“Caucasia” (1998) by Danzy Senna is a story about Birdie Lee, a girl growing up in America who can pass for either black or white. Her father is black and her mother is white but she is neither – or either. She is whatever the circumstances demand. It is a story about that strange, grey nowhere land between the races, between black and white, a story about the nature of race itself.
For a long time I did not read the book because of the title: “Caucasia”: it seemed a little too skinhead to me. It is nothing like that.
Because the story of Birdie Lee seems so much like Senna’s own life you keep having to remind yourself that it is fiction and not autobiography. Just like Birdie Lee, Senna grew up in and near Boston, her father was black, a professor who studied race issues, her mother was white, an old-money, blue-blood Wasp who turned against white American society after having black children.
Unlike the main characters in “The Imitation of Life” or Nella Larsen’s “Passing”, Birdie Lee is not a tragic mulatto. She does not hate being either black or white. She does not come to a bad end trying to be either.
In fact, her very willingness to change race is unsettling. It unsettles even her. We expect our heroes to stand their ground, to be the moral centre of the story. It is sad to see her kiss up to the white girls who laughed at how she looks; it is sad to see her try to be just like them. And sadder still to see her give the cold shoulder to the only other mixed girl in town. Sad, but probably truer to life.
Her mother is wanted by the FBI for hiding guns for revolutionaries. So for much of the book her mother is on the run with her. During that time Birdie Lee becomes Jesse Goldman, a made-up Jewish girl with a made-up Jewish past. But she is Jesse for so long she forgets where Jesse ends and Birdie Lee begins, she almost forgets that she ever was Birdie Lee. Which is her true self? Does she have a true self?
As Jesse she wore a star of David, but then when a boy threw pennies at her (because Jews are supposed to be cheap), she stopped wearing it and tells her friends she is only kind of Jewish because her mother is not Jewish.
I was hoping that she would not quite fit into white society, that her secret about being part black would come out, that she would become an outcast like that mixed girl she would not talk to, that she would say bitter but true things about American society. Well, it is not that kind of book.
However her father does tell her that race is a construct, a fiction, a lie that American society is built on. And that, as it turns out, is the moral of the story.