Twelve-year-old Carol and her mother Helen - characters also featured in "Hey Sailor, What Ship" - are in an African-American church, to witness the baptism of Carol's friend, Paraialee Phillips (Parry). Parry is there with her siblings and mother, Alva. Parry and her family are African-American; Carol and her family are white.
Carol is overwhelmed by her surroundings - the multiple choirs, the paintings on the ceiling, the embroidered curtains. Parry's younger sister Lucinda pulls Carol to her feet as everyone else stands up to sing. As the congregation joins the choir in song, Carol is distracted by the sight of Eddie Garlin, a boy she knows from school who is now singing in this choir. Carol whispers to Parry about Eddie, but Parry tells her not to worry about it.
Instead, Carol focuses on the music, trying to pick apart the complicated rhythms. Lucinda explains to Carol that Mr. Chairback Evans is going to lead the prayer ("invocate") that day, but that her mother, Alva Phillips, is a better prayer leader than he is (41). Carol worries that Eddie will tell others at school that she attended the black church, and she grips Parry's arm and drums on it for comfort, in imitation of a game they used to play as children. When she asks Parry if Parry is scared of being baptized, Parry denies it. Parry speaks in what is later termed "jivetalk," a habit she did not always practice (53).
All the while, people are calling out in religious ecstasy, which frightens Carol, who hears these cries as screams. Finally, the preacher starts his sermon, and Carol thinks back on the games that she and Parry used to play in elementary school. After a while, Carol becomes intrigued by the sermon on God's almighty power. When the preacher shifts topics to Judgment Day, the choir joins him with dramatic verses, and Carol compliments the preacher to Parry.
As an old woman moves to the front of the church, Carol joins Lucinda and Bubbie (Parry's younger brother) as they chant "Great Day" over and over (44). The call-and-response between preaching and singing escalates as the congregation grows more fervent. Carol becomes so caught up in the excitement that she passes out.
Alva and Helen bring Carol from the church to Alva's workplace, Hostess Foods, which is nearby. They give her some water until she recovers. Parry eventually shows up, and Carol apologizes for fainting and getting sick. Parry dismisses the concern, confessing that she did not care whether Carol came to the church either way. After making a vague commitment to play kickball with Carol later, Parry leaves.
Though Carol is secretly bothered by it, Alva begins to explain to Carol why the church is so excitable. She explains how for many of the people there, church is the only place they can fully and honestly express their emotions. Carol continues to panic, however, and asks her mother to take her home. Before they leave, though, Alva narrates a monologue describing her initial religious experience. She was fifteen and pregnant, and Parry's father had left her. A voice spoke to her and gave her visions of hell and heaven, leading her from deep darkness to beautiful, liberating light.
Back at home, Helen cries as she tells her husband Lennie about their experience. He chastises her for bringing Carol there unprepared, and Helen admits her concern that something happened to Carol that she does not yet understand. She had hoped that the experience would reunite Carol and Parry, who had lately been growing further apart.
Jeannie, the oldest daughter, is eavesdropping, and she harshly interrupts to tell Helen that the racial difference will ensure that Carol and Parry's friendship fades. Lennie challenges his daughter's assertion, suggesting that perhaps Carol and Parry could prove the exception, but Jeannie dismisses it, claiming the girls are "sorting" into "different places, different crowds" (54). Jeannie also notes how "sorting" can occur within a single race, citing the case of her and her friend Ginger, who separated during high school. Ginger is now a single mother who has dropped out of high school.
As they talk, Helen reflects on a conversation she had with Carol about an assembly the school held on proper dress. She realizes the extent of the underlying stereotypes that are shaping her daughter's perception, and thinks of the many inequalities faced by poor students. Further, she recalls how Carol once confessed that other friends would not come to her house if Parry would be there.
Meanwhile, Jeannie confronts Lennie about moving to a more integrated neighborhood, and then begins to speak nonsensically about the challenges children face in a complicated world. Helen realizes that Jeannie is talking about something bigger than Carol, and asks her to repeat herself. However, Lennie stops her, insisting that Helen looks faint.
Instead, he tells them to look out of the window at Parry and Carol, who are playing catch together, in their old rhythm, joyfully enjoying each other's company.
A few months later, Parry and Carol have drifted further apart. Each morning, Carol rides to school with Melanie instead of walking with Parry. After school, Carol goes to clubs and skating, while Parry must take care of her siblings because Alva now works the afternoon/evening shift. They take different classes, and Parry falls behind because she lacks the time or space to properly study.
One day, when Carol falls ill with the mumps, Parry stops by to bring her homework and notes. She sings a little jivetalk to Carol about her mumps, but leaves unsaid how poorly and suspiciously Carol's teachers treated Parry when she stopped to collect Carol's work. After a short conversation, Parry leaves.
