Black ‘Like Me’: (Mis)Recognition, the Racial Gothic, and the Post-1967 Mixed-Race Movement in Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic

Black ‘Like Me’: (Mis)Recognition, the Racial Gothic, and the Post-1967 Mixed-Race Movement in Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic

African American Review
Number 42 (Summer 2008)
pages 287-305

Hershini Bhana Young, Associate Professor of English
State University of New York, Buffalo

Symptomatic, Danzy Senna’s second novel, is a dense and disturbing satire of the post-1967 mixed-race movement. Tersely written, “hard-edged and kind of minimalist,” as Senna describes it in an interview with Rebecca Weber, it invokes the thrillers and film noir of Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian DePalma, and Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female), to name a few. The novel’s style pays overt homage to Ralph Ellison’s brooding Invisible Man, even as it also gestures toward W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nella Larsen. Symptomatic describes the life of an unnamed woman who has just moved to New York on a writing fellowship. After a short-lived and disastrous relationship with Andrew, who is white, the protagonist sublets an apartment that she learns about from an older colleague named Greta Hicks, who befriends her. Their tense relationship, based on their “shared” mixed-race identity, rapidly disintegrates when the protagonist starts dating a black artist named Ivers. Greta, who eventually reveals herself as the original occupant of the apartment that the protagonist is subletting, stalks the protagonist and eventually attempts to kill her. Both main characters are tragic, confused, and inseparable until one of them dies…

Symptomatic, in contrast, is dark and troubling, using imagery, metaphor and a strained plot to tackle romantic ideas about community formation and race. I feel that most readers’ discomfort with the novel revolves around what Senna’s experiments in form hope to accomplish: an imminent warning about the danger of racialized communities that counters popular belief about the glamorous, though ordinary and well adjusted mixed-race community member. Senna launches a devastating critique of models of community based on collective political action. She shows how community comes to stand in for a “passive, static, conservative [timeless and naturalized]… network of people who inevitably know your name and your business because you interact with them every day, rather than those you have sought out as allies”; they are not driven by shared political purposes but rather by a simplistic recognition of inherent similarity (Joseph 10). Senna accomplishes her warning about this type of community through several means, most importantly through her 1) deployment of the African American gothic to create a disturbing and implausible plot with stock characters and 2) her historicization of contemporary mixed-race community formations based on phenotypic sameness, specifically those that resulted from the post-1967 mixed-race movement. Symptomatic begins where Caucasia ostensibly ends, with the protagonist Birdie’s poignant recognition of another girl who is “black like her” in the San Francisco Bay area. But it then asks us what implications there are of this moment of racial (mis)recognition on a personal, cultural and national level. What specifically does Senna hope to articulate about sameness, difference and community that demonstrate the promise of a mixed-race utopia gone tragically awry? Symptomatic, through a careful and strategic deployment of African American gothic conventions, critiques overly optimistic cultural understandings of hybridity both as the source of community formation and as racial (non) identity. It articulates the need for new models of community based on noncompulsory politicized identifications and strategies for redressing historical injustice.

The “Bi-Racial Baby Boom”: Which Mixed-Race Movement?

Racial mixing in this country is certainly nothing new, nor are the various esponses by mixed-race people to the violent implementation of the one-drop rule that has historically characterized black-white interrelations. (2) But Senna’s novel does not target the entire history of mixed-race people in the United States. While thoroughly grounded in this history, the novel focuses on the contemporary mixed-race movement enabled by the successes and failures of the civil rights movement. Kim Williams argues that while historically racial designations have been used to distinguish and disenfranchise those who were not deemed white, the political leadership of the civil rights campaign saw the opportunity to use those same racial classifications to end racism and ensure equality. An example of this would be the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required statistics on race to ensure equality of access to voting. In the 1970s, multiracial activists, using the language of civil rights, argued that “the official recognition of multiracialism” was a civil right “By arguing that the recognition of multiracial people was the ‘next logical step in civil rights,’ multiracial activists drew shrewdly on the symbolism of the civil rights movement, yet in the process cast themselves as more progressive than the so-called progressives (i.e., the civil rights lobby)” (K. Williams 87). (3) To the civil rights movement’s linking of rights and identity, the mixed-race movement added an appeal to the state for official endorsement of their particular identity with the understanding that “[n]onrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm; can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being” (Charles Taylor qtd. in K. Williams 89). Thus, not being seen as mixed-race, but as only black or white by others and by the state constitutes a psychological form of injury supposedly equal to centuries of material oppression with psychological effects. This problematic idea of recognition as ensuring equality is at the heart of Symptomatic. Senna relies on the gothic imagery of doubles and mirroring to critique the notion that racial recognition is an adequate basis for community formation, as I develop later…

