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Caucasia (1998) is an American novel written by Danzy Senna. Caucasia is the coming-of-age story of Birdie and Cole, multiracial sisters who have a white mother and black father. The novel is set in Boston, Massachusetts during the turbulent mid-1970s.
Much of the novel centers around the theme of racial passing. Senna upends the traditional “tragic mulatto” storyline by exploring Birdie's desire to be accepted as black, although she appears to be white. The author presents a non-singular concept of being “white.” There are many shades of white that Birdie’s visible mixed ethnicity seems to allow her to pass as: Puerto Rican, French, Italian, Pakistani, Greek, Cape Verdean or Jewish.
Senna also explores themes of invisibility and disappearing. Birdie is multiracial; she feels invisible to her father, who seems to prefer her older and darker sister. She disappears with her mother, whose paranoia about being followed by the FBI leads her to construct new Jewish identities for them.
Throughout the novel, Birdie seeks to understand who she is and how she fits into the world. Growing up on the run and fearful that her true identity could endanger her mother’s life, Birdie struggles to know her authentic self. She longs for her sister Cole and their father, ultimately running away from home to find them.
- 1 Background and historical context
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters
- 4 Locations
- 5 Themes
- 6 Literary significance and reception
- 7 Awards and recognition
- 8 Biography
- 9 References
Background and historical context
Caucasia is set in 1975 Boston, Massachusetts. Violent protests disrupted the city as forced desegregation was implemented in the public schools beginning in the 1974 school year. Boston busing desegregation flamed racial tensions, resulting in riots, beatings and violence which persisted for many years.
Birdie's parents, she tells us, met in January 1963 during the Kennedy administration. They marry and have their first daughter, Colette/Cole in 1964. Birdie is born in 1967. At that time there were anti-miscegenation laws in many of the United States. These were not overturned until the Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
During this time period the strategy for social change through peaceful protests that are associated with the Civil Rights Movement were being challenged by new black leaders. Malcolm X urged a demand for human rights By any means necessary. Stokely Carmichal is credited with the first popular use of term Black Power in 1963 at a Civil Rights rally. Following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was created by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
Violence was used as a form of protest by groups like Weather Underground, notorious for mail bombs and bank robberies, and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the organization that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.
The narrator of the novel is Birdie Lee, a multiracial child who has a white mother and black father. She and her sister, Cole, are very close, yet differ in appearance. Her sister is described as "cinnamon-skinned, curly haired"  traits associated with African Americans of mixed race. Birdie does not describe herself, but her interactions with others indicate she is lighter skinned than her sister and can pass as white. “…the woman behind the desk took one look at Cole and me and assigned us to different districts. I would be bused to the predominantly black school in Dorchester; Cole to South Boston, the Irish section, “in the interest of dahversetty,” the woman explained…” 
The book is written in 3 parts: Part 1 takes place in 1975 Boston and Roxbury, Massachusetts when Birdie is 8 years old; Part 2 takes place in a small town in New Hampshire 6 years later when Birdie is 14 years old; Part 3 takes place when Birdie is 14 ½ years old and she runs away from her mother to try to find her father and sister.
Part 1: "Negritude for beginners"
Birdie is 8 years old and living with her family in Roxbury, Massachusetts. It is 1975 and racial tension in the Boston area is high as busing to desegregate the public schools is implemented. Her parents’ marriage falls apart; Birdie and her sister are sent to “Nkrumah, The Black power school.” 
Birdie is questioned by the other students wanting to know what race she is; they ask if she’s Puerto Rican and demand “What you doin’ in this school? You white?” 
With Cole’s sisterly protection and learning how to dress and talk like the other black students, Birdie successfully passes as black.
Near the end of the school year, Birdie’s parents divorce. Her father, Deck, has a new girlfriend, Carmen and he decides to move to Brazil, taking Cole with him.
Birdie is left with her mother, Sandy.
Part 2: "From Caucasia with love"
After 6 years on the run, and changing identities and no real place to call home, Sandy decides that they should settle down. She chooses a small town in New Hampshire and creates new identities and backgrounds for herself and Birdie. They become the widow Sheila Goldman and her Jewish (white) daughter Jesse Goldman.
