In an essay published in 2006, the novelist Paul Beatty recalled the first book he’d ever read by a black author. When the Los Angeles Unified School Board—“out of the graciousness of its repressive little heart”—sent him a copy of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” he made it through a few “maudlin” pages before he grew suspicious, he wrote. “I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.” Observing that the “defining characteristic of the African-American writer is sobriety,” Beatty described his own path toward a black literary insobriety, one that would lead to the satirical style of his novels “White Boy Shuffle” and “The Sellout.” Along the way, he discovered a select canon of literary black satire, including Zora Neale Hurston’s freewheeling story “The Book of Harlem” and Cecil Brown’s “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger.”
Danzy Senna, Beatty’s friend and fellow novelist, makes an appearance in that essay, smiling “wistfully” as she shows him “the cover of Fran Ross’s hilarious 1974 novel, ‘Oreo.’” As Senna later wrote in the foreword to the novel’s reissue, “Oreo,” about a biracial girl searching for her itinerant white father, manages to probe “the idea of falling from racial grace” while avoiding “mulatto sentimentalism.” Since her 1998 début novel, “Caucasia,” a stark story about two biracial sisters, Senna, like Ross before her, has developed her own kind of insobriety, one focussed on comically eviscerating the archetype of the “tragic mulatto”—that nineteenth-century invention who experiences an emotional anguish rooted in her warring, mixed bloods. Both beautiful and wretched, the mulatto was intended to arouse sympathy in white readers, who had magnificent difficulty relating to black people in literature (to say nothing of life). Senna, the daughter of the white Boston poet Fanny Howe and the black editor Carl Senna, grew up a member of the nineties Fort Greene “dreadlocked élite”; her light-skinned black characters, who dodge the constraints of post-segregation America, provide an excuse for incisive social satire. Thrillingly, blackness is not hallowed in Senna’s work, nor is it impervious to pathologies of ego. Senna particularly enjoys lampooning the search for racial authenticity. Her characters, and the clannish worlds they are often trying to escape, teeter on the brink of ruin and absurdity.
Senna’s latest novel, the slick and highly enjoyable “New People,” makes keen, icy farce of the affectations of the Brooklyn black faux-bohemia in which Maria, a distracted graduate student, lives with her fiancé among the new “Niggerati.” Maria and Khalil Mirsky—the latter’s name a droll amalgamation of his black and white Jewish parentage—are the “same shade of beige.” At their wedding—to be held on Martha’s Vineyard, that summer bastion of interracial prosperity—“they will break a glass (Jewish) and jump the broom (black).” Khalil thinks he knows why the New York Times gave them a wedding announcement: “We’re mulatto,” he says to Maria. “Everybody loves mulatto.” The novel’s title shares its name with a documentary about this new, post-Loving v. Virginia generation—“born in the late sixties to early seventies, the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions”—and the mawkish hope they inspire in the bourgeois class. “We’re like a Woody Allen movie, with melanin,” Khalil jokes to the white documentarian.
There is a hyper-specificity to Senna’s satire that occasionally recalls Dave Chappelle’s barbed “Racial Draft” sketch: the couple’s favorite song is Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”; their favorite novel is “Giovanni’s Room”; they sing the futurist liberation song “If I Ruled the World,” by Nas and featuring Lauryn Hill, at Fort Greene house parties. Khalil, who works in tech, has grown dreads “past Basquiat” but “not quite Marley.” Maria perms her hair to make it look kinkier. In fact, most of the characters in the novel are trying to make their blackness more palpable. Gloria, a militant academic who dies before completing a thesis on the “triple consciousness of black women,” was disappointed to discover, months after adopting Maria, that her baby was light-skinned enough to pass as Jewish, Italian, or “Jewlatto.” In an extended flashback, we learn that Maria and Khalil met at Stanford shortly before Khalil underwent a “born-again negritude,” publishing a column in the school newspaper in which he denounces the “color-blind humanism” that had left him unprepared for the racism of the world. Later, when the couple are engaged, Maria’s obsession with “the poet,” a dark-skinned black man (not one of the “new people”) whom she first sees at a reading, forms the central plot of the book: a quest for an unattainable, an uncomplicated blackness.
Maria, Senna’s anti-heroine, is puzzling—seductively so. There are moments when she resembles the classic mulattress. She is alienated from her mother, whom she doesn’t resemble. She is a hysteric, experiencing panics and peculiar lapses in memory. By the time we meet her, in her late twenties, Maria lives in brownstone Brooklyn—but really she exists in her own private swoon, easily caught in peripheral drifts, always running late. In an early episode, on her way to a wedding gown fitting, a college acquaintance intercepts her and invites her inside what turns out to be a Church of Scientology. (Naturally, her personality test reveals her perilous potential.) The scene is dreamlike—mordant at first, and then increasingly chilling; Maria, it is clear, is too easily swayed. She finally makes it to the fitting, late. “Five gowns displayed on mannequin bodies on the opposite side of the room. They stand in a row, headless, waiting for her to fill them.”
Recently, a new character has emerged in popular culture. Like Issa Rae of “Insecure,” or the eponymous heroine of “The Incredible Jessica James,” this modern black woman flaunts her neuroses with style. The “carefree black girl” is an archetype spawned of the Internet—a woman who quirkily breaks expectations of how black women ought to behave in society. As Bim Adewunmi recently wrote of Jessica, “Her race is not at the center of this movie. But the story is structured around this tall and interesting black woman, and that’s something that is rare and wonderful.” Listless and dreamy, these women are perfectly imperfect—and their imperfections are carefully tailored to evoke in their black viewers a sense of recognition.
There were moments when, reading “New People,” I wondered if Senna had crafted Maria as a rebuttal to the lure of relatability in black art, which is itself a new form of sobriety. Just when we think we understand Maria—as a wayward, Brooklyn twenty-something in search of stability just like everyone else—she shocks us. Far from being a victim, she is slightly feral; her crush on the poet, which begins as distraction from academia-induced agita, slowly becomes a hunt. When, after sitting next to him at a birthday dinner, she notices that he has left behind his Pittsburgh Steelers hat, it is almost as if she had willed it. She sniffs the hat for days, soon concocting a plan to return it to him.
At other moments, she seems sociopathic. So much of “New People” is about the erosion of feeling. We learn that, as a child at an ice rink, Maria dropped a skate down a flight of stairs, hitting another skater on the head. It was an accident, but Maria’s disinterest in admitting any fault makes her seem vicious. Later, horrifyingly, she shakes a baby “to surprise her out of her fury, the way men in old movies slap the hysterical woman across the face.” An early turning point occurs in the flashback, during Khalil’s activist awakening. Maria, irritated by her boyfriend’s incipient righteousness, plays a prank by leaving a voice mail for him in a lowered voice. “We’re gonna string you up by a dreadlock, man, and light you on fire,” she says.
The campus plotline in Senna’s novel reminded me of a moment in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” a somewhat platitudinal film that also takes on self-serious young people who are newly, and superficially, occupying their racial identities. In Simien’s film, the biracial heroine, Sam White, initiates a campus-wide panic after posing as a member of a campus organization and sending out an e-mail invitation to a blackface party. The incident in “New People” similarly escalates: Jesse Jackson comes to their college, telling the “young brother” to “keep hope alive.” But unlike Sam White’s prank, which is at least intended to spur her peers to action—and which she later comes to regret—Maria’s appears meaningless. Khalil never finds out that it was Maria who left the message, and she never tells him. Instead, we learn, he makes “slow, solemn revolutionary love to her.” For Senna, identity, far from being a point of solidarity, is a beckoning void, and adroit comedy quickly liquefies into absurd horror.
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."