Danzy Senna Essay - Critical Essays

Senna, Danzy

Introduction

Danzy Senna Caucasia

Senna is an American novelist.

Danzy Senna grew up in Boston as a child of a mixed marriage. In her debut novel, Caucasia (1997), she explores issues that she faced growing up torn between two races. The novel is set in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the black power movement. Birdie is the narrator of the book, whose mother, Sandy, is a Boston WASP and political activist, ȧnd whose father, Deck, is a black intellectual. Sandy and Deck meet as a result of their political activism, and they have two girls; Birdie, who has the physical appearance of a white person, and Cole, who looks black. Although the two sisters have different experiences in the world due to their color, they are very close. It is devastating to them when their parents separate and decide to split the girls along racial lines. The "black" Cole leaves with their father in search of a color-blind society, and the "white" Birdie goes on the run with Sandy, who fears the FBI is chasing her as a result of her political activity. When her mother creates a new identity for Birdie as a Jewish girl, Birdie's sense of identity is further confused. In the end Birdie is reunited with her father and sister and attempts to embrace her true identity. The novel tackles the pain and confusion of being a member of two races, but not really belonging to either.

Critics complained that the novel slips into racial treatise which interrupts the narrative flow, but many reviewers praised Senna's characterization in the novel. Susie Linfield stated that Birdie is "a character as peculiar, particular, believable and compelling as any you are likely to encounter." Reviewers also gave Senna credit for her deft handling of a difficult subject. A Kirkus Review critic called Caucasia "[a]n accomplished novel of issues that doesn't offer any easy solutions but does poignantly evoke the pain and paradox of those caught in the racial crossfire."

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (1 December 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1997, p. 1733.

[In the following review, the critic praises Senna's Caucasia for its effective evocation of being caught between two races.]

[Caucasia, is a]n ambitious debut novel that powerfully, if schematically, addresses the conditions of those living in the great racial no-man's-land—that is to say, the children of mixed marriage—who belong to both races but are often also rejected by both.

The author, a young Boston-raised writer, is herself the product of a mixed marriage, which gives her first fiction an authenticity that compensates for a plot that's often more a series of instructive set-pieces than a seamless narrative. Set in the late 1970s and early ′80s, the story takes place against the rise and decline of black power, as well as against radical activism, both of which are vividly detailed and form part of the subplot. Birdie, the narrator, is the younger daughter of Sandy, a Boston WASP, and black intellectual and Harvard-educated Deck. The two fell in love, married, and were soon the parents of two daughters: black Cole and "white" Birdie. Both Sandy and Deck were involved in antigovernment political movements, but Sandy increasingly became the more radical of the two. Birdie recalls how, as she and Cole grew older, the hurts and difficulties of being neither black or white accumulated: Cole was taunted for being white at her Afrocentric school, while the sisters' white grandmother favored Birdie at Cole's expense. And when their parents separated, and Deck went off to Brazil in search of a color-blind society, he took Cole with him. Left behind with her mother, Birdie describes the lonely years spent with Sandy on the run from the FBI. She also recollects her schooldays with bigoted New Hampshire whites and how, as a teenager, she finally escaped from Sandy and found a bittersweet reunion with Deck and Cole.

An accomplished novel of issues that doesn't offer any easy solutions but dies poignantly evoke the pain and paradox of those caught in the racial crossfire.

Ellen Flexman (review date January 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Library Journal, January, 1988, p. 145.

[In the following review, Flexman discusses the racial divide explored in Senna's Caucasia.]

Senna's first novel[, Caucasia,] explores life in the middle of America's racial chasm through the eyes of a biracial girl who must struggle for acceptance from blacks and whites alike. Birdie and Cole are the daughters of a white mother and an African-American father whose marriage is disintegrating. When their activist mother must flee from the police, the girls are split between their parents: Cole goes with her father because she looks black, Birdie with her mother because she could pass for white. Living in a small town and forced to keep her family, her past, and her race a secret, Birdie spies upon racism in all its forms, from the overt comments of the town locals to the hypocrisy of the wealthy liberals. Senna combines a powerful coming-of-age tale with a young girl's search for identity and family amid a sea of racial stereotypes and cultural ideas of beauty….

Donna Seaman (review date 15 February 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Booklist, February 15, 1998, p. 985.

[In the following review, Seaman praises Senna's Caucasia as "thematically and dramatically rich."]

Senna's debut novel [Caucasia] is as thematically and dramatically rich as fiction can be, infused, as it is, with emotional truth. Like her strong-minded young narrator, Birdie, Senna is the daughter of a black father and a white mother, and the lighter-skinned of two sisters, and she writes about race, identity, heritage, and loyalty with wrenching poignancy. Birdie and her sister, Cole, are close as only sister can get, but they are forced apart when their daring activist mother, a Boston Brahmin, goes underground after a revolutionary scheme misfires. She takes the lighter of the two girls, Birdie, as cover and hits the road, severing all ties with the past. They finally settle down in a small New Hampshire town where Birdie endures the thoughtless racism of her schoolmates until her longing for her sister and father, and for acknowledgment of her mixed blood, induces her to hit the road once again, this time as a runaway. As Senna charts Birdie's odyssey and rekindles the fires of the 1960s, she poses tough questions about integration, intermarriage, and the status of mixed-race children. This courageous and necessary tale about the color of skin and the variations of love is full of sorrow, both personal and societal, and much magic and humor.

