Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History

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Overview

When Danzy Senna’s parents married in 1968, they seemed poised to defy history: two beautiful young American writers from wildly divergent backgrounds—a white woman with a blue-blood Bostonian lineage and a black man, the son of a struggling single mother and an unknown father. When their marriage disintegrated eight years later, the violent, traumatic split felt all the more tragic for the hopeful symbolism it had once borne.

Decades later, Senna looks back not only ...

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Overview

When Danzy Senna’s parents married in 1968, they seemed poised to defy history: two beautiful young American writers from wildly divergent backgrounds—a white woman with a blue-blood Bostonian lineage and a black man, the son of a struggling single mother and an unknown father. When their marriage disintegrated eight years later, the violent, traumatic split felt all the more tragic for the hopeful symbolism it had once borne.

Decades later, Senna looks back not only at her parents’ divorce but at the histories that they had tried so hard to overcome. In the tradition of James McBride's The Color of Water, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is "a stunningly rendered personal heritage that mirrors the complexities of race, class, and ethnicity in the United States" (Booklist).

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Danzy Senna's 1998 novel Caucasia drew heavily on her experiences as the daughter of a prominent mixed-race couple. Her memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night? tosses aside any fictional filter and tackles her family story head-on. Danzy reconstructs the eight-year marriage between half-black, half-Chicano writer Carl Senna and his bohemian "blue-blood" wife, poet/novelist Fanny Howe. The breakup of the pair became known as "the ugliest divorce in Boston history," but Senna has more important things to do than to merely dish the marital dirt. Instead, she probes deeply into the histories of both her parents' families, uncovering hidden roots and contradictions. An intensely personal look at race and identity.
From the Publisher
Praise for Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

“A keen examination of a utopian-minded marriage scarred by America’s racially divided past.” —Vogue

 

“Stirring . . . Caught between her parents’ divergent histories, Senna finds her own identity at odds with itself, despite having been cultivated in a sort of bohemian ‘new world order.’ Senna relates these winding, uncertain stories with a sense of quiet devastation. She’s as fiercely driven to unearth her parents' pasts as they were eager to rise above them.” —Eryn Loeb, Time Out New York

 

“Senna’s spare style allows her to maintain control of this emotionally painful material. . . . Her descriptive skills are precise, with humor and humanity shining through at unexpected moments. An impressive feat, packing so much into a short book.” —Ariel Gonzalez, Miami Herald

 

“[Senna is] masterly at relaying—and more important, withholding—information, so that every lead, every twist, begs for a page-flip . . . The author propels these early chapters along with the kind of snappy knockout prose Ross Macdonald might have employed, had he been given to long ruminations on race and identity in American culture . . . Her observations are often nod-inducingly brilliant.” —David Matthews, The New York Times Book Review

 

“Wistful yet bitter-toned . . . a haunting, introspective meditation on race and family ties that tackles the tricky questions involved in constructing identity.” —Publishers Weekly, Pick of the Week, March 9

 

“Senna, author of Caucasia and Symptomatic, offers a stunningly rendered personal heritage that mirrors the complexities of race, class, and ethnicity in the U.S.” —Booklist, starred review

 

“Quietly reflective and gorgeously written.” —Kirkus Reviews

“There are stories we need to find, and stories that must be told. In this masterful work of seeking and telling, hoping and letting go, Danzy Senna stalks her ancestral past like an attorney assembling the case of a lifetime. Her closing remarks prove that as improbable as it sounds, the people of this great country we call America really are indivisible; we truly are one. This book is a great gift. Read it.”—Rebecca Walker, author of Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self

“In her courageous portrait of the tumultuous union between her Boston Brahmin mother and her enigmatic black father, Danzy Senna offers a powerfully personal take on the progress of American race relations since the civil rights movement. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? reminds us of the consequences of our origins and our inescapable desire to make sense of them.”—Bliss Broyard, author of One Drop : My Father’s Hidden LifeA Story of Race and Family Secrets

Praise for Danzy Senna

“Senna’s dynamic storytelling illuminates personal revelations that are anything but black and white.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Senna throws everything into her literary stew–ambition, love, obsession, jealousy, and race.” —Elle

Praise for Danzy Senna’s Caucasia

“Senna’s remarkable first novel [will] cling to your memory . . . Senna tells this coming of age tale with impressive beauty and power.” —Newsweek

“[An] absorbing debut novel . . . Senna superbly illustrates the emotional toll that politics and race take.” —New York Times Book Review

David Matthews
[Senna's] serpentine journey through the Deep South, as she sifts through the lies, horrors and obfuscations of her family's past in search of how her father came to be, makes up the most absorbing portion of the book. She's masterly at relaying—and, more important, withholding—information, so that every lead, every twist, begs for a page-flip…The author propels these early chapters along with the kind of snappy knockout prose Ross Macdonald might have employed, had he been given to long ruminations on race and identity in American culture.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this wistful yet bitter-toned memoir, Senna (Symptomatic) relates her search for answers about her family and racial heritage, a complicated background that most surely informed first novel, Caucasia. In her 30s, despite having launched a successful writing career and built a life of her own, Senna was curious about her black father's family history (her mother descended from Boston Brahmins). Senna travels South to trace her father's roots, particularly the mystery of his paternity; along the way she meets potential relatives, searches through records and photos and soaks in the atmosphere he knew as a child. Most of her efforts bear little direct fruit (though in the end some answers turn up thanks to DNA testing), but gradually they do help her to better understand her father-a writer and professor, and later a drunk and deadbeat who left Senna's mother and their children. Senna switches narrative vantage points frequently, offering fragments of the past and glimpses of the present. The result is a haunting, introspective meditation on race and family ties that tackles the tricky questions involved in constructing identity. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School

