Caucasia (novel)

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Author Danzy Senna
Country United States
Language English
Genre Bildungsroman
Publisher Riverhead
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback and Paperback)
Pages 432

Caucasia (1998) is a novel written by Danzy Senna. It features the coming of age of Birdie, one of two multiracial sisters.


Birdie and Cole are American multiracial sisters who are separated in life because of their differing appearances and the racial identities which people ascribe to them. The narrator of the novel, Birdie, is at first not classified by appearance. Her sister Cole is described as "cinnamon-skinned, curly haired",[1] traits associated with African Americans of mixed race. Senna hints that the girls' mother is European American (her belly is called a "pale balloon").[1]

Over time, race, as experienced by the girls in their society, creates a rift between their lives. As young girls, Birdie and Cole speak an indistinguishable language of their creation which they call "Elemeno". The closeness between the two sisters suggests that appearance is not a defining characteristic of personality or behavior. Senna offers culture and atmosphere as having the most profound effect on a child's development. Birdie especially struggles to identify with and reconcile her multiracial identity. At the end of the novel, the two sisters are reunited in Berkeley.

The two sisters are separated when their father decides to leave for Brazil in search of a more racially harmonious society and their mother flees their home in fear that she is in trouble with the FBI. Each parent takes the child who is closer to him or her in appearance, Cole leaving with her father and his new girlfriend and Birdie leaving with her mother. In order to avoid being caught, Birdie and her mother assume false identities; Birdie´s mother forces her to change her name to Jesse Goldman and pretend to be a Jewish girl. Birdie and her mother remain on the lam for several years, but even as time passes Birdie is unable to fully adopt this new identity. She cannot forget her sister, her father, or the race that she truly is. She hopes for the day when her family will be reunited and she can drop the facade.

Meanwhile, Cole, with her darker skin and thicker hair, has been passing as black with their father. Once Birdie comes to realize that she may never be reunited with them unless she takes it upon herself, she leaves her mother to find them.

Before meeting with Cole again, Birdie reunites with her father, whom she is angry with. She cannot understand why racial appearance has caused division in her family. Birdie says to her father, "I heard myself say, 'Fuck the canaries in the fucking coal mines. You left me. You left me with Mum, knowing she was going to disappear. Why did you only take Cole? Why didn't you take me? If race is so make-believe, why did I go with Mum? You gave me to Mum 'cause I looked white. You don't think that's real? Those are the facts." [1] (393)

Birdie was long made to believe that there was some logical reason behind the splitting of her family. In her immaturity, she was led to think that her passing as someone else and constant displacement were for a greater cause and that her family would eventually be reunited. Birdie’s inability to understand and lashing out against her parents in the end shows she has successfully come of age. After years of struggling to maintain some sense of who she was while having to cover it up in different ways based on her environment, she grew to recognize the ridiculousness of her circumstances. She no longer sees her parents for what she grew up envisioning them as. She is angry that something so shallow could have such deep repercussions for her family and herself. She cannot make sense of her father's lack of effort in planning a return to her. An irony exists in her father’s working so hard at writing about race while working so little at forming a relationship with his mulatto daughter based on her racial appearance. Birdie comes to understand that there is nothing to understand about the actions of her mother and father. The way in which skin color has ruined her childhood and the fact that her parents allowed it to is too senseless for her to ever make sense of it. Through this coming of age novel, Birdie grows to understand the ridiculousness in accepting appearance as a determining characteristic of performance.


The most prominent theme in "Caucasia" is the theme of passing. Most obviously, Birdie transitions between black and white throughout the novel. Early on, when living in Boston, Birdie puts on makeup with her older sister and notes, "I did feel different-more conscious of my body as a toy, and of the ways I could use it to disappear into the world around me." [1] (65). This foreshadows Birdie's passing as a white, Jewish girl named Jesse Goldman when she and her mother drive around America in secrecy, especially when they end up in a mostly white town in New Hampshire. Birdie's mother participates in cultural passing. She fights for civil rights and Black Power while in Boston, yet she is a direct descendent of Increase and Cotton Mather, two well-known early American Puritans. She uses this upbringing to her advantage in New Hampshire in order to secure a house on the Marsh family's property (a white, upper-middle-class family). Birdie's mother's boyfriend in New Hampshire, Jim, a white middle-aged man, passes for culturally aware. Jim went on a trip to Jamaica, and believes that makes him culturally sensitive. Yet, while in New York City, Jim says some racially questionable things, especially, "'Jesus, it's like some ancient African instinct that gets these kids dancing. Unbelievable. Doesn't sound like the reggae I used to listen to in Jamaica." [1] (261). From this passage, we can infer Jim is relatively clueless. This theme can be extended to almost anyone in the novel, from Cole to Deck Lee (Birdie's father) to Nicholas Marsh.


