Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal Historyby Danzy Senna
When Danzy Senna's parents got married in 1968, they seemed poised to defy history. They were two brilliant 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. They married in a year that seemed to separate the past from the
When Danzy Senna's parents got married in 1968, they seemed poised to defy history. They were two brilliant 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. They married in a year that seemed to separate the past from the present; together, these two would snub the histories that divided them and embrace a radical future. When their marriage disintegrated eight years later, it was, as one friend put it, "the ugliest divorce in Boston's history"—a violent, traumatic war that felt all the more heartrending given the hopeful symbolism of their union.
Decades later, Senna looks back not only at her parents' divorce but beyond it, to the opposing American histories that her parents had tried so hard to overcome. On her mother's side of the family she finds—in carefully preserved documents—the chronicle of a white America both illustrious and shameful. On her father's she discovers, through fragments and shreds of evidence, a no less remarkable history. As she digs deeper into this unwritten half of the story, she reconstructs a longburied family mystery that illuminates her own childhood. In the process, she begins to understand her difficult father, the power and failure of her parents' union, and, finally, the forces of history.
Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is at once a potent statement of personal identity, a challenging look at the murky waters of American ancestry, and an exploration of narratives—the narratives we create and those we forget. Senna has given us an unforgettable testimony to the paradoxes—the pain and the pride—embedded in history, family, and race.
The New York Times
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.
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
“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
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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
Meet the Author
Danzy Senna is the author of the novels Caucasia and Symptomatic.
Danzy Senna is the author of the novels Caucasia and Symptomatic, the story collection You Are Free, and the nonfiction book Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
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.