This genealogical detective story takes readers on an intimate search for identity and personal history. The daughter of a now-divorced interracial couple, the author knew all about her Boston blue-blood mother's family history-her ancestors were writers, widely published, and their personal stories are interwoven with traditional American history. She hungered for information about her black father's background: all she had were ephemeral stories about her grandmother Anna and her alleged grandfather, a white Mexican boxer who disappeared after her father's birth. Unraveling the mystery of her father's family involved trips to the Deep South that offered confusing glimpses into the world of his impoverished childhood. As Senna met people from his past and tried to make sense of their relationships and their stories, she struggled to piece together the clues about his genealogy: What was the truth? What gifts had she gotten from her father? Could she forgive him his paternal shortcomings? Her memoir effectively draws in readers and her evocative descriptions of people, places, and actions provide immediacy and suspense. She explores themes of race, racism, genealogy, black families/kinship, adoption, secrets, class, education, and sibling and parent-child relationships. The story is not without humor, but more often readers encounter pathos, pain, and real people.-Sondra VanderPloeg, Colby-Sawyer College, New London, NH

Kirkus Reviews
A daughter chronicles her journey to understand the complexities of silence, myth-making and taboo that have shaped her family's history. When Fanny Howe and Carl Senna wed in 1968, their interracial union was widely regarded in liberal circles as a symbol of the promise of their generation. The relationship, however, proved disastrous for both the couple and for their children. Novelist Senna (Symptomatic, 2004, etc.) portrays a home shaped by her parents' abusive relationship and the legacy of their equally unhappy divorce. She provides harrowing details about growing up with an irresponsible, intermittently alcoholic father and a frequently impoverished single mother. At the heart of this personal history lies the author's search for her roots-not her mother's well-recorded descent from the founding families of New England, but her father's multiracial Southern background and the evasions, half-truths and unspoken stories that defined it. In the course of unraveling the mystery of her father's parentage and following the trail of his bloodlines, Senna squarely confronts the issues of race and ethnic identity in American history. Luminous prose carries along a narrative that might otherwise have failed to hold the reader's attention. For all its revelations of buried family secrets, her memoir does not have a particularly strong story arc; on several occasions, for example, recollections are simply presented under the title "More fragments." The result is a compendium of fascinating and perhaps deliberately unassimilated details, rather than a sustained narrative of satisfying self-discovery. Quietly reflective and gorgeously written, though somewhat meandering.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312429393
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 3/30/2010
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna is the author of the novels Caucasia and Symptomatic.

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Read an Excerpt

WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT?

In 1975 my mother left my father for the last time. We fled to Guilford, Connecticut. It was a rich town, but we rented an apartment in a tenement that the town's residents referred to only as "the welfare house." The backyard was a heap of dead cars. We lived on the second floor. Below us lived the town's other nonwhite residents, a Korean war bride and her two half-Italian sons. Beside them lived an obese white woman and her teenage son.

I don't know if we were officially hiding out from my father there—or if he knew where we were all that time. In my memory it seems that a long time passed before we saw him again, long enough for me to forget him. And I remember the day he reappeared. I was five, and I heard the doorbell ring. I raced in bare feet to see who was there. I saw, at the bottom of the dimly lit stairwell, a man. His face was hidden in the shadows, but I could make out black curls, light brown skin.

"Hi, baby," he called up to me.

I stared back.

"Don't you know who I am?"

I shook my head.

"You don't know who I am?"

I knew and I didn't know. I had memories of the man at the bottom of the stairwell, both good and bad—but I could not say who he was. I only knew that I had known him, back there in the city, and the sight of him now made me uneasy.

My mother emerged behind me in a housedress. I heard a sound in her throat—a gasp or a sigh—when she saw whom I was talking to.

"See that?" the man shouted up at her. "See what you've done? She doesn't even know who I am. My own child doesn't recognize me."

I began to cry, perhaps recalling now all that we had fled. My mother shushed me. "It's your father," she said, gathering me into her arms. I turned to watch him come toward us up the stairs.

Thirty years later, and he's still asking me that question. "Don't you know who I am?"