"Caucasia" brings up the conflict between race as a phenotype versus race a performance. Race is more than skin deep and requires certain life practices to accompany your race. For example, being white is more about having a great deal of success in life than the color of your skin. An example in which this is clearly evident is in the character Sandy regarding her racial self-construction and self-conception. Although Sandy’s past can be understood as one of white wealth and privilege antithetical to blackness, her marriage to a black man and mothering of biracial children qualified and racialized the way she and others perceived her racial identity. In the scene before Sandy met Deck it was evident that her knowledge of and experience with the black community was limited, and what she did know was placed in a removed, academic context (33-34). Frequent references to her family’s Harvard and blueblood affiliations served to comfortably seat Sandy within the culture of white privilege completely separate from blackness before she came into direct contact with the black community. Sandy’s relationship with Deck—and later even more deeply with Cole and Birdie—served to firmly establish Sandy’s sense of familiarity with the black community, but also challenged her to place herself within it. She stated, “It doesn’t matter what your color is or what you’re born into, you know? It matters who you choose to call your own,” (87). By virtue of her having a black family—those who she “chose to call her own,” Sandy was forced into a unique relationship with blackness that no other white women in the story possessed. This moment signified her attempt to legitimize herself to Birdie as a person who had shirked the past life of whiteness into which she was born and establish herself as a body authentically in conversation with blackness. It is important to note that the text does not suggest that this process implied that Sandy attempted to become a literal black person, however she did very much desire to establish herself as a legitimate member of her black family in such a way that lent her an authentic position within the community. Evidence for this desire existed in her frustration in moments during which her maternal duties included a “black” activity that she was unable to access from her position of whiteness, such as her inability to properly braid Cole’s thick hair (52). Understanding racialization to be the ascription of a marked racial character onto a body that was previously unmarked, Sandy’s presence alongside her black family marked her as a white woman, but a white woman distinctly racialized from that of her premarital life.

In "Caucasia", Birdie and Cole also clearly struggle to perform according to their mixed race, highlighting the issues that many mixed raced individuals have when performing and constituting racial identities. A particularly prominent theme in this narrative is racial readability, ambiguity, and authenticity, specifically in relation to Birdie who is able to pass as white. Throughout the novel Birdie struggles with racial authenticity as her black identity is continually rejected by those around her because she is not visibly black. This theme of racial visibility is also present in the narrative through the literal invisibility of Birdie, who disappears at various points throughout the novel. Racial performance for both Cole and Birdie is difficult because society has chosen that they can only embrace one race, highlighting the ramifications of the One Drop Rule in American society. Deck Lee wanted to eliminate prejudice and racism in America, so he had this idea about introducing a prototype of a mulatto to society: Birdie and Cole, his children. On page 393, Deck discusses his theory behind the mulatto in America: "See, my guess is that you're the first generation of canaries to survive, a little injured, perhaps, but alive..."[1] (393). Just like a canary's survival in a mine would signal to miners to continue farther into the mine, Birdie's survival in society would signal that America was ready for the mulatto, and that they would survive. The metaphor applies to Birdie because her phenotype is more white, forcing her to have to work harder at embracing both of her origins more so than her sister, Cole. Birdie's assimilation into both of her cultures was difficult. Therefore, based on this metaphor, 1960's American racial identity issues stemmed from all sides (with prejudice), just presented differently. (Needs to discuss race vs. racism, and acknowledge the premise that white America was the baseline for her identity struggles.)


Birdie opens the novel with a memory of disappearance. She begins the narrative proper noting that she "saw [Cole] as the reflection that proved [her] own existence"[1] (5). At such a young age, Birdie already remembered having no proof of her own existence, having no visibility. She continues throughout her life basically nonexistent. At Dot's party, she travels from doorway to doorway unnoticed; attending Nkrumah, she meets Maria, who can only see her in the black/white binary, allowing her no depth further than that which Maria projects onto her; even with her father, she all but disappears after he delivers her the negrobilia. Birdie seems to only exist and continue her visibility to onlookers when she has been designated only one specific race. Then, however, does she exist? Or is her story simply composed of the "lies of [her] body and the artifacts of [her] life"[1] (381)? This novel outlines the visibility of a mixed race person, and America's refusal to admit them. Birdie can only exist internally when she can identify with her mother Sandy and her father Deck, and externally when she is Subjected to one identity, devoid of her truth. Because of this, she remains an outsider and an invisible woman to her peers and to strangers. Senna seems to be pointing to the fact that our culture defines the black and white as existent on opposite ends of one plane, and thus they are somehow mutually exclusive in one body. Birdie disappears no matter where she is.


Caucasia won the Stephen Crane Award for Best New Fiction of the Year and the American Library Association’s Alex Award; it was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Caucasia was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.