An Interview with Danzy Senna
Volume 25, Number 2 (Spring, 2002)
Claudia M. Milian Arias
More than a coming of age story, Danzy Senna’s first novel, Caucasia (Riverhead Books, 1998) addresses themes of coming into consciousness within the U.S. ethnoracial landscape. Clearly in dialogue with Nella Larsen’s Passing as well as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Caucasia is a first person narrative where anything that happens to the protagonist, Birdie Lee, relates to the rest of the nation. Caucasia interrogates, displaces, and transforms the normative meanings of whiteness, and by extension, Americanness. The multiracial protagonist disappears into America “without a name, without a record. With only the body I traveled in. And a memory of something lost.” As Birdie becomes a transient subject, she undoubtedly echoes a critical question posed by Meena Alexander in The Shock of Arrival. That is: “Does passing mean being granted free passage?”
Birdie’s painful, but transformative, realities thus shift our focus into her reconceptualization of the multiple Americas within America. The larger function of the narrative is to recover and remap America as racially mixed, where multiple memories, or an inventory of memories, are used to identify, catalogue, access, and interrelate thematic histories of displacement. Birdie’s multiraciality critiques the black and white binary not so much by going “beyond” it. Rather, she investigates these polar oppositions from within that binary—incisively demonstrating new identities and discourses that emerge from the continuous examination of not only being racially marked and ranked, but also of being positioned to live as a racialized subject.
Senna was born in Boston in 1970. She holds a B. A. from Stanford University and a M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine. In addition, Senna is the author of the anthologized essays, “The Color of Love,” in The Beacon Best of 2001: Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors and Cultures (Beacon Press, 2001), and “The Mulatto Millennium,” in Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural (Pantheon, 1998).
MILIAN ARIAS: At the beginning of Caucasia, there is a scene where Deck tells Ronnie: “Welcome to the land of miscegenation.” Caucasia follows up on this theme, since the novel functions, to a certain extent, as both a testimony of the lived experiences of being multiracial and a critique of the rigidity of racial categories in the United States. At a time when race relations are constructed, if not understood, in binary and bipolar extremes of black and white, how do you see multiraciality fitting within these strict categories? What is your take on the proposed multiracial category for the U.S. Census?
SENNA: America has always been “the land of miscegenation.” The history of our country is one of disparate groups clashing and commingling. We’ve only recently begun to acknowledge this fact, and lately to celebrate rather than deny mixture. Of course, in many ways I think this recognition is a good thing, but I’m also wary of the way multiraciality has become fetishized in the media and in the popular discussion on race. In particular, I worry when multiracial pride is used to uphold an ahistorical and depoliticized vision of race in America. I’m suspicious of adding a new category to the Census for a lot of reasons. I think the idea of a separate multiracial category in many ways upholds a simplistic, scientific vision of race: If you mix a white and a black, you get a biracial. If you mix a Chicano and an Asian, you get a Chic-Asian, as if race were simply like mixing colors in a paint box. I’m not so much interested in categorizing further, or adding new groups, so much as I am interested in deconstructing the premise of race itself. My hope is that the addition of this new category will spur a debate on the idea of race. But I also wonder if we’re becoming more like Brazil, where complexion rather than race is the predominant system of identification. In Brazil, racism is able to function within a “land of miscegenation”—so we should see that as a warning, perhaps.
As an aside, I recently saw a poster on a wall in New York. It may have been an ad for Benetton—I can’t remember. It showed a very pretty light-skinned girl with brown curly hair who looked to be part black and part white. She held a sign that read: “I’m a mulatto. I can’t be racist.” The sign was bizarre for many reasons, not the least of which was the use of the word “mulatto.” (I thought I was the only one still using that outdated term!) But also, the idea that someone mixed cannot be racist due to their mixed heritage revealed an illusion people seem to have: The idea that race mixture somehow neutralizes the problem of racism. Furthermore, the sign implied that black and white were the only two races in existence. Isn’t it possible that this mulatto could be racist against groups outside of those she is a part of: for instance, Latinos or Asians? Couldn’t she be xenophobic? And isn’t it possible to be racist against your own group(s)?
The poster revealed to me the invisibility of groups who don’t fit into the black-white paradigm. Based on appearance, the girl in the poster could have easily been Puerto Rican, or Dominican, two racially mixed groups, but these identities aren’t as palatable in the American imagination, since they tend to signify “outsider, poverty, non-white, un-American” whereas the mulatto represents assimilation, the end of blackness, and the end of the discussion on racism. These other “mixed” groups, Latino, in particular, threaten the idea of American hegemony in a way that the blissful black-white mulatto in the picture doesn’t.
Mulatto pride can fit in neatly with the black-white paradigm. And mulattos can be racist. And race mixing can exist and has existed happily within a racist and racialized structure. I’m wary of sanctifying any group based on race, or romanticizing the so-called mulatto…
Read or purchase the interview here.