Her Father’s People

Her Father’s People

Stanford Magazine
July/August 2009

Erin Aubry Kaplan

Antonin Kratochvil
WEDDED IDEALISM: Danzy Senna was the middle child born to Fanny Howe and Carl Senna.

For years, Danzy Senna thoughtfully explored issues of race and identity in fiction, including her novels Caucasia and Symptomatic. And then one day the author, walking through Harvard Square, found herself surrounded by signs, buildings and businesses bearing the names and images of Boston’s most prominent families. DeWolfe, Quincy, Howe—they were names of Senna’s forebears via her mother, poet and professor Fanny Howe.

The display reminded Senna, ’92, how much she had always known about her mother’s people—and how little she knew about her father’s. In 1968, Carl Senna, soon to become the youngest editor at Beacon Press, and Fanny Howe married—a commitment that was headily symbolic (personal but also political) in that Carl was black and from Southern poverty, while Fanny, ’62, was white and raised with Mayflower privilege. Their wedding photograph, Danzy Senna writes, showed “the ‘Negro of exceptional promise’ taking the hand of the descendant of slave traders.”

As Senna contemplated those names in Boston, she thought, “What about my father’s side?” After all, “he gave me both my first and last names. Yet I knew so little about him.” So begins her nonfiction book, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which seeks to bring some balance to her family history, and to a larger narrative that reflexively puts whites at the center of the American story and blacks at the margins…

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