Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Originally published in Creative Loafing
"I disappeared into America, the easiest place to get lost."
Danzy Senna's first novel Caucasia is the story of a disappearance, not just the disappearance of Birdie and her mother, Sandy, but of Birdie's identity. "I disappeared into America," she says, "the easiest place to get lost."
Birdie and her sister Cole are two children at the mercy of their parents' flightly behavior. They speak to each other in their own language, "Elemeno," providing each other with an enviable intimacy. But while Cole can easily pass for black, Birdie's appearance is more ambiguous: she is variously taken for Jewish, Sicilian, even Pakistani, but seldom ever African-American.
Birdie's white mother is heavily involved in the underground civil rights movement. Her father Deck is black, a man more devoted to his thought life than his family life. After Deck leaves for Brazil with Cole and his young, black girlfriend, Sandy panics and decides she and Birdie must leave Boston for fear of Federal agents nabbing her for whatever underground activities she has been involved in. She pulls Birdie out of school--just as she was making friends--and hauls her around from commune to commune, sleeping in parking lots, working the odd job until they settle down in New Hampshire. Birdie is now Jesse Goldman, her mother tells her. They must alter their identities for fear of the authorities, she says; so now her father is a recently deceased Jewish intellectual, and Birdie must begin to live a lie. She must live her life as a white girl.
Senna poignantly depicts troubles unique to interracial marriages, from a mother's despair at her inability to reproduce the cornrows other girls are wearing in her own dark-skinned little girls' hair to the special, humiliating discrimination reserved for mixed couples and their children.
Whether in the "black power" private school in Boston or the nearly all-white public school in New Hampshire, Birdie doesn't feel at home. The children at the former school only grudgingly accept her as black; and though the children at the latter school accept her readily enough, in an effort to pass herself off as white, she ignores their racial epithets, making her feel like a sell-out.
Birdie's first-person narration adds pathos to her story; the voice of the older, wiser narrator underscoring and illuminating the more naive viewpoint of the young girl, as she begins to suspect, for instance, that her mother may never have had to leave Boston in the first place.
Caucasia provides Senna with a unique opportunity to critique both sides, black and white, at once, to divulge a world in which even the kindest of people have reservations about people whose skin color differs from their own. It's a fair, sober critique, leveling equal amounts of blame and understanding at all involved.
In this strong, deftly written novel, Senna's thoughtfully constructed plot explores the nooks and crannies of race, family, and identity. Senna doesn't falter; as a young writer, she is admirably sure of her themes.