Birdie/Jesse attends the local public school, passing as white. She adopts the clothing, hair and vocal mannerisms of her peers yet longs for her sister and her own black identity.
Sandy/Sheila establishes a relationship with a local man she meets at a bar, Jim, and by Christmas, has told him the truth about Birdie/Jesse’s parentage. Birdie feels betrayed and begins to question if the FBI ever was after her mother. By the end of this section, she decides to run away from home to Boston and look for her Aunt Dot, her father’s sister, and hopefully find answers to where her father and her sister are.
Part 3: "Compared to what"
Birdie finds her Aunt Dot in Boston and an old friend from Nkrumah, Ali, tells her his father may know something. From Ali’s father, Ronnie, she learns that her own father returned from Brazil and settled in California years earlier. While distraught that he hadn’t tried to find her, she commits to going to San Francisco to find them. With reluctant help from her white Grandmother Penelope, Birdie flies to San Francisco.
Before meeting with Cole, Birdie reunites with her father, Deck. He lives alone and professes to be glad to see Birdie again, but is emotionally distant. When the topic of Sandy/Sheila is broached, he alludes to her flight from the FBI, confirming Birdie's suspicions that Sandy was in little, if any, danger of being pursued by COINTELPRO. He eagerly shares his philosophy about race, a project he’d been working on since the Roxbury years. “…mulattos had historically been the gauge of how poisonous American race relations were. The fate of the mulatto in history and in literature, he said, will manifest the symptoms that will eventually infect the rest of the nation.” 
His pleasure that she showed up, and equating it to a canary surviving in a coal mine, along with his preoccupation with his theories on race causes Birdie to express her anger with him.
"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." 
Eventually, her father tells her where Cole is and Birdie reunites with her long lost sister. Biridie decides to stay in San Francisco with Cole and go to school there.
- Birdie Lee: The narrator of the novel. At the beginning of the novel she is 8 years old. Her birth certificate states her name as Baby Lee. “My father wanted to call me Patrice, as in Lumumba, the Congolese liberator; my mother wanted to name me Jesse, after her great-grandmother, a white suffragette. Cole just called me Birdie—she had wanted a parakeet for her birthday and instead got me.”  Birdie is also called Le Chic by the Nkrumah Brown Sugar clique; and Pocahontas or Poca by Nicholas Marsh. Throughout the novel, Birdie is incapable of constructing her own racial identity unless someone assigns it to her. When Sandy forces Birdie to adopt a Jewish identity, she experiences the complete erase of her Black identity.
- Jesse (Jess) Goldman: The fake Jewish identity Birdie’s mother gives her so they can settle in New Hampshire when she is 12 years old.
- Colette (Cole) Lee: Birdie’s older sister. Colette is named after her mother's favorite author. For Birdie, Cole is the mirror in which she can see her blackness.
- Sandy Lodge Lee: Birdie and Cole’s mother. Sandy is from an upper crust white Boston family whose lineage traces back to Cotton Mather. Sandy's ability to raise her two Black daughters is questioned in the novel; the author criticizes Sandy's inability to attend to Cole's blackness by failing to appropriately style her hair and introduce her to lotion to treat her ashiness. Even though Sandy tries to deny a part of her identity, the White privilege she possess cannot be concealed in the presence of her two daughters. While a Black woman is born into her culture, Sandy is forced to learn how to better respond to her Black daughter's needs. Sandy's efforts to not attune to her Whiteness, ultimately serve to make her White privilege even more visible.
- Sheila Goldman: The fake identity Sandy uses when she and Birdie settle in New Hampshire
- Deck Lee: Birdie and Cole’s father. Deck is a black intellectual who teaches and writes on race theory.
- Dot Lee: Deck’s older sister and Birdie’s favorite relative.
- Taj: Dot’s 4-year-old daughter. Birdie meets her when she runs away to Boston to try to find her father and her sister.
- Carmen: A girlfriend of Deck’s after he divorces Sandy.
