Diane Oliver


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Richard Wright (1908—1960)

Lorraine Hansberry (1930—1965)


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(1943–1966), naturalist southern black feminist writer.

Diane Alene Oliver lived only twenty-two years, but she left a legacy of short stories to earn her recognition. Born 28 July 1943, Oliver grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where her passage into adolescence coincided with the racial upheavals in the Charlotte–Mecklenburg school system. The Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, mandating desegregation of public schools. Oliver never capitulated to notions of racial inferiority and went on to graduate from West Charlotte High School.

In 1960, she enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; that marked the beginning of an auspicious writing career. Oliver served as managing editor of The Carolinian, the campus newspaper; studied under poet Randall Jarrell; and also began to write short stories. A career break occurred when Oliver won the guest editorship for the June 1964 edition of Mademoiselle magazine in its contest to honor outstanding college writers. A year later, she published her first short story in the fall 1965 issue of Red Clay Reader. “Key to the City” provided Oliver with a scholarship in 1965 to the University of Iowa, where she enrolled in the Writers' Workshop.

Oliver portrays strong-willed, black women caregivers of her era. As abandoned wives or nurturing daughters, the women struggle to maintain family unity while oppressive social forces work to disintegrate it. They are determined women but subtle in their warfare, as the ironic titles of the works illustrate. These stylistics are evident when Oliver's stories are examined thematically rather than chronologically.

Oliver's first and third stories, “Key to the City” and “Neighbors,” published in the spring 1966 issue of Sewanee Review, invoke the migration theme of South to North when blacks looked to Chicago as the promised land. Once Nora Murray completes high school in Still Creek, Georgia, she sets her goal to attend college in the North. “Key to the City” centers on Nora's domestic duties: settling the house and preparing her siblings and working mother for the bus trip to Chicago. They trade one dead-end situation for another, arriving in Chicago only to learn that their husband-father has abandoned them and that they must immediately go on welfare.

“Neighbors” continues the regional theme of Chicago to show reality as a racist enclave in the stead of Oliver's predecessors, Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry. Oliver's story differs, however, by her focus on racial tensions during the era of busing. Eloise Mitchell, a twenty-year-old working girl, resides with her family in a Chicago Housing Project that borders a white district that has been targeted for court-ordered school integration. The conflict concerns the family's responses to the bombing of their home and the welfare of the six-year-old son who is the test case. Eloise dissolves family tension in the most unobtrusive manner by redirecting their fears to the mundane issue of breakfast. Her clever ruse contrasts the disruptive force of the historical moment at hand.

In her second and fourth stories, “Health Service” and “Traffic Jam,” published in the November 1965 and July 1966 issues of Negro Digest, respectively, Oliver invokes a Faulknerian device. She invents the fictional southern community of Fir Town where Libby, Hal, and their children struggle against the racial oppression of whites. Libby is the reticent, central consciousness of both works who endures derision from both the black and white communities because Hal has abandoned her and their children. The main conflict of “Health Care” concerns Libby's trek to Fir Town with five hungry children all under the age of six in order for Meetrie, the eldest, to get an immunization shot for day camp. The daylong plight ends with no health care and loss of a day's wages. “Traffic Jam” extends the theme of humiliation to Libby's job as a domestic where she daily endures insults from her white female employer for Hal's desertion of them. He returns unexpectedly after a year, but with an automobile instead of money. Libby accepts Hal and his symbol of manhood since she knows that their socioe-conomic condition will remain unchanged with or without Hal's car.


Subjects: Literature.

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