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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Danzy Senna, Caucasia, and How We Internalize Bigotry

A few years ago, I read an online review of Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia. I love that book. Though it is fictional, many if not most of the details come from Ms. Senna's real life. Her white, Mayflower-descendant mother really did marry her African-American, extremely poor and intellectually powerful father, and they really did have children who did not seem to match both parents (though the author also has a brother) and they really did have a nasty divorce, and the mother really did go undercover because of fear of being arrested over some of their activities together.

Still, this reviewer was irritated by what she felt was unbelievable: that one sister looked white, one black; that the white mother was sloppy and fat, the black aunt elegant and chic. She also did not find the section where the mother hides in Vermont and passes her daughter of as being Jewish, believable.

I found it all too believable.

I am still chilled by the scene, early in the novel, where the then- child heroine is taken by her father, to a park to spend father-daughter time. Usually, Daddy hangs alone with the dark-looking sister, or with the two of them together, so white-looking daughter is excited to have this time alone with Dad.

While father and daughter are at the park, an elderly white couple goes out of their way to talk with the little girl and stare, almost glare at her father. A few moments later, a police officer arrives to question the child. He does not believe the child when she insists she is with her daddy. The officer nearly roughs up the father, and they barely get away safely. 

We are white Jews who lived for several years in South Central Los Angeles. We had our people we knew well and trusted--people we considered family--regularly harassed by the police. There were times we would arrive home unable to get to our house because the home of our beloved neighbor, and adopted nephew, was surrounded by twenty-eight police cars, cops with assault rifles, and helicopters swirling overhead, all in supposed response to yet another prank phone call (this happened nearly every day at one point) by someone claiming that a white woman was being held hostage in the house (probably referring to this boy's white mother, hostage to none, believe me.)

The LAPD, many years later, settled his case for harassment. 

Given our experiences, I could easily imagine this scene, and understand the father's reluctance, after that, to go anywhere, ever, alone with his white-looking daughter, who feels his reality as rejection. Thus external racism is absorbed into our lives when we are too small to understand it in terms other than: I am not black enough to be loved, or I am too white to be cared for. 

I highly recommend Caucasia, though I was less taken with Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and You Are Free. Take a look at Caucasia. Though it's about the author's childhood, it still presents a nuanced exploration of race issues in our culture. 

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