- Penelope Lodge: Birdie’s white grandmother; Sandy’s mother.
- Ronnie Parkman: A good friend of Deck’s in the 1970s, a documentarian.
- Redbone: A red haired multiracial man who infiltrates Sandy’s group of militant friends. Deck is suspicious of Redbone and doesn’t trust him.
- Linda and Jane: Some of Sandy’s militant friends.
- Birdie’s Nkrumah friends: (The Brown Sugars clique) Maria Miller, Cherise, Cathy, Carol and Diana (the twins) ; Ali Parkman.
- Walter and Libby Marsh: the couple that rents the cottage to Sandy/Sheila in New Hampshire.
- Nicholas Marsh: Walter and Libby’s son. A few years older than Birdie/Jesse, Nicholas goes to boarding school.
- Mr. Pleasure: a mare that the Marsh’s own and Birdie/Jesse has permission to ride.
- Jim: a man Sandy/Sheila meets in New Hampshire and forms a relationship with.
- Mona: Birdie/Jesse’s best friend at school in New Hampshire
- Dennis: Mona’s lecherous big brother.
- Samantha Taper: an adopted child with white parents. She is a darker skinned multiracial student at the New Hampshire school Birdie/Jesse attends.
- Nora: Samantha’s best friend, a slightly built math genius who is white.
- Stuart: a black student at the New Hampshire school, recruited for the football team.
- Corvette: a black transsexual Birdie meets in Boston when she runs away from home.
- Elemeno an imaginary utopian land where people can change color at will. Elemeno is also a language that Birdie and her sister Cole create and use for private conversations.
- Boston, Roxbury and Southie 1975 and 1982
- Nkrumah, A Black Power School in Boston
- Brazil Where Deck goes with Carmen and Cole following his divorce from Sandy.
- Aurora The women’s commune in upstate New York that Birdie and her mother stay at for a year while on the run, prior to their settling in New Hampshire.
- Unnamed New Hampshire small town near a university: Where Birdie/Jesse and her mother, Sandy/Sheila, settle when Birdie is 14 years old.
- San Francisco Where Deck and Cole settle after returning from Brazil.
Cole and Birdie encounter societal expectations of beauty during their beginning years at Nkrumah elementary school. Cole is made fun of for her dry knees, appearing dry and "ashy" to the other African American children. Sandy attempts to take care of Cole's hair by braiding it herself, ultimately failing. Eventually, Deck pays for Cole to go to a black hair salon. "Cole was splendid, ladylike, suddenly in a whole new league."  Also when Birdie is in New Hampshire she has to learn to dress and put on make up like the other white girls in her school. Beauty in Caucasia is closely connected to the identity's of the characters and their culture. When Birdie and Cole learn about lotion, Birdie claims that she feels like she is a part of a secret club, aka black culture. Cole's nappy hair was looked down upon by neighbors on the street, because Cole was not following the beauty expectations of those in the black community. When Birdie starts to dress and mimic the white girls in her New Hampshire class she does so to be accepted and a part of the white community. In these ways beauty is closely intertwined with identity. and culture.
Beauty in this novel is addressed not just in terms of gender expectations, but in terms of racial issues as well. The intersectionality of gender and race is a clear theme in the novel, particularly within the context of beauty standards. Cole and Birdie are held to different beauty standards throughout the novel due to their differing appearances, specifically because Cole appears to be more black and Birdie appears to be more white. When Birdie and Cole attend the same school, one where the majority of students are black, Birdie is criticized for looking too white, and must struggle with the expectations held to her as a black girl who isn’t black enough. Later, once Cole and Birdie are separated from each other and Birdie is treated as a white girl, her individual struggle with appearance is made clear as, for example, her friends comment on the relative darkness of her skin in the sun. Birdie’s constant struggle with her race is directly tied to her physical appearance, and therefore to the societal beauty standards held to women, specifically those that are separately tied to white women and black women.
