Shades of Gray: Writing the New American Multiracialism

Posted in Books, Forthcoming Media, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Monographs, United States on 2018-12-03 04:19Z by Steven

Shades of Gray: Writing the New American Multiracialism

University of Nebraska Press
December 2018
348 pages, index
Hardcover: 978-0-8032-9681-7

Molly Littlewood McKibbin, Assistant Professor of Instruction
English and Creative Writing Department
Columbia College Chicago

Shades of Gray

In Shades of Gray Molly Littlewood McKibbin offers a social and literary history of multiracialism in the twentieth-century United States. She examines the African American and white racial binary in contemporary multiracial literature to reveal the tensions and struggles of multiracialism in American life through individual consciousness, social perceptions, societal expectations, and subjective struggles with multiracial identity.

McKibbin weaves a rich sociohistorical tapestry around the critically acclaimed works of Danzy Senna, Caucasia (1998); Rebecca Walker, Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (2001); Emily Raboteau, The Professor’s Daughter (2005); Rachel M. Harper, Brass Ankle Blues (2006); and Heidi Durrow, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010). Taking into account the social history of racial classification and the literary history of depicting mixed race, she argues that these writers are producing new representations of multiracial identity.

Shades of Gray examines the current opportunity to define racial identity after the civil rights, black power, and multiracial movements of the late twentieth century changed the sociopolitical climate of the United States and helped revolutionize the racial consciousness of the nation. McKibbin makes the case that twenty-first-century literature is able to represent multiracial identities for the first time in ways that do not adhere to the dichotomous conceptions of race that have, until now, determined how racial identities could be expressed in the United States.

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“And then I had to get comfortable making people uncomfortable. And so, for me, on the act of coming out as a black person in white spaces was where I think the seeds of that came.”

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2018-08-25 02:54Z by Steven

“Very early on, I learned to, I‘d say, “Ruin the dinner party,” and that became something. I think of that as my origins as a writer, actually, was that I learned very early on that I was going to disrupt, and that I was going… My presence was not going to always be comfortable. And then I had to get comfortable making people uncomfortable. And so, for me, on the act of coming out as a black person in white spaces was where I think the seeds of that came. And it was about learning speech over silence, ’cause there was a very easy solution, which was just not to say anything. And having my parents’ politics drummed into me from a very early age.”—Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna’s Life Isn’t Black and White,” Articulate, April 24, 2018. https://www.articulateshow.org/articulate/danzy-sennas-life-isnt-black-and-white. (00:08:58-00:09:40).

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Danzy Senna’s Life Isn’t Black and White

Posted in Autobiography, Interviews, United States, Videos on 2018-08-24 20:40Z by Steven

Danzy Senna’s Life Isn’t Black and White

Articulate
2018-04-24

Jim Cotter, Host & Managing Editor

Author Danzy Senna’s heritage gives her a unique perspective on race in America.

Watch the interview (00:06:40-00:16:40) and read the transcript here.

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The Ineradicable Color-Line: Danzy Senna’s “New People”

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-01-23 03:57Z by Steven

The Ineradicable Color-Line: Danzy Senna’s “New People”

Los Angeles Review of Books
2017-08-01

Gabrielle Bellot, Staff Writer
Literary Hub

Danzy Senna, New People, A Novel (New York: Riverhead, 2017)

IN LONDON IN JULY, at the dawn of a new century, W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in front the Pan-African Conference about the challenges of the era to come. “[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century,” he said, in a statement that would later appear in and come to define his epochal collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, “is the problem of the color-line.” The idea of describing American antiblack racial segregation by the simple, if not even deceptively charming, term color-line, had appeared two decades earlier in the title of Frederick Douglass’s 1881 essay, “The Color Line,” but it would come to be associated particularly with The Souls of Black Folk. So seductive was the phrase for Du Bois that he used it two more times to bookend an essay in the book, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” but it was, of course, more than a memorable line. The color-line was as explicit as it was psychic, delineated in signs, denials, and public executions as much as it was in one’s choice of path, one’s footfalls, one’s bones and dreams. Racism is merely obvious when it becomes visible; its potential existence follows us, invisibly and phantasmally, when we’ve come to expect it…

