Caucasia by Danzy Senna asks the question on every mixed persons mind;
“What color do you think I am?”
Birdie Lees mom is white. Her father is Black. Her sister Cole is a smooth coffee color. Birdie could be Sicilian. Or Jewish. Maybe Pakistani.
Its 1975 in Boston Massachusetts and a revolution is brewing. Deck Lee has discovered the Black Power movement and he wants his daughters to know that in racist America you are either black or you are white. No daughter of his is going to pass*. Sandy Lee says he’s an over intellectualized ass who needs to get his nose out of his books and get his hands dirty for the cause. Their arguing keeps Birdie awake at night.
During the day Birdie struggles with what it means to be Black; as her sister begins cornrowing her hair and receiving “Negritude for Beginners” lessons from their Papa, Birdie finds herself being picked on at their all black school “Black is beautiful” “Then you must be ugly”. And while she absorbs her fathers lesson in Black Pride with interest he only seems to focus his attentions on Cole who couldn’t care less.
When the political situation in Boston finally reaches its boiling point the Lees make a decision that will rock Birdies world. Cole leaves with her father to greener pastures and Birdie must pass as white while on the run with her mother.
This novel is a coming of age story like no other I’ve ever read. Birdie must deal with the struggles of friendships, boys, her relationship with her mother all while experiencing the existential identity crisis that goes along with being biracial in America. Not only biracial but biracial living as white. Something that to Birdie, and many mixed people, feels like a slap in the face to herself, her people, her father. She clings to her blackness even as she hides it. She rebels against white America even as she becomes a part of it.
This novel is extremely personal for me and its hard not to write this review as one sentence; PLEASE READ THIS BOOK I NEED YOU TO READ THIS BOOK! For me, the story of the American mulatto is, well its my story. From Queen, to Birdie, to me. Our story is integral to the story of race relations in the country.
“. . .the mulatto in America functions as a canary in the coal mine. The canaries, he said, were used by coal miners to gauge how poisonous the air underground was. . . likewise, mulattos had historically been the gauge of how poisonous American race relations were. The fate of the mulatto in history and in literature, he said, will manifest the symptoms that will eventually infect the rest of the nation.”
No one wants to tell our story though and we have been much to shy about telling it ourselves. Until I stumbled upon this beautiful novel I used to tell people “The only time you see a mixed person in literature we are not characters, we are the evidence” I still hold to that but as I discover more books like those by Danzy Senna I know that one day talking about the biracial experience will be second nature, just as talking about the Black experience is becoming more mainstream. What makes Caucasia so special is not that it is a book about race, because its not. Its is a book about self. About growth. Its about a young girl coming to grips with her reality, and for mixed people race is an everyday reality.
“He says there’s no such thing as race.”
“He’s right you know. About it all being constructed. But”- she turned to me, looking at me intently- “that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“I know it does.”
Caucasia has been translated into 10 languages and received a variety of literary awards. I can’t say enough how well deserved this success is. Anthea Lawson of The Times in London said of it, “Senna hits no false notes in this engrossing and powerful tale of identity and misplaced idealism. The issue of race is constantly questioned, yet never overtakes the narrative itself: that of a strong-minded girl trying to find her way.” It is a beautiful work of art with heavy subject matter and a powerful message. I highly recommend Caucasia to anyone. Anyone at all.
5/5 stars: There is nothing wrong with this book
*To “pass” means that a person of color looks “white” enough to be mistaken for a white person. This can be a blessing and a curse; historically lighter skinned slaves were better treated, and people who could “pass” had even escaped to freedom pretending to be white. It also created tensions within the black community, there was a hierarchy based on skin tone (this is seen in many areas colonized by Europeans) and set us against one another. It also creates tension within a person who is Black (or Indian, or Mexican, etc.) but looks white and will never truly belong to either community because of this. “passing” in the mixed community is a touchy subject and its a term I don’t like to use. It implies that a) you aren’t white to being with, as if the one drop rule were still a thing. As if you only “look” white but that’s not good enough to actually “be” white (some mixed people identify as white. And they are, more power to em) b) it implies that looking white is the goal. Oh you’re light enough to pass! No. Instead of “pass” I usually say light skinned because that is a factual statement not a judgment on a persons worth based on how white they look.
Sorry that became a rant.