her most prominent feature as well as a visual symbol of the curse’s power in her life.

Book 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

He read The Lord of the Rings for what I'm estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he'd first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line "and out of Far Harad black men like halftrolls" and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.

Related Characters: Yunior (The Narrator) (speaker), Oscar de León (Oscar Wao)
Related Symbols: Blackness
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

As Oscar recovers from a near-fatal beating, he turns to his favorite books for comfort, as he has many times in the past. Yunior ties the moment back to Oscar’s childhood, when a more innocent and naïve Oscar simply wanted companionship in his lonely life. At the time, The Lord of the Rings was the perfect solution, and Yunior says he is able to read it millions of times to find that same comfort.

However, once Oscar grows up and experiences prejudice and racism because of his dark skin, certain elements of the fantasy novel begin to take on a painful undertone. Yunior says that Oscar stops at the line comparing black men to half trolls, a phrase that is meant to describe the races of orcs and trills that are the villains of the books, but which strikes Oscar as another example of white men, like author JRR Tolkien, treating black men as less than human. Oscar is no longer able to use fantasy as an escape, because the racial hierarchies that punish him in the real world follow him even in his favorite novels.

Though Oscar has to put aside one of his favorite novels, this moment is also a catalyst for Oscar to finally start taking the initiative to improve his real life. Once Oscar is well enough, he returns to the DR and fights for the woman he loves, rather than disappearing into another fantasy world.

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Blackness Symbol Timeline in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The timeline below shows where the symbol Blackness appears in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1, Chapter 1: Ghetto Nerd at the End of the World (1974-1987)
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Story, History, and Writing Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
...off the plane, his uncle derides his tan for making him look “Haitian” (that is, black). (full context)
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
...with the white kids who like the genres he loves because they only see his black skin. His fellow students of color, on the other hand, tell him that these “white”... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 3: The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral (1955-1962)
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Story, History, and Writing Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
...1950s from the frenzied Baní of today, but explains that the neighborhood was intolerant of black skin in those days. Still, Beli has it relatively easy, as La Inca owns a... (full context)
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
...The only time Wei speaks to Beli is to tell her that her skin is “black-black”. Her time with the foster family, the “Lost Years,” makes it hard for Beli to... (full context)
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Story, History, and Writing Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
...not pleased to hear that her husband has had an affair with a negra prieta (black, low-class girl). (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 4: Sentimental Education (1988-1992)
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Loss Theme Icon
...about anything. Though the narrator admits that Lola is not conventionally attractive because of her dark skin , her intelligence, independence and integrity are second to none. The narrator starts to talk... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 5: Poor Abelard (1944-1946)
Free Will and Destiny Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
...sign of the curse was the birth of Abelard’s third daughter, who was born with pitch-black skin. Socorro committed suicide two months after Beli was born, and the three Cabral daughters... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 6: Land of the Lost (1992-1995)
Identity and the Dominican Experience in America Theme Icon
Art, Life, and Latinos in America Theme Icon
Dominican American Culture, Colonialism, and Racism Theme Icon
...Rings again, but he has to stop when he reaches the description of Orcs as “black men like half-trolls.” Six weeks after his beating, Oscar dreams of the cane field again.... (full context)