Senna also uses beauty to show how black female bodies are sexualized and criticized. Senna’s contrast of Samantha Taper and Birdie, now Jesse Goldman, exemplifies how black girl bodies are criticized and hyper-sexualized. While Birdie describes Samantha as having “deep-set eyes, caramel complexion…” and “full lips,” Birdie’s classmates mock her by calling her “Wilona,” “disgusting,” and “Brown Cow” because she has developed breasts (223). The white students referring to a young teenage girl as a grown black woman character shows how black girls are hyper-sexualized to the point where they are not seen as children. It isn’t until Samantha over-sexualizes herself at the beginning of high school that other students notice her. Even after her transformation Samantha receives critiques of seeking attention and looking like a hooker. Senna shows us how beauty standards are used to criticize black women.
Birdie's struggle with identity is central throughout the novel. Many people in Birdie's life try to assign her an identity based on her appearance. Carmen, Penelope, her classmates, and later on even Sandy deny Birdie's blackness and expect her to behave as if she was white. When Birdie and Sandy go undercover, Birdie herself is forced to deny her blackness in public. Living in a white New Hampshire town, Birdie's only connection to her blackness and her past is the box of Negrobilia gifted to her by Deck before he and Cole left for Brazil. When Birdie makes a trip to New York City and sees young black people dancing to hip-hop, it seems to motivate her to reconnect with her blackness, and after an encounter with Samantha, she decides to return to Boston to find Cole. It is not until she finally tracks down Cole in California that her fractured identity seems complete. Even Deck, a man who once claimed that no child of his could pass as white, dismisses Birdie's struggle for identity by saying that race does not exist.
In Caucasia, the identity category of race is presented by raising the question: Who is passing for what? Passing is a term associated to someone who is not legally White but passes as White, facilitating their ability to assimilate in White culture. In Caucasia, several characters experience a loss of racial identity and the denial of self with the intention of gaining social acceptance. While Cole denounces her White heritage and passes as Black and Sandy resists the idea of passing as a wasp, Birdie is one of the main characters who experiences a complete disassociation with anything that would indicate a connection to her blackness. Consequently, Birdie is able to pass as a Jewish after her mother forces both of them to runaway.
While the main character dealing with issues of passing is Birdie, Sandy also has her own issues with her white identity. While passing is typically associated with black people attempting to live as a white person to gain upward mobility, Sandy passes to escape her wealthy whiteness. She uses Deck and her children to remove herself from her privileged whiteness. Although Sandy attempted to use her family to escape her whiteness, they simply magnified it. Sandy’s inability to parent two black girls and to understand her black husband only reinforced her background that she tried to escape. Running to New Hampshire with Birdie not only allowed her to run from this imagined political threat, but allowed Sandy to restart her life as a white woman.
In Caucasia, language is an important part of passing from one identity to another. When Birdie's dad, Deck, is around other African Americans he changes the way he talks from more academic to more of an African American Vernacular. However Language is not just words, but also can be customs, traditions, or acts. Birdie and Cole must learn the language of lotion and talking black, and getting their hair done in order to fit into black culture. Then when Birdie goes to New Hampshire she learns to become comfortable with the n-word. But she also learns to like rock or pretends to like rock instead of R&B and soul in order to fit in with the language of the white New Hampshire culture.
Literary significance and reception
In general, Senna’s Caucasia received positive reviews that praised the author’s writing, themes and innovations that reinvent of the “tragic mulatto” genre. Claudia Arias noted Caucasia's importance as more than just memoir based fiction, “…the novel functions, to a certain extent, as both a testimony of the lived experiences of being multiracial and a critique of the rigidity of racial categories in the United States.”  and Marilyn Richardson in the 1998 Women’s Review of Books states that, “Danzy Senna is already an artist of high achievement; she has perfect pitch for all sorts of dialogue, the technical sleight of hand to place the reader deftly in the landscapes and mindscapes of her characters, laugh-out-loud wit and a radical political consciousness so integral to her storytelling that it is never didactic.”
International book reviews praised Caucasia including Anthea Lawson of The Times (London), “Senna hits no false notes in this engrossing and powerful tale of identity and misplaced idealism. The issue of race is constantly questioned, yet never overtakes the narrative itself: that of a strong-minded girl trying to find her way.”  and G. Clark of The Courier Mail, (Queensland, Australia) raved, “In Senna's sharp hands, a story of '70s idealism hitting the rocks. Excellent reading.” 
