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Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
A shoe box marked "Negrobilia" filled with momentos--a James Brown 8 track cassette, an Afro pick, an Egyptian necklace--is all that Birdie Lee has for nine years to remember her father, Deck. This ephemera, remnants of a cultural construct of blackness created in the 1960s, is an inadequate legacy for the adolescent Birdie Lee. But the box has profound significance for Deck as he takes custody of Cole, his darker-skinned daughter, and leaves the fair-skinned Birdie and his white wife behind. It's Birdie Lee, however, at eight years-old, who knows her ethnicity cannot be so neatly packaged.
An acerbic temperament and astute observations keep Birdie, narrator of Caucasia, one step ahead of her foundering parents and the law. She notes dispassionately: "My mother was slipping. I could see it sometimes in her eyes when we walked down the street--the way she had begun to glance over her shoulder--that she was scared of something huge and pressing and unsuitable for children" (71). Ostensibly the nucleus of this maternal terror is COINTELPRO, the notorious counterintelligence force empowered to track down and annihilate U.S. activists organizing to break down race and class barriers in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the true source of her mother's fear is even more insidious than that--it's her own internalized xenophobia. The fear, imbedded within all of us, that can, untended, rot away the underpinnings of our efforts to heal the wounds caused by bias--racial and other varieties. Shortly after Deck and Cole's disappearance from their lives, Birdie Lee is pulled from school by Sandy, who fears that her involvement with an underground liberation movement has put her at risk. Taking on assumed names, mother and daughter flee to avoid possible arrest by government agents.
Birdie (AKA Jesse) and Cole become casualties of an ongoing race war in the U.S., their lives endangered most immediately by friendly fire. With the integrationist period of the Civil Rights Movement behind them and Black Power taking center stage, their father, Deck, has latched onto intellectual race theories as his lifeline. He delivers lectures on African culture not fatherly love; Sandy, the daughter of a Boston Brahmin family, forcefeeds her daughters revolutionary slogans but never learns to comb Cole's kinky hair. Black power makes little room for a white wife, and a white wife has little patience with conceptual solutions to racism when she has "Black" children.
Once they take to the road, leaving behind their comfortable lives in Boston's integrated South End, Birdie understands very quickly that it is Cole, the dark daughter, that Sandy and Deck really want, not her. Cole is more easily identifiable as Black, while Birdie's racial ambiguity pleases neither parent. Her mother's ambivalence and misunderstanding wound Birdie deeply: ". . . It was as if my mother believed that Cole and I were so different. As if she believed I was white . . ." (233).
Sandy, despite her progressive politics, can see only her daughter's skin color. Who Birdie Lee was, growing up in their bi-racial home, becomes the illusion, not the white identity she assumes on the road for 9 years. Bouncing around the eastern states, never far from their Boston roots, mother and daughter see each other through a haze of the past. Little is consequential except paying attention to the shoes of strange men in order to identify potential FBI agents closing in [End Page 363] .
In this exciting novel Danzy Senna has taken on many complicated ideas rarely touched on in U.S. literature. Poet Toi Derricotte also explores some of the same territory from the perspective of a fair-skinned Black woman in her 1997 memoir, The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton). Using personal narrative and stories from her teaching career, Derricotte encapsulates the narrative Senna delivers so dramatically. Derricotte states unequivocably: "racism is a form of child abuse" (17). That is the heart of the tragedy of Senna's novel--the betrayal of two bi-racial children...