April 8th, 2002



I just finished reading Caucasia by Danzy Senna. I hadn’t heard of it before I picked it off the library shelf, and I was skeptical when I read the author was, at times, a writer for Newsweek, but I’ll pick up any novel and try it out if looks like it comes out of Left culture. I’ve found some of my favorite books that way (Terminal Bar by Larry Mitchell, The Bad Communist by Max Crawford).

Caucasia is written from the point of view of Birdie, the very light-skinned younger daughter of an interracial couple (Black father and white WASP mother). Birdie’s parents, in the midst of breaking up, are adult, left, pro-Black radicals in the mid-‘70s. They’re forced to make a decision about what to do as their movement crumbles through political repression, movement mistakes and ideological battles. The parents separate. On the run from the police, Birdie’s white mother takes her, forcing her, for "security reasons", to pass as a white Jew. Her father takes her much darker skinned sister out of the country, partly hoping to find a way out of American racism altogether.

The book is mostly about he construction of race and identity. For example, Birdie has to learn to pass as Black when she goes from home schooling to a Black Power school in Boston. Then she needs to learn to pass as white when she’s on the run with her mother and living in mostly white rural areas. This ranges from the amusing, saying she likes the J. Geils Band instead of Earth, Wind, and Fire, to the painful and serious, deciding how to respond to her white friend’s expectations of racial loyalty.

But it’s also about questioning the possibilities and pushing the boundaries around issues of race and class. The book is written in one of my favorite ways: unapologetically Left, (we don’t have to read why-is-the-system-bad? handwringing), but not unexamined. What is there to do when all the options are bad ones? What are the consequences for children of radical parents as the parents get marginalized because of their direct actions or intellectualism? For underground radicals, when does laying low for security reasons just turn into being apolitical and unengaged? The mother's flight, in particular, can be read at times as a necesary escape from government oppression, and at others as a flight back to white privilege (even as it is a flight further away from the class privilege of her parents).

Every time the book looks like it is about to take a troubling turn, it takes a smart direction instead. Is studying Eastern religions in India the answer to dealing with the social construct of American racism? Nah. Does that fact that racism is socially constructed make it less real? No. Only a couple of things struck me as a little over the top. One I won’t reveal because it’s at the very end of the book. The other is that Birdie’s dark-skinned sister, named Colette at birth, is pretty much only referred to as Cole. Cole/Coal, she’s dark-skinned, I get it already.

What’s really sad are the few reviews that I found online that totally missed the point. My favorite said the novel took place in the turbulent time of "Angela Carter and the Black Panther movement" and when "students were getting shot dead at Berkeley University in California"* This was at a site by and for teacher/librarians in Canada. Is there hope for the world when librarians confuse Angela Carter and Angela Davis, say "students" instead of "a student", and can’t get the name of UC Berkeley right?

Can you imagine if Angela Carter wrote the Panther Platform? "We demand housing! But without creepy attics, toy chests and wizards!"