Lise Funderburg’s review in Essence 1998 was full of praise for Senna's first novel, “Danzy Senna makes a stunning debut with Caucasia… Senna finds a perfect-pitch voice for Birdie that blends innocence, wry humor and straight-out pain. and Brian Edwards of The Australian commented on Senna's style, "Senna writes with fine insights, humour and control." 
Reviewers like Clover Hughes were appreciative of the topics and themes in Caucasia, as well as the passion with which the book was written, “Senna writes about race and identity with intelligence and ardour, creating a compelling portrait of unconventional family life against the backdrop of radical activism and the undulations of black power in America in the Seventies.” 
Lori Harrison-Kahan wrote in 2005, "By reversing the racial dynamics of more traditional passing narratives such as Imitation of Life, Senna's novel reinvents the theme of passing for a multicultural, post-Civil Rights era to tell the story of a biracial female protagonist who comes of age during the 1970s."
Maggie O’Farrell, writing for The Independent (London) noted in 2000 that Danzy Senna’s novel takes on a genre dominated by male writers, “Americans do it better. And longer. Everybody knows that. I'm talking about the state-of-the-nation novel: that ambitious, 400-page- plus tome that takes a sweeping, tracking shot of the usually un-United States, dissecting high -life, low-life and everything else in between… Danzy Senna's first novel, From Caucasia, With Love, takes up the challenge." 
Daniel Grassian wrote that Danzy Senna was an author to watch, “Danzy Senna, a writer I believe will become a major force in twenty-first century American literature.
Some reviewers, while praising Caucasia as a good debut novel, felt that there were some weaknesses. Clover Hughes review in The Observer noted, “Senna is not above bullying this sort of metaphor into work for her, and too often hangs bells and lights on anything resonant.
Sian Preece agreed, noting, “Senna's writing has a grace and gravity to it, but lacks lightness.” 
Kathryn Heyman criticized Caucasia for a lack of emotional depth, “In spite of some elegant descriptions and moments of metaphorical precision, much of the writing remains vague and disconcertingly clichéd. Senna seems uncomfortable writing with emotional depth. Passages that should be moving are merely sentimental or coy. As a result, politics, not emotions, are engaged. With some rigorous editing and a tighter narrative, this might have been a wonderful novel." 
Anna Shapiro, The Observer’s review longed for a more enhanced and nuanced narration. Shapiro felt the parents were more interesting than Birdie’s character and could have shouldered a more powerful point of view. “ This is a long book, and it earns its length; by the end, you feel the sadness of Birdy losing not only her father and her sister, but herself. As a narrator, however, she seems unable to untangle this moving tale from a kind of sociological documentary about race. One longs for greater art or style in the narration, instead of reportage, something non-chronological, letting the full force of what had been lost contrast with scenes of the young girl's life of pretense. For that, the author would have had to cling less tightly to Birdy's point of view. It would be a great plus, since the parents are by far the most interesting characters, but requires the kind of authorial maturity that places drama above a brief for sympathy.
Awards and recognition
- 1998 Stephen Crane Award for Best New Fiction of the Year
- 1999 American Library Association’s Alex Award
- Finalist International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
- Whiting Writers Award 2002 
- Selected as one of School Library Journal's 23 Best Adult Books for the Young Adult 
- Selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Los Angeles Times 1998 
- Selected as one of Glamour's three Best Novels of the Year by a New Writer 1998
- In 2004 Danzy Senna was named a Fellow for the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers
Danzy Senna is an American novelist, born 1970 in Boston, Massachusetts to parents, Carl Senna, an Afro-Mexican poet and author, and Fanny Howe, writer. Both of her parents were civil rights activists. Senna attended Stanford University and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.
Caucasia (later republished as From Caucasia With Love) is Senna's first published novel. Danzy Senna lives in Los Angeles with her husband, fellow writer Percival Everett, and their sons Henry and Miles.
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