…Contrary to Time magazine, mixed-race people have not become more common during the last two decades. The misperception stems from the foundational status of legalized interracial marriage as the only legitimate site of the production of hybrid offspring. What gets silenced, in the case of African Americans, is the hybridity of Africans themselves and the long legacy of sexual abuse that reproduced racialized categories of property. The children of white planters, for example, were first and foremost slaves due to the condition of blackness inherited from their mothers. Hypodescent was not a choice but a pseudoscientific term brutally enacted on the bodies of Africans and their New World descendants. (6) The mixed-race movement is fraught with such misunderstandings and contradictions, another of these being that most of the organizations within it are not constituted by people of mixed race. Rather, the mixed-race movement’s membership consists largely of monoracially identified parents, almost always white, who claim to act on their children’s behalf. One could argue, then, that the mixed-race movement attempts to extend the hitherto denied privileges of whiteness to children who historically would be black. Indeed, this “new” multiracial national imaginary “has worked to reconfigure the popular discourse on race and sexuality, forging [instead] … an increasingly sentimentalized white [power] that rewrites its centrality to the nation by embracing new modes of cross-racial feeling” (Wiegman 872). While these senti-mental modes may appear to differ from earlier dominant forms of white supremacy, such as during Reconstruction, wherein interracial sex was violently disavowed and policed in order to preserve the unpreservable purity of race, the effect of maintaining white power is the same. Contemporary liberal whiteness in the age of global capital assimilates interracial desire, and under the guise of recognizing a common humanity, perpetuates the same racialized injustices that have become all too familiar. The recognition of humanity comes at the expense of not recognizing a history…

…Senna states repeatedly in interviews that she is “wary of the way multiraciality has become fetishized in the media and in the popular discussion on race…. I’m suspicious of adding a new category to the Census for a lot of reasons …” (qtd. in Arias 448). (13) She insists that given the complex histories around “mulattos” (the word Senna prefers to use for its historicity), the mixed-race movement has been seen as an unequivocal solution for those people marginalized by racial binary thinking that has them occupying the interstitial spaces of neither/nor. Symptomatic fully articulates what Caucasia hints at during its final pages: that the warm embrace of coercive sameness, while seeming to provide salve for the wounds of racist exclusion repeats the violence of racial binarisms. A community of people who are “biologically” alike results, not in the transcendence of racial hierarchical categories, but rather in their perpetuation. Senna urges us to interrogate the role of prescriptive sameness in the construction of identity by her use of the gothic, no matter how much this sameness is viewed as deconstructing the larger structures of racism in the United States. She does not depict the racially ambiguous character as essentially threatening to dialectical formations of black and white. Part of Symtomatic’s “dark” vision is how the racially ambiguous character can reinforce racial categorizations and misrecognitions, leading to a deepening of the racial chasms that haunt the American landscape and the revocation of civil rights gains. Senna thinks through race, moving away from prescriptive physical sameness (even multiracial sameness) towards an understanding of racial community as constituted via engaged, deliberate historical interactions grounded in material realities. She uses the gothic to defamiliarize the specter of sameness and expose its dangerous logic, no matter in what context that sameness appears. I wish to be clear: the compulsion to seek out those who think and act like you is the essence of community formation. Sameness is essential in the formation of common political agendas, in the organizations of communities with common historical memories. What happens, however, when this compulsion moves from one of voluntarism to another of phenotypic coercion? The novel uses the racial gothic to explore the tensions between compulsory unions (biologically determined via the logic of sameness) and other more deliberate, engaged interactions based on common agendas and concerns. (14)…

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