Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Illustration by Maïa Walcott https://maiawalcott98.wixsite.com/mysite
Danzy Senna’s first novel, Caucasia (1998), is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Birdie with a black academic father and a white mother who is the estranged descendant of a prominent Bostonian family. The story follows the highly problematic construction of the young girl’s identity after being separated from her sister and black father and growing up with her white mother on the road around New England assuming different racial identities, which she is able to do due to her ambiguous ethnicity and her ability to “pass” for white. It is a story deeply indebted to the history of the American Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, and its philosophical preoccupations, providing poignant commentary on the trope of “lighting out,” a term taken from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, meaning going west, shedding history, and switching identities. While, during my undergraduate education, I studied a number of texts that addressed these genres and themes, Caucasia highlights the racialisation of the traditional American Bildungsroman and the American identity that it constructs in a way that none of the other texts I studied did.
In Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory (2001), Nancy J. Peterson highlights “the problem of historical memory in contemporary America […] where the pressure to assimilate — to forget one’s personal and ethnic history in order to become fully “American”— remains immense” (7). Indeed, the relationship between history and the individual is somewhat fraught in American literature in particular, due to its aesthetic and ideological rejection of historical consciousness. For example, R.W.B. Lewis describes the American hero as an individual “emancipated from history” (5), while Ihab Hassan claims that “if American Innocence means anything, it means just this: that every generation, native or foreign-born, began its task anew despite the secret betrayals of history” (36).
I came across Caucasia through my own independent research as a graduate scholar, whilst trying to address some of the myriad lacunae of my undergraduate education. As a PhD candidate researching American women’s narratives of identity formation, I feel that Caucasia is invaluable to curricula because of the particular ways in which it contextualizes and addresses American historical consciousness and the American bildungsroman, in particular, by addressing attempts to escape the burden of history and the environment to which it is bound. This theme is prevalent in the American Bildungsroman, and evokes Huckleberry Finn’s “lighting out”, Thoreau’s years living isolated in the woods, and an American rhetoric of Westward expansion and manifest destiny. In the American bildungsroman, particularly in white, male iterations of the genre, physical escape from the environment of ones origins is central to developing individuality, independence, and a sense of an autonomous adult identity. In Caucasia, Birdie takes versions of this now well-worn pilgrimage of American identity formation. Ironically, in shrugging off her personal history, Birdie is acknowledging and embodying her literary history through the invocation of the generic trope of lighting out; however, the differences between the established iterations of the trope and that which appears in Caucasia serve to provide a commentary on said literary history’s political and ideological implications and suppressions. Birdie’s narrative shows that lighting out functions differently, if at all, for people of colour.
The racialised history and power dynamics of mobility play a large part in Senna’s take on the lighting out trope. Not only are the protagonists’ shedding of history tied up with whitewashing, so is the physical act of escape. After getting in trouble with the FBI, Birdie’s family separates: her father takes her sister, who has more visibly African American traits, and her mother takes her, in no small part because she can be mistaken for white. Birdie’s mother repeatedly talks about going West, and her tales of California reinforce the myth of coterminous freedom, movement, and self-determination: she tells Birdie that “In California […] even the ground moves” (383), that “the West was where people went to make themselves over, to transform” (379), and that “America’s a good place to get lost” (380). However, as Birdie shows, the idea of volitionally unburdening oneself of one’s identity and history to adopt another is one that is innately tied to whiteness; Birdie is aware of this, stating “my body was the key to our going incognito” (128). While her mother delights in the task of finding new identities as if it were a game, “We’re gonna need to use our imaginations. You know, make up a history for you” (130), for Birdie “it was a strange feeling to be such a blank slate” (130). Birdie’s language, describing the process as a loss and putting herself in the grammatical position of object, rather than subject, betrays her lack of agency or power in the shedding of her identity, which is in stark contrast to the situation of the literary antecedents such a trope invokes. The correlation between being identity-less, being mobile, and being white is reaffirmed when she extends the metaphor to their vehicle, of which she says “now it had no color at all; the color of something stripped clean for the sake of starting over” (142).
Birdie’s racial camouflaging is foreshadowed in Caucasia in a childhood game she plays with her sister, Cole. Cole describes an imaginary people called the elemenos who “could turn not just from black to white, but from brown to yellow to purple to green, and back again. She said they were a shifting people, constantly changing their form, color, pattern, in a quest for invisibility” (7). Birdie feels suspicious of this quest for invisibility even as a child, wondering, “what was the point of surviving if you had to disappear” (7). Indeed, while Birdie’s mother functions under the pretence that they can choose whatever identities they like, she forces Birdie to represent herself as Italian, Jewish, or white. These choices, particularly in a novel set in 1960s New England, implicitly recognise power dynamics and historical conditioning; the one thing Birdie cannot be is that which she is— a mixed race girl with a white mother. The illusion of agency and limitless possibility that surrounds the lighting out trope is removed in Caucasia.
Birdie’s desire to recover her repressed history is expressed repeatedly; she laments that her mother limits conversations about the life they left behind: “only in the privacy of our car […] was I allowed to ask her about our real past” (140). Rather than liberating her, removing Birdie’s racial identity exposes her to the racism espoused in white spaces and repeatedly forces her into complicity with them for fear of exposing her and her mother’s situation. Upon returning to Boston after years living as white, Birdie describes her reaction to the girls there who have been allowed to live under their own identities: “I saw in their reflection the girl I failed to be, someone ordinary and alive and public, girls with one face, one name, one life […] I felt a yearning that surprised me” (219); this is a yearning she goes on to name: “I yearned to be part of it. The visible world” (220). Unlike her literary antecedents, Birdie does not gain any meaningful freedom or power from the ability to “erase the person I was before” (63). On the contrary, her story serves to highlight that the conflation of American identity and ahistoricity functions as a form of historical amnesia that serves to allow racial power structures to go on unchallenged.
The fraught relationship Senna explores between race, power, and history in Caucasia pertains not just to “real” history, but also to literary history. Senna appropriates the form of the bildungsroman in order to interrogate the way narratives of identity construction, and indeed identity construction itself, are indebted to the stories available in the established canon of fiction, and the power dynamics those stories (re)inscribe. The insight Caucasia provides into American history, the philosophical positions informing American identity, and the American literary canon, make it crucial to students of American literature.
Hassan, Ihab. Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Print.
Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.
Peterson, Nancy J. Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historic Memory. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Print.
Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999. Print.
About the author
Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She previously studied at the University of Seville, and Cornell University. Maria’s current research explores contemporary American women’s narratives of identity construction, focussing on the relationship between genre conventions and identity. Her Twitter handle is @mariaelenactq.