The problem of the 21st century in the United States is still the color-line, a line that extends back into prior centuries. This is the age of identity — as all ages have been, really, but the very notions of what it means to have an identity or to be something are now, more than ever, at the fore. But even as we have blurred racial lines in ways scarcely imaginable when The Souls of Black Folk appeared in 1903, we still have our clear-cut demarcations. And in many ways, lines of color, alongside the complexities of what it means to pass as one thing or another, may be what best defines Danzy Senna’s epochal — in its most literal sense — new novel, New People. Du Bois is not an explicit presence in the novel, yet his thematic and political concerns — updated, as it were, for this new era — haunt New People. These themes of passing and racial demarcations informed Senna’s first novel, Caucasia, as well. New People also explores an idea common in Percival Everett’s fiction — the two, incidentally, are married — of reclaiming and repackaging racial stereotypes as a person of color…

Read the entire review here.

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Beige Bubble Bodies: New People by Danzy Senna

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Latino Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2017-11-12 04:12Z by Steven

Beige Bubble Bodies: New People by Danzy Senna

The Miami Rail
2017-10-31

Claudia Milian, Associate Professor of Spanish & Latin American Studies
Duke University

New People by Danzy Senna, Riverhead Books, 240 pp.

Danzy Senna’s New People unfolds the creases of Maria and her fiancé, Khalil’s flat lives––exposing sharp, furrowed, details of their beige being in a pre-tech gentrifying Brooklyn bubble. Their barely colored bodies, their contrasts between white and brownish, are a prototype, a palette that is substituted, again and again, by the mélange of nationalities and shades that fill in the indistinct Northeastern landscape.

The neutrally named and orphan Maria, a border girl, as it were, whose nebulousness crosses, re-crosses, and double-crosses racial and cultural spectrums and expectations, steers toward the excessive closeness, to an infinite jest, of mixed race America and its vague embodiments. Senna is, on the face of it, in exclusive conversation with black-and-white America. But the novel’s other deviations of grayness and brownness provoke, drift, and pump up the volume on Maria’s out of body experiences as she walks in and out of Latina states…

Read the entire review here.

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Talking the Talk: Linguistic Passing in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-09-06 02:41Z by Steven

Talking the Talk: Linguistic Passing in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2017
pages 156-176

Melissa Dennihy, Assistant Professor of English
Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, Bayside, New York

Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel Caucasia, set in 1970s New England, follows the breakup of the mixed-race Lee family: African American father Deck, white mother Sandy, and biracial daughters Cole and Birdie. When Deck and Sandy separate following the latter’s involvement in a risky political plot, darker-skinned sister Cole moves with Deck to Brazil, while protagonist Birdie goes undercover with Sandy, passing as white to help her mother dodge the FBI. Birdie’s passing has led critics to categorize Caucasia as a contemporary passing novel, situated within a long tradition of US passing literature established by works such as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929).1 However, white is not the only passing identity assumed by Caucasia’s protagonist, and the multiple forms of passing Birdie and other characters undertake throughout the novel suggest that racial identity—how one constructs one’s race and how one’s race is constructed by others—continuously shifts by context. Passing is not portrayed as a permanent crossing of the color line in this text but as an ongoing series of acts involving regular adjustments in one’s performance of racial identity. Characters pass not just for white but for multiple racial and ethnic identities, including different versions of Blackness and whiteness.

In this sense, Senna’s novel challenges views of passing as an act in which one gives up who one “really” is to “become” white. Instead, Caucasia portrays passing as a tool used when one has a specific goal or outcome in mind: passing for white is not a permanent adoption of whiteness but a performance of it, used to access privileges, opportunities, or advantages. This is an important point since, long after we have acknowledged that race is not biological but socially constructed, some recent scholarship continues to portray passing as a masking of one’s “true” self or race. Valerie Rohy writes, for example, that “the term passing designates a performance in which one presents oneself as what one is not” (219).2 The phrase “what one is not” suggests an originary self, whereas I use the term passing not to imply an authentic self hidden under a false identity but to suggest that racial identity is multifaceted and varied, involving continual reconstructions of the self in different contexts. To read Caucasia’s Birdie as a black girl who fakes it while passing as white overlooks the fact that Birdie must learn to pass for black as well as white; neither racial performance comes naturally to her. Learning to perform both whiteness and Blackness helps Birdie recognize the possibility of passing for both—and other—racial/ethnic identities: passing is not a singular transition from black to white but a series of multidirectional, continual crossings into and out of different racial identities as circumstances allow or require.

