Danzy Senna (1970- ) is an American writer, best known for her book “Caucasia” (1999), a coming of age story about a girl who is somewhere between black and white. It is about a mulatto who is not tragic. Something Senna knows about first-hand.
Her parents were both writers and both worked for the civil rights movement. Her mother was white, coming from an old-money Wasp family in Boston that once traded slaves. Her father was a black Mexican. Senna, born in Boston, was in between, able to pass as white or black.
But not as biracial: in Boston in the 1970s there was no such thing. You were either black or white. Her parents brought her up as black.
You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don’t have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege.
She saw herself as black. But because she could pass for white she could hear the things that white people said about blacks behind their backs.
She found that no matter how much whites might talk equality and Martin Luther King and all that, they were still just as hung up about race as blacks were – they just had a different, more subtle way of talking about it. Subtle or not, it was still hard to hear it.
People who do not know her tend to think she is Jewish or Arab.
These days she sees herself as being mixed yet black:
I think of myself as mixed, and I think of myself as part of a long history of African-American writers, so I don’t see them as so distinct as people do these days.
She says not being white helps her as a writer because it gives her an outsider’s point of view. In writing courses she took she noticed that white men, at least those who were not Jewish, had a hard time picking something to write about.
Even though she had been writing stories since at least age 11, when she went off to Stanford she studied medicine instead. But the science courses were too hard and, besides, she found that writing was something she just had to do.
The writers who made her know she should be one too were Colette, James Baldwin and Dostoevsky. She particularly likes Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. And also Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”.
“Caucasia” was her first book. It was so good it became a hard act to follow. For two years she wrote nothing. In time she did write another book, “Symptomatic” (2004) whose hero is also biracial, but this time more of a tragic mulatto. Her latest book is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History” (2009). She also writes for magazines, especially about the way race and sex affects how people think of themselves.
She is married to writer Percival Everett.