That night, Carol tosses and turns, delirious in her fever. Helen has stayed home to take care of her, and listens to the radio to stave off boredom. When an African-American sermon comes on, Carol shrieks and flies from her bed to turn it off. Crying, she asks Helen why the people sang and screamed like that at Parry's church. Helen struggles to find language to explain the emotion, the oppression, and the history of African-Americans, but ends up saying nothing, just holding and soothing Carol.
Carol cries as she laments how Parry is treated at school, and admits that their friendship has faded. She tells Helen about Vicky, a black girl who had sang passionately at the church that day but who has almost been expelled from school for continuing to fight and wear lipstick. Carol is confused and scared by all these changes, and feels like they are "happening to [her] too" (61). She wishes she could simply not care about them.
Though she does not speak, Helen thinks about her response. She thinks of how it is always better to care than to be blind, and how one must find a community to "support and understand" even when there are no easy answers (62).
Much like the other short stories within this collection, "O Yes" grapples with the cultural conventions and limitations of a specific time period - in this case, the 1950s. Helen watches her daughter Carol come face to face with both overt and subtle racial prejudices as she drifts apart from her childhood friend Parry.
While it can often be limiting to only read a text in light of its cultural time-frame or its author's life, it can also be an illuminating process, providing provide a lens through which to approach the text. Written in 1956, "O Yes" comes right in the middle of the American civil rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case striking down legal segregation (especially in schools) was decided in 1954, and the Montgomery bus boycott took place between 1955-1956. These, amongst other events both large and small, provide context for the inner turmoil that Carol taps into. We experience this change at the fringes of the text, however, since Olsen's primary focus is the characters. The distinctions are subtle but clear - the black community seeks a home in their church, which allows organization and solidarity, while the white family must grapple with the truth of "sorting."
This idea of "sorting" pervades the short story. While there is the most obvious example of racial sorting - moving all of the African-Americans to the less advanced tracks while streaming most of the white students to the college prep track - socioeconomic sorting also plays a big role in children's experiences. Jeannie, Carol's older sister, provides a cynical perspective on the process, reminding Helen how she too had been separated from a friend during high school. Though Ginger was white, she was deterred by economic forces and dropped out, while Jeannie plans to continue on towards college. In other words, this tragic truth of "sorting" is bigger than race - it occurs across all elements of society, and is therefore a universal experience.
If the story offers any solution to this enormous problem, it is that we should seek communities that can dampen the pain through acceptance. For Alva and Parry, the African-American church provides this home. If "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is about the absence of communities for those on the fringes of society, "O Yes" is slightly more optimistic. Although many of the characters suffer at the hands of discrimination, they are able to find in church a place where they can express themselves freely, treat each other with respect, and acknowledge their rage without letting it consume them. "O Yes" illustrates the possibilities outside of the traditional Anglo-Saxon nuclear family ruled by patriarchal values. Awareness of the church awakens Helen, Carol, and ultimately the reader to alternative forms of community.
One of the ways that "O Yes" helps convey opportunities and experiences outside of the cultural mainstream is through its use of multiple narrative voices. While different characters usually express their different voices through dialogue, "O Yes" goes further than that. As Alva tries to explain to Carol the emotions she experienced in the African-American church, Alva's own mystical and emotional memories take center stage. She delivers a stirring monologue about her religious conversion, all of which is separated from the rest of the text by italics. Later, Parry also gets a voice outside of her culturally-confined "jive talk." When delivering Carol's homework to her, Parry acts blase and cool, but the narration's insight reveals to the reader how the both subtle and overt racism have created an inner voice that works against this smooth exterior. Finally, the formatting and language as the intensity of the church escalates reflects how this communal experience has the potential to overpower the individual's voice by swallowing him or her into the ritual. Olsen pushes the boundaries of how characters can communicate through her stylistic innovation and experimentation.
Despite Olsen's rebellion against any single dominant cultural lens, "O Yes" still acknowledges the cultural and narrative limitations that pervade society. For instance, the experimentation mentioned above regarding Parry and Alva also indicates that these black characters lack a voice to break into mainstream communication. Their true individual voices only exist as breaks in the 'narrative' of society. In a larger sense, the African-American community can only express itself through its overpowering call-and-response. Jeannie, on the other hand, is able to express herself through the traditional means of dialogue. That her sentiments are progressive and insightful are not the reason she is allowed this opportunity - instead, it is merely her privileged status as a white girl of at least some means.
"O Yes" is not a triumphant story of overcoming racism and segregation, but rather an intricate tale of the ongoing struggle for expression. Moreover, although it grapples explicitly with the struggles of African-Americans, "O Yes" conforms very much to Tillie Olsen's overall themes, in that it gives a voice to the voiceless. At the end of the story, Helen struggles to explain the world to Carol, but she too lacks the proper language for it. In many ways, women are just as voiceless as the African-American community, meaning women like Alva and Parry suffer doubly.