The book I have chosen to review for this essay is Caucasia, by Danzy Senna (Senna). I appreciate this novel immensely. On its face, it is about race and what it is like to belong neither fully to the world of White Americans nor to the world of Black Americans. That is a theme of it that lends it its authenticity and emotional impact — but it is not the only theme. This novel spoke to me personally because it is not just about race, it is about the experience of developing a complete identity out of the many possibilities one has available and then feeling as if one has lost something by doing so. It is about the extent to which we choose our own identities, and the extent to which they are chosen for us by fate.
To begin, the novel’s setting, at first, is Boston, in the 1970s. Boston of the 1970s was home to an unparalleled racial tension unmatched, even, by race relations in the American South. The density of New England cities led to crime, and aggressive policing — and racist policing — and this was the most dramatic in Boston, which was and is home to a large African-American population. But the novel does not remain in Boston. As Birdie reinvents herself at the behest of her mother, the novel moves to “Caucasia” — an undifferentiated world of white lower-middle-class drifting and detachment. And, finally, the novel transitions to an almost-entirely White town in New Hampshire, where Birdie reinvents herself and feels the pain of loss as she does so.
Birdie, the protagonist, is the child of an interracial marriage between a lily-white political activist mother and a Black intellectual father. It is this tension — the contrast between, on the one hand, her mother’s whiteness and practical political activism, and her father’s blackness, identitarian commitment to that blackness, and his intellectual rather than political engagement in support of blackness in an integrated society — that defines Birdie’s struggle throughout the novel. It is an emotionally compelling struggle even to those, like me, who cannot fully appreciate what it is like to experience such internal racial tensions. The point of view is Birdie’s, and as such the novel is colored by her perceptions. The reader feels on a personal and very intimate level Birdie’s struggles, and cannot help but be moved by them and to think of personal experiences that echo Birdie’s pain.
The tone I find I can only describe through metaphor, and I am very leery of using metaphor here because it may initially sound insulting. Because of Birdie’s youth and her lack of comprehension as to the forces motivating her parents and driving her own life, her trust in her parents, and her personal frustration, the only thing I can think of when I consider the tone of the novel is a puppy that has been hurt by its owner. There is a flavor of incomprehension to Birdie’s emotional struggle that makes it more compelling and makes the tone difficult to describe. One bit stuck out to me as demonstrating this: “No school. It seemed some cause for celebration. I looked around, gleeful. But all the other kids seemed to understand something, and they watched me with somber expressions” (38).
The central theme, apart from race and prejudice, is the impossibility of returning to an “incomplete” state after settling on an identity. When Birdie and her mother flee to the countryside, Birdie is instructed to “pass” as white, to pretend that she was not the child of a Black father, both to avoid prejudice and to satisfy her mother’s paranoia that she was being surveilled by the police. This is foreshadowed, interestingly, by Birdie’s father, who says, “In a country as racist as this, you’re either black or you’re white. And no daughter of mine is going to pass” (30). In Caucasia, Birdie is forced to choose between being Black or being White — or, more accurately, her mother chooses for her, by putting her in a position where to choose Blackness would be unthinkable, both painful and practically difficult. What is most interesting about this theme, for me, is not the racial implication, but rather the dichotomy that is constructed throughout the novel. Birdie is told — and the reader, through her ears, hears as well — that she cannot construct any sort of identity that integrates all of her influences, all of her heritage. She must choose to be either Black or White, and when she chooses, the pain of abandoning half of her identity at the altar of conformity with the dominant social norms is acute.
The last point that I want to discuss briefly is the historical context in which this novel was written. We are not, today, in a post-racial society; it seems very probable that we never will be. We certainly were not in such a society in the 1990s, when Caucasia was written. The race riots of the 1970s had faded sharply; to a White observer from a position of privilege, it might appear that the tensions themselves were fading as well. But the tensions still existed; they merely had lost some of their violent immediacy. I believe that this context informed Senna’s decision to depict racial tensions that were invisible to those around her protagonist but felt acutely and painfully by the protagonist — sort of an analogy to the historical context.
- Senna, Danzy. Caucasia: A Novel. Riverhead Books, 1999. Print.