|Posted on Monday, March 14, 2005 - 07:56 pm: |
From Stanley Crouch's review of Caucasia by Danzy Senna. Once again, as in Jack Johnson and his review of The Plot Against America, Crouch nails the shit:
The girl, whose name is Birdy, can pass for white or something close to it, unlike her sister, whose ethnicity is clear a mile away. Her father is an academic who believes that there is a kind of freedom for black people in Brazil that does not exist in America. When he and his wife break up, the father takes Colette, the dark-skinned girl, with him, leaving the white mother and her dangerously light-skinned daughter behind. The mother, a fat, upper-class Bostonian, has to take Birdy on the run after she gets mixed up in some "revolutionary" stuff with a gaggle of charismatic and delusional Negroes. As the mother loses her identity and has to keep inventing another for herself and her daughter, Senna moves us through a number of cultural variations that are precisely drawn and just as precisely felt.
Birdy, who had always felt an outsider among Negroes benumbed by black nationalism, eventually becomes, for all practical purposes, white and watches her mother trim down from stress until a slim, attractive woman appears. Her mother is far different, in certain ways, than she was when men had to be captivated by her mind in order to accept her voluminous body. But Birdy is not comfortable being a white girl or some sort of exotic. She feels no bitterness toward white people for being white or for being different from Negroes. She takes them on one at a time and makes her decisions about them on the basis of how they come off to her as individuals. In that sense, she is different from both her father and mother; her pops ties the world down with theories, while her moms, as soon as she feels free in their little home on the run, shows her new, small ass with the kind of contempt for convention and sense of superiority common to upper-class white radicals. But because Senna is such an artist, one observes this and puts it together without ever being literally told any such thing. As the two settle in New Hampshire, the narrative calms down and Birdy's observations and recollections are those of a young woman growing up and seeing the world ever more clearly. Her body is on the ground but her mind stays on vacation.
Birdy's dream is to reunite with her sister somehow, someday, somewhere. As a wanderer, she realizes that she does not have a geographical home. Cole, the nickname for Birdy's sister, is her home, not her father, not her mother. Or at least she thinks her real home is her sister. Mottled emotionally in so many ways by the nature of humanity, Birdy believes that her relationship to her sister had always been pure. It sailed up above her father's race theories, above the hostility that her father's new black wife had toward her, above her mother's radical politics, anger, and self-pity. As Senna shows us, there is a bond between the two girls that is much more real than any of the conventions of identity that mashed down on them through the voodoo politics and costumed ethnicity of the 1970s, when they were growing up. It remains more true in Birdy's memory than the settling into paranoia, rhetorical disdain, and bitterness that characterized the lives of most radicals who made it to the 1980s. Once it became clear that "the revolution" was never coming, radicals discovered the harsh facts of failed and foolish ideas. All that was left for the bulk of them was the dull prison of academic life, the resentment expressed in voting as far left as possible, and the embittering new identities that the most extreme had to create in order to remain outside of the prison system.
That, of course, is easy to say; it is hard to write, and that is why Senna is so notable. She makes us feel the humanity of her people, no matter where on the color spectrum or the class ladder they exist. Her sympathy to all people and her contempt for fools and her understanding of folly form a powerful perspective that is run through with humor of the witty or gut-busting or gallows kind. Senna also understands how new orders are not necessarily new and that their power relationships are usually based on assumptions that are usually no more than alternate versions of an aristocracy, an elect, a group of special people. Intellectuals, revolutionaries, lower-, middle-, and upper-class people have a strong sense of what makes someone special, more important to listen to, better to be around, a more perfect model to imagine for themselves.
Senna's Birdy fits into none of those categories. She is emotionally free in no world other than the one she and her sister invented for themselves, which had its own language and was untranslatable by outsiders. When she was young, the revved up black students at the black nationalist school rejected Birdy for being too white looking and she felt guilty for not having hair that was wooly, like her sister's. She is sure that that is why her father chose to leave with her sister and not her. Her mother is left with a child who should be easier to rear because Birdy's grandmother is more comfortable with her than with her sister, and, perhaps, so is her mother. In her adventures on the run with her mother and her observations about the nature of life as she meets it, Birdy functions impeccably as a flesh-and-blood woman through which Senna shows us how much she knows about America and how well a writer can bring to life the variety of this nation in its grandeur, its petty delusions, its infinite speech patterns, its mystery, its race and class tensions.
When Birdy and her mother go on the run and reinvent themselves as a widowed mother and half-Jewish daughter, they have actually realized a tendency common to their time of ethnic and "street" masking. Birdy's deeply intellectual father and other black people slide in and out of forced street slang, slogans, and street bits of performance that they believe give them greater authenticity and proves their obliviousness, even if only recently discovered, to "white" grammar and deportment. This was part of the mythology that developed as a supposed freedom from "white culture." Whites might seek a freedom from "bourgeois privilege," which meant embracing Negro art and politics, Eastern religions, and folk dress from the world over. But the pressure on them was nowhere near as strong. There was no white "authenticity" against which they were measured. Senna exposes the doctrinaire ways in which black children can be forced into assuming postures that are intellectual constructs imposed on behavior, the inventions of politicians, sociologists, and psychologists. Children then seek to be good automatons, not individuals, and feel terrible when they don't do well at erasing their human qualities. The horror of it all is that the response to stereotyping was an in-group stereotyping with the intended results of group loyalty spelled out in specific behavior and specific lingo.
What makes Caucasia such a particular event is that it is not a rant, but a complicated human picture of a number of worlds that we have not seen so well investigated before, or brought together with such clarity. The lucidity of this epic rendering allows us to recognize those varied worlds as part of the ongoing American dilemma of identity, which is deepened in its complexity as more and more cultures from outside of the West become available. they are borrowed from or pillaged into the superficial condition of kitsch or drawn on as actual inspiration or rejected if they prove that in their quaint and exotic qualities they are, finally, inadequate tools for facing modern circumstances. Danzy Senna is a gifted young contender who could easily emerge in her maturity as a champion of our literature.