Laura Shapiro (review date 16 February 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Newsweek, Vol. 131, No. 7, February 16, 1998, p. 71.

[In the following review, Shapiro lauds Senna's debut novel, Caucasia.]

Long after you finish the book, the visual conundrums woven through Danzy Senna's remarkable first novel, Caucasia, cling to your memory. There's Birdie, who takes after her mother's white, New England side of the family—light skin, straight hair. There's her big sister, Cole, who takes after their father, a radical black intellectual. It's the early '70s, and black-power politics divide their parents, who divide the sisters: Cole disappears with their father, and Birdie goes underground with their mother.

Caucasia is chiefly Birdie's story, and her struggles to fit in anywhere, to pass as anything, are vivid. At her Afrocentric elementary school she longs for cornrows; when she and her mother settle down in a small New Hampshire town she learns to wear tight jeans, skinny tops and layers of makeup. But she's always the outsider looking in, a spy even in her own family. Senna, herself the more fair-skinned daughter of a biracial couple, knows racial politics first-hand, but she's more interested in their real-life consequences. She tells this coming-of-age tale with impressive beauty and power.

Lise Funderberg (March 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in Essence, Vol. 28, No. 11, March, 1998, p. 66.

[In the following review, Funderberg praises the narrative voice of Senna's Caucasia.]

This month two first-time novelists view life through the prism of the not-so-tragic mulatto. First, Danzy Senna makes a stunning debut with Caucasia. In her engrossing tale, two sisters growing up in Boston are so close that they share a secret language, Elemeno, named after their favorite letters in the alphabet. But they don't share skin color or hair texture, and so when their parents' interracial marriage breaks up, Birdie, the light one, goes with their White mother; Cole, the older,...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Elizabeth Schmidt (review date 15 March 1998)

SOURCE: "Soul Mates." in New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Schmidt discusses Birdie's struggle for identity and acceptance in Senna's Caucasia.]

Early on in Danzy Senna's absorbing debut novel, [Caucasia,] her 7-year-old heroine, Birdie Lee, enjoys a rare day alone with her absent-minded professor of a father. They spend the afternoon in the Boston Public Garden, buying a T-shirt for Birdie, riding the swan boat and eating hog dogs before settling on the grass to read the Sunday paper. At one point, Birdie notices an older, well-dressed white couple walking a miniature terrier. They scowl at her and point, but Birdie...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Susie Linfield (review date 25 March 1998)

SOURCE: "Writing About More Than Listless Youth," in Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1998, p. E3.

[In the following review, Linfield lauds Senna's Caucasia for its realistic and complex portrayal of racial identity in America.]

A novelist I know asked what I'd been reading lately. Caucasia, I answered. He looked displeased, as if he'd suddenly eaten something sour. "It's OK—but I like perfectly crafted sentences," he said. "Well," said I, "those are nice. But I like novels that are about something."

Danzy Senna, the 28-year-old author of Caucasia, has written a book that is not always perfectly crafted, but it is...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Margo Jefferson (review date 4 May 1998)

SOURCE: "Seeing Race as a Costume That Everyone Wears," in New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1998, p. E2.

[In the following review, Jefferson asserts that Senna's Caucasia is a moving novel which explores fully the implications of being racially or culturally mixed in America.]

When I was a child in the 1950s, you weren't supposed to use the word "mulatto." You only heard or overheard adults using it with eyebrows raised and quotation marks implied. It was considered backward: meant to demean when used by whites and, when used by your own, a sign that you were just a little too proud of your white blood. It would have been rude to use it around mulatto...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)

June Unjoo Yang (review date Spring 1998)

SOURCE: "Watching the Canary." in Hungry Mind Review, No. 45, Spring, 1998, p. 34.

[In the following review, Yang points out certain flaws in Senna's Caucasia, including sounding too much like a race treatise and problems with time.]

In Danzy Senna's debut novel, Caucasia, a father compares the status of his biracial daughter to that of canaries used by coal miners to test the air quality underground: "They would bring a canary in with them, and if it grew sick and died, they knew the air was bad and that eventually everyone else would be poisoned by the fumes. My father said that likewise, mulattos had historically been the gauge of how poisonous...

(The entire section is 1301 words.)

Frances Reiher (review date September 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Caucasia, in School Library Journal, September, 1998, pp. 230-31.

[In the following review, Reiher briefly describes the obstacles that Birdie, the adolescent narrator of Senna's Caucasia, faces as she grows up.]

The time is the 1970s, the place is Boston, and the story[, Caucasia,] is of a biracial marriage and the two little girls born of it. Cole, the first child, preferred by both parents, is beautifully black like her father. Birdie, the narrator, is light enough to pass as white. The wife is a "bleeding heart liberal" who has involved herself in civil rights causes against the wishes of her intellectual husband. Finally,...

(The entire section is 298 words.)