However, what is most notable about Senna’s passing story is not its multiple acts of passing in different directions but that they do not always depend solely or even primarily on physical appearance. Set in a post-civil rights United States no longer structured by the color line of the Jim Crow era, Senna’s novel presents racial identity as constructed through more than just the physical realm: the text’s protagonist learns to claim both Blackness and whiteness by modifying not only her appearance but also her use of language. The linguistic is a critical factor in facilitating successful passing in Caucasia, calling attention away from physical attributes in determining who can claim a certain racial identity. The novel’s portrayal of what I call linguistic passing—situationally altering one’s way of speaking, in addition to or instead of altering appearance, to pass as a member of or gain insider status within a particular racial group—broadens traditional understandings of passing by shifting emphasis from the physical and visual to the linguistic and audible. If one can talk the talk convincingly enough, Caucasia suggests, one can gain access to groups or opportunities one might otherwise be excluded from or…

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Danzy Senna: New People

Posted in Audio, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-08-26 22:50Z by Steven

Danzy Senna: New People

Bookworm
KCRW FM
Santa Monica, California
2017-08-24


Photo by Christopher Ho

Danzy Senna relishes kicking political correctness to the curb. She believes that irony and humor are more effective than earnestness when writing about race and gender. In her novel New People, Senna takes on both the comedy and seriousness of race. Her mixed-race trickster heroine plays what she thinks is a funny prank on her mixed-race boyfriend – a racist prank that mushrooms into a full-scale drama on their 90s Stanford University campus… and that is just the beginning.

Listen to the entire episode (00:28:29) here.

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Danzy Senna’s New People Explores Race, Love, and Gentrification

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-08-10 00:47Z by Steven

Danzy Senna’s New People Explores Race, Love, and Gentrification

Elle
2017-08-03

Lisa Shea

The Caucasia author returns to her home ground: the personal and political dynamics of race.

In her latest novel, New People (Riverhead), Danzy Senna bores into the dynamics of race, identity, heritage, poverty, and privilege in contemporary America, exposing the pride and promises of change therein, as well as the pitfalls and pathologies. Agile and ambitious, the novel is also a wild-hearted romance about secrets and obsessions, a dramedy of manners about the educated black middle-class—the “talented tenth”—that is Senna’s authorial home ground. One critic, in reviewing Senna’s 2009 memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her writer parents’ marriage and divorce, and her father’s disappearance from her life, called her trenchant observations on America’s fixation with race “nod-inducingly brilliant.”

The female protagonist of New People, Maria, shares some of Senna’s biographical outlines: Maria refers to herself as a “quadroon” adopted and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a single mom, Gloria, who struggled for years but never was able to complete her dissertation at Harvard. Maria meets Khalil—who “grew up in a liberal, humanist, multiracial family, oblivious to his own blackness,” when they are students at Stanford—after he’d broken up with his white girlfriend. “Maria liked to joke that she was his transitional object,” Senna writes. “He was morphing into a race man before her very eyes.”

Now it is 1996, and they’re engaged and living together in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. “Interspersed among the old guard—the Jamaican ladies with their folding chairs, the churchy men in their brown polyester suits—are the ones who have just arrived. It is subtle, this shift, almost imperceptible. When Maria blurs her eyes right it doesn’t appear to be happening. They dance together at house parties in the dark. If I ruled the world they sing, their voices rising as one, Imagine that. I’d free all my sons.“…

Read the entire review here.

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Danzy Senna’s New Black Woman

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-08-09 14:41Z by Steven

Danzy Senna’s New Black Woman

The New Yorker
2017-08-07

Doreen St. Félix


In Danzy Senna’s latest novel, “New People,” the ugliness of segregation has given way to a class of upwardly mobile light-skinned black people.
Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo

In an essay published in 2006, the novelist Paul Beatty recalled the first book he’d ever read by a black author. When the Los Angeles Unified School Board—“out of the graciousness of its repressive little heart”—sent him a copy of Maya Angelou’sI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” he made it through a few “maudlin” pages before he grew suspicious, he wrote. “I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.” Observing that the “defining characteristic of the African-American writer is sobriety,” Beatty described his own path toward a black literary insobriety, one that would lead to the satirical style of his novels “White Boy Shuffle” and “The Sellout.” Along the way, he discovered a select canon of literary black satire, including Zora Neale Hurston’s freewheeling story “The Book of Harlem” and Cecil Brown’sThe Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger.”

