"Maybe I had actually become Jesse, and it was this girl, this Birdie Lee who...was the lie....I wondered if whiteness were contagious. If it were, then surely I had caught it....[it] affected the way I walked, talked, dressed, danced, and...the way I looked at the world and at other people."
Birdie Lee in Caucasia
In the tradition of Nella Larsen's Passing, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and James McBride's The Color of Water, Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia, explores the complexity of racial discord in America. While Ellison wrote about being paradoxically marked yet "invisible" as a black American man, and Larsen grappled with issues of race, gender, and sexuality during the Harlem Renaissance, Caucasia describes the experience of the invisible sister who confronts biracial identity in post-civil rights movement America.
Birdie Lee, the protagonist of Caucasia, grows up in 1970s Boston with her older sister, Cole, her radical WASP mother, Sandy, and her intellectual African American father, Deck. Sandy was raised in nearby Cambridge -- the daughter of a Harvard professor and a socialite mother whose lineage extended back to Cotton Mather -- while Deck's more amorphous history originated in the depths of the Louisiana bayou. Although Sandy's practice of housing political exiles in many ways complements Deck's revolutionary theories about race, their explosive and intense relationship is a source of instability and concern for both Birdie Lee and Cole. Eventually, the marriage collapses, and Deck finds a new romantic interest, Carmen, a black woman who ignores Birdie Lee and favors Cole.
Birdie Lee's existence, her core, heart, and essence, revolves around Cole. As Birdie Lee recalls, "Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence." However, while Birdie Lee is phenotypically Caucasoid and can "pass" (as white), with her cinnamon skin and curling hair Cole clearly looks black. Birdie Lee instinctively understands that this is why
"Cole was my father's special one....his prodigy -- his young, gifted, and black.... Her existence comforted him. She was the proof that his blackness hadn't been completely blanched...proof that he had indeed survived the integrationist shuffle...that his body still held the power to leave its mark."
One day, while attending Nkrumah, the Black Power school whose motto is Black is beautiful, Birdie Lee's parents realize that their commitment to hiding subversive radicals in their basement is making them prime targets for "the pigs, the Feds, the motherfuckers in the big house." Eventually, Cole and Deck emigrate to Brazil (with Carmen), while Birdie Lee and Sandy disappear into the vastness of America. The key is that while the FBI would be searching for a white woman with a black child, Birdie Lee's ability to pass will enable them to live a chameleonlike and protected existence.
Birdie Lee and Sandy are thus transformed into Jesse and Sheila Goldman; Sandy reasons that a Jewish identity is the closest Birdie Lee will get to being black while passing as white. "Tragic history, kinky hair, good politics," she explained, "It's all there." For four years Sandy and Birdie Lee are on the lam between communes and motels, eventually settling in New Hampshire, where Birdie Lee, now an adolescent, becomes a typical teen -- experimenting with makeup, wearing skintight jeans, and flirting with boys. Sandy settles into life in the parochial, nearly all-white town and has a steady boyfriend. Yet for Birdie Lee, the continuing lie of their existence and identities becomes increasingly painful and complex, and the absence of her father and sister is absolutely intolerable.
Finally, in March 1982, a full six years after leaving Boston, Birdie Lee returns to Massachusetts, determined to find her father and sister. Although initially content to live as "a spy in enemy territory" Birdie realizes she has metamorphosed into someone she doesn't like, "somebody who had no voice or color or conviction."
Eventually, Birdie Lee locates both her father and sister, who are living separately in Berkeley, and she is heartbroken that her father hadn't searched for her merely because "it was too much of a time commitment.... [He] cared more for books and theories than he did for flesh and blood." However, finding her long-lost other half, Cole, brings Birdie Lee's physically, emotionally, and spiritually arduous journey to a joyous conclusion.
Perhaps the most trenchant observation in Caucasia comes toward the end, when Deck, still "mad and brilliant," pontifically proclaims his newly evolved understanding of race to Birdie Lee:
"...[T]here's no such thing as passing. We're all just pretending. Race is a complete illusion, make-believe. It's a costume. We all wear one. You just switched yours at some point. That's just the absurdity of the whole race game."
While Birdie Lee intellectually agrees with her father's thesis, conferring with her sister provides the crucial epiphany: In Cole's words, "He's right, you know. About it all being constructed. But...that doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
The questions of biraciality in Caucasia, inspired by Senna's own life, account for the poignancy, realistic complexity, and nuance intrinsic to the novel. Pitch-perfect period details and a superbly empathic protagonist -- upon whose body racial dissonance is literally played out -- form the backdrop to this evocative story. Without a doubt, Caucasia is one of the most sophisticated and compelling novels about race and identity to emerge in years.