“Race is a complete illusion, make-believe,” observes a central character in Danzy Senna’s debut novel Caucasia. “It’s a costume. We all wear one.”
Or, many. Over the course of our lives, those costumes change as we add and subtract details in reaction to other people’s gaze. To see the idea of race through sugar-coated Coke bottle glasses, racial and cultural differences are to be explored and celebrated. But one can just as accurately say that illusion of race creates unnecessary absurdity in our lives. It challenges our sense of acceptance.
Senna’s Caucasia doesn’t quite blast apart the fallacy of race, but it does use our culture’s obsession with it to highlight the ways in which a person creates and morphs her identity.
Caucasia had a special appeal to me when I first read it in 1998, the year of its original publication. I came to the book as a light-skinned Black woman who experienced racism both directly and as an unwitting spectator, in those odd instances when a person wasn’t aware of my cultural identity.
I found Caucasia’s exploration of the mess and myth of race to be wildly validating, even if Birdie Lee, the novel’s main character, goes on a far more fantastic voyage into the world of the perpetually Othered than I ever would. Birdie starts out as a Black girl in Boston, then transforms into a white teenager in a racist town in New Hampshire, before she goes back to being Black again. In one passage, as Birdie describes sitting in the New Hampshire home of her racist best friend Mona, who has no idea that she’s half African American, she admits that things seemed clearer there.
“I didn’t punch Mona anymore,” she said. “Instead I would smile weakly and avert my eyes and try to tell myself what I had maintained from the start: I was a spy in enemy territory. This was all a game of make-believe.”
Birdie starts out as a Black girl in Boston, then transforms into a white teenager in a racist town in New Hampshire, before she goes back to being Black again.
Reading Caucasia 17 years later, the odyssey of Senna’s biracial heroine has lost none of its relevance. Certainly it reflects the modern complexities of race than the “tragic mulatto” trope that recurred in American literature prior to its publication. Never is Caucasia’s Birdie in danger to descending into depravity or ending her own life, two of the many stereotypical ends to which past literary characters of mixed heritage tended to arrive.
Rather, there’s a quiet curiosity and defiance to Birdie, who moves from being a witness in the strangeness of her life to taking definitive action, rejecting the ill-fitting identities imposed upon her when she’s finally had enough. Birdie goes along with the lunacy for quite a while – she’s a child, after all – but never loses her agency.
According to the ridiculous one-drop rule, Birdie was born Black. But circumstances force her to become “nobody, just a body without a name or a history …And when I stopped being nobody, I would become white – white as my skin, hair and bones allowed.”
Even as the white world closes in around her, she holds onto artifacts of her life as a Black girl, tokens of family she had to leave behind. In this sense, Senna writes Caucasia as a carefully-mapped explorer’s guide to racially liminal space through which, Birdie moves with the stoicism of an anthropologist and an otherworldly adventurer.
Birdie is the youngest daughter of Deck Lee, a Harvard-educated Black intellectual, and Sandy Lodge Lee, a white activist descended from blue bloods. It is 1975 when the story begins, and Birdie has spent her first eight years in Boston being home-schooled by her mother along with her older, darker skinned sister Cole. As their parents’ marriage disintegrates, Cole and Birdie create a safe imaginary space just for themselves: a make-believe land called Elemeno, a magical place where people come in all colors and speak a language that only the two of them understand.
Elemeno is the constant to which Birdie and Cole return time and again, even after they’re obligated to relinquish who they are. And that time comes quickly. Not long after Deck moves out, he takes up with a Black woman and displays a preference for Cole over Birdie. Then, when Sandy’s connection to a militant black power organization puts the FBI on her trail, she hastily sends Cole to live with Deck and his new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Sandy assumes the alias of Sheila Goldman, deciding that Birdie will flee with her and be known as Sheila’s Jewish daughter Jess. A white girl.
…there’s a quiet curiosity and defiance to Birdie, who moves from being a witness in the strangeness of her life to taking definitive action, rejecting the ill-fitting identities imposed upon her when she’s finally had enough.
Birdie disappears into the sea of whiteness, bouncing through uncharted territory for years, drifting from safe house to commune, until her mother decides to start a new life in one of most racially homogenous towns in New Hampshire.
Senna writes Birdie with fragility when she’s younger, a delicacy that hardens in relief after she has her first experience with kids of her own age, during a brief stint at a Black power school in Boston before she and her mother head out on the lam. But her wry, self-protecting edge sharpens as she comes of age in this familiar-but-foreign land.
Senna’s portrayal of Sandy becomes less forgiving, however, which is interesting. Sandy’s liberal naiveté and her need to find the acceptance she never received in her marriage subsumes Birdie’s ache to exist as her true self. But Sandy’s only costume is weight loss; she doesn’t have to abandon her blood, her culture, and her name.
Birdie’s contortions to maintain her disguise, meanwhile, are more curious to witness than they are tragic; if there’s an anger or a sadness in her, it’s at witnessing her mother compromise herself to satisfy her fear, and her father fall so far into his obsession with race and being “Black enough” that he reduces his children to experiments that prove his theories.
Senna grants Birdie a sense of peace and resolution as the book comes to an end, although she’s still on her journey. That is probably apt. As a society, we’re all traveling the road to acceptance where race is concerned…but we’re a long way from being there yet.