Danzy Senna, Beatty’s friend and fellow novelist, makes an appearance in that essay, smiling “wistfully” as she shows him “the cover of Fran Ross’s hilarious 1974 novel, ‘Oreo.’” As Senna later wrote in the foreword to the novel’s reissue, “Oreo,” about a biracial girl searching for her itinerant white father, manages to probe “the idea of falling from racial grace” while avoiding “mulatto sentimentalism.” Since her 1998 début novel, “Caucasia,” a stark story about two biracial sisters, Senna, like Ross before her, has developed her own kind of insobriety, one focussed on comically eviscerating the archetype of the “tragic mulatto”—that nineteenth-century invention who experiences an emotional anguish rooted in her warring, mixed bloods. Both beautiful and wretched, the mulatto was intended to arouse sympathy in white readers, who had magnificent difficulty relating to black people in literature (to say nothing of life). Senna, the daughter of the white Boston poet Fanny Howe and the black editor Carl Senna, grew up a member of the nineties Fort Greene “dreadlocked élite”; her light-skinned black characters, who dodge the constraints of post-segregation America, provide an excuse for incisive social satire. Thrillingly, blackness is not hallowed in Senna’s work, nor is it impervious to pathologies of ego. Senna particularly enjoys lampooning the search for racial authenticity. Her characters, and the clannish worlds they are often trying to escape, teeter on the brink of ruin and absurdity.

Senna’s latest novel, the slick and highly enjoyable “New People,” makes keen, icy farce of the affectations of the Brooklyn black faux-bohemia in which Maria, a distracted graduate student, lives with her fiancé among the new “Niggerati.” Maria and Khalil Mirsky—the latter’s name a droll amalgamation of his black and white Jewish parentage—are the “same shade of beige.”…

Read the entire review here.

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Danzy Senna Doesn’t Mind If Her New Novel Makes You Uncomfortable

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2017-08-07 02:41Z by Steven

Danzy Senna Doesn’t Mind If Her New Novel Makes You Uncomfortable

Vogue
2017-08-03

Julia Felsenthal, Senior Culture Writer

“I feel my role as a writer is to complicate, to leave more questions, to destabilize whatever seems set in stone,” says novelist Danzy Senna. “There’s been this whole conversation about trigger warnings. My half-joking thing is: I really want to trigger people. I want to read work that’s going to trigger me. I’m very committed to writing things that move people to a more uncomfortable place.”

Uncomfortable—and I mean this in the best way possible—is a pretty good descriptor of Senna’s latest novel, New People. The year is 1996. The place is Brooklyn. Our protagonist is Maria, a Columbia University doctoral student struggling to finish her dissertation on modes of resistance in the hymns and songs recorded by the Peoples Temple, the religious cult led by Jim Jones (and ultimately wiped out in 1978, when its leader ordered nearly 1,000 of those who had followed him to the Guyanese settlement of Jonestown to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid).

Maria is biracial, adopted at birth by a single black mother, a graduate student who brought her daughter up on a steady diet of Audre Lorde and Roots, and bemoaned that the light skin and straight hair with which Maria was born never darkened or kinked. (The baby was a “one-dropper,” writes Senna, “that peculiarly American creation, white in all outside appearances but black for generations to come.”) Now Maria is engaged to her college boyfriend, Khalil, whose skin is her exact same “shade of beige,” but who was raised by globe-trotting mixed parents in upper-middle-class bourgeois bohemian splendor, brought up to think of himself as a citizen of the world. Khalil is launching a company, Brooklyn Renaissance, a sort of proto-Facebook for “like-minded souls,” and happily planning his life with Maria: their Martha’s Vineyard wedding; the Brooklyn brownstone they’ll eventually buy and fill with artwork by Lorna Simpson, with children named Indigo and Cheo, with a dog named Thurgood…

Read the entire review here.

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