Copyright © 2009 by Danzy Senna

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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion
1. The memoir's title evokes an image of someone who is accused of being promiscuous. How did the title affect your reading? 2. In the opening scenes, Danzy describes living in a building that is "multicultural to the point of absurdity" (p. 17), in contrast to the stratified Boston of her youth. Why does that form of tolerance vex her? 3. Danzy describes the hardships faced when her father, Carl, ignored child support payments. She also describes Carl's fixation on an imaginary fortune he believes his ex-wife possesses. How does money influence the way Danzy's family interacts? What do their beliefs about money say about them? 4. What attracted Danzy's parents to each other? Could anything have saved their marriage? To what extent is Danzy's anguish the product of her parents? To what extent is it the product of the generations before them? 5. Why was Carl able to remain brutally frank about the suffering he experienced at the Zimmer Home, while others (such as Ernestine) grew up glorifying the orphanage or rationalizing the abuse? What does Danzy begin to see in her father when she considers his childhood? 6. How was Danzy's mother, Fanny, influenced by her family history of aristocracy? What was the impact of her father's legacy as a civil rights activist and high-profile law professor at Harvard? 7. Discuss Danzy's travels in the South, both with her father and on her own. What versions of "family" does she encounter there? Does she feel at home with any of her newfound relatives? How do their recollections of Carl and Fanny compare to the stories she had grown up believing? 8. Carl has found occasional inner peace by moving to Canada and traveling to the Middle East. Do you think it is difficult for him to feel comfortable in the United States because of American history, American society, or a combination of these? What is Fanny implying when, on page 55, she says, "The only interracial couples from my generation who survived left the country"? 9. The author mentions her brother and sister throughout the book. How do siblings affect one another's experiences with their parents? How was Danzy's sense of self influenced by the fact that she was not an only child? 10. What portrait of Anna emerges in the end? What truths about Father Ryan cannot be revealed by DNA? Do you believe that Anna loved either of the men who fathered her children? Where did she find love, and some degree of power, in her life? 11. The author observes that her mother's ancestry was scrupulously documented (even in a rare book at the New York Public Library), while her father's ancestry is fraught with lore and speculation. What does the presence or absence of written records say about a family's history? Why did Danzy believe that her quest for the past would have such a significant impact on her future? 12. How does Carla's arrival affect Danzy and Carl's relationship? What sort of family did Carla wish for? What sort of family did she find? 13. What do you predict for the next generation of Sennas? What will Danzy be able to tell her son about his ancestry? What will it be like for him to grow up as a part of the eccentric family that gathered at Fanny's home for the holidays (pp. 170-173)? 14. How significant is ancestry in your family? What aspects of family history are most debated in your household? 15. Compare Where Did You Sleep Last Night? with the author's two novels, Symptomatic and Caucasia. How is the topic of biracial children addressed in each work? What freedoms does Danzy have by addressing this topic through memoir rather than through fiction?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Identity, North-South, Black-White

    Danzy is a novelist, but here she writes the story of her own heritage. Danzy Senna is the daughter of a black American father and white American mother. She tells the story of her life in race-torn Boston, Massachusetts. The book exuded a magnetic momentum that compelled me until I finished the story.

    Senna Danzy's parents married in 1968, in the midst of race strife and war resistance, but divorced 8 years later. Her mother was the daughter of an ancient, connected, rich Bostonian aristocrat, with colonial connections. Her father was a child of a poverty-stricken southern Black single mother, who had to leave her children in the car of an orphanage for much of their childhood.

    The story is billed as "a potent statement of personal identity, a challenging look at the murky waters of American ancestry." The author explores the "narratives" created by our lives in interaction with the social forces around us. The story develops as an intriguing adventure, more puzzling as she progresses.

    Carl Senna was supposedly the son of Anna, a beautiful black woman from Alabama and a Mexican boxer, from whom he got the Senna name. Danzy takes off on a trek to her father's old connections across the South, searching for relatives and acquaintances who can fill in details. As she makes contact with individuals who knew both her mother and her father in their childhood and adulthood, the growing body of details simply compounds the mystery.

    The genealogical and racial puzzle deepens as she discovers her grandmother's lost connection with an Irish priest named Ryan, a Josephite priest working in Birmingham. The parish priest seems to have taken pity on a young mother whose Mexican husband had run off and left her. As the story develops through various kinfolks Danzy tracks down, indications arise that Carl Senna and his two siblings were really children of the priest.

    Carl's mother followed the priest to a new posting in New Hampshire when he moved on from the Alabama post. In this tedious, confusing and yet thrilling process of investigation, Danzy discovers an unknown sister of his father. Her father gets involved and acknowledges this new sister, previously unknown to him. He joins the investigation and tracks down relatives of Father Ryan.

    It becomes even more complex, with later discoveries that despite the fact that no one in the family ever met the Mexican fighter Francisco "Cisco Kid" Senna, there was such a person, and he was indeed married to Senna's mother.

    I recommend this book. The genealogical details are laid out well. The practicalities might even be helpful to others tracing their hidden or confused family history. The author also presents insights into the complexities of the southern racial situation and the class discrimination in both South and North that encourages hiding one's past and lying about the realities that led to where we are now. Senna's adventure makes a gripping and rewarding read.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2014

    Autobiograpy Twisted

    The author takes a look at her family's past with reverence, anger and humour. She makes you feel the pain and confusion of growing up between multi-cultural divorced and sometimes abusive parents. This book is at times laugh out loud funny and gut wrenchingly somber. This book is well worth your time.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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