Caucasia's migrating bodies: lessons in American history and postmodernism.
Birdie's heroic effort, however, is fraught with the tensions of American history, as seen in Senna's ubiquitous allusions to slavery and miscegenation. Thus, Werner Sollors's reference to the anthropologist Michael Fischer's theory on the reinvention of ethnicity resonates with meaning for Caucasia and its challenge. He writes, "What the newer works bring home forcefully is the paradoxical sense that ethnicity is something reinvented and reinterpreted in each generation by each individual and that it is often something quite puzzling to the individual, something over which he or she lacks control" (Sollors, 1989, p. xi). Attempting to acquire control over her body, a migrating Birdie faces a herculean task because race is assumed to be a rigidly, fixed biological essence, even as prominent sociologists like Michael Omi and Howard Winant assert history's evolving discourse on the social construction of race in a rejection of its biological arguments (Omi and Winant, 2010, pp. 14-15).
The tortured history of race proves too much of a barrier for the novel to ever surmount, despite its promising conclusion when Birdie is reunited with her older, dark-skinned sister, Cole. The hi-racial sisters' differing skin color reflects a liberating diversity within a range of possibilities in a third space of reinvention. Nevertheless, this idea is never developed beyond the reunion, suggesting the old ambivalence of race beyond its scripted boundary. Postmodern critic Homi K. Bhabha explains that the "intervention of the Third Space ... makes the structure of meaning and reference an ambivalent process," but succeeds in destroying the "mirror of representation in which cultural knowledge is continuously revealed as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the originary Past, kept alive in the national tradition of the People" (Bhabha, 1995, p. 208). That is, while Senna has Birdie to explode the cultural myth of unity within diversity, based on others' rejection of her difference, this offers small comfort to her, as she struggles against self-implosion. Her revolutionary white mother, Sandy, represents the wise maternal figure who exists in opposition to an oppressive patriarchy. Nonetheless, like so many other characters in the novel, her identity shifts in a postmodern society when she and Birdie are on the run like fugitive slaves, migrating from state to state. Their fugitive status invokes the long arm of history, which Senna fictionalizes in approximating what historian Oscar Handlin defines as the "faction" of history in her creation of fiction based upon fact. Thus, Senna makes frequent use of American history, illustrating what Handlin defines in another context as an assault upon its record (Handlin, 1979, p. 409).
As Caucasia reveals, the national body-politic continues the historical pattern of dismissing its multiethnic communities as symbols of exotic tokenism and difference, as it labors to maintain hegemonic discourse and power. Reduced to the marking of their bodies, Senna's fractured characters migrate, inside/outside their homeland, as if in search of their true, inner selves. This particular motif of the "black" body-in-crisis accounts for the extraordinary mobility of characters in a novel with multiple settings, ranging from the states of Massachusetts, Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Georgia and California in the continent of North America to countries in the continents of South America and Asia. One character leaves Boston for India "to go deeper than skin color, deeper than politics, to something more important. Something spiritual" (Caucasia p. 313). Migrating bodies throughout the text is rooted in American history, too. The Great Migration of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a movement of African Americans fleeing the South, Jim Crow, and Ku Klux Khan violence for life, jobs and opportunity in the North, which had its own Jim Crow practices. Yet, what distinguishes the history of migrating black bodies throughout the centuries from the migrating bodies in Caucasia is that Senna's characters are not running from actual lynch mobs, but from the psychic bloodshed of prejudice.
In her didactic appropriation of contemporary and colonial American history, Senna chooses the slave narrative and the postmodern imperative of rupturing rigid, identity politics. She tries to unhinge fixed categories of race by facilitating the black/white miscegenous body of history and the language games of postmodernism, refashioning scripted identities. The fact that Senna tropes on the slave narrative and an epic discourse on race such as Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man suggests the lingering presence of the past in a historiography of racing the "black" body. Such a dichotomy posits the black subject as an always, disembodied Thing or Other, struggling to emerge free from the social ascription of race. With these two topics, slavery and miscegenation, Senna analyzes the logic of racism and the centrality of a biologically determined identity while representing America as an originally diverse nation. The major ideas explored in Caucasia from miscegenation to slavery and racism, as a form of war, all lead to the same conclusion about the nation's visible, but unpronounced history of cultural diversity and hybridity.
Senna's postmodern America is more varied than either St. Jean de Crevecoeur or Horace Kallen ever admitted in their famous definitions of who is an American. In the 1770s, Crevecoeur described colonial America as the land of desirable, white Western European immigrants in a "mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes (Crevecoeur, 1981, p. 223). Writing for The Nation in 1915, Harvard University's Horace Kallen, the architect of the theory of multi-culturalism, cited the additional melting pot of the undesirable, pigmented Eastern European immigrants: Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Danes, and Jews. They were included in Kallen's expanded illustration of European immigrants becoming white Americans. Across time, Crevecoeur and Kallen, respectively French and Jewish immigrants, had celebrated an America that had deliberately excluded its most discernible people of color: Native Americans, native to the land of their birth, and Africans and black Americans, indentured, enslaved, and freed from 1619 to 1863. Both groups were an important part of the cultural landscape in Crevecoeur and Kallen's time, as were, for the latter, Hispanics and Asians. Hispanics populated the Western states before the advent of Manifest Destiny, 1836, which led to U.S. expansionism and their relocation. Asians began to migrate to America in 1849, and built the Western leg of the Continental Railroad. Pointedly, Senna broadens Kallen's cultural pluralism just as he had filled the gap left by Crevecoeur. Migrating to California to find her sister/maternal imago, Cole, Birdie notes a motley-colored busload of children: Asians and Mexicans, blacks and whites living in the San Francisco Bay area, America's cosmopolitan multicultural capital. A novel protesting racial binaries and boxes, Caucasia tracks the historical labyrinth of race, ensnaring a mixed-race family.
Miscegenation Law and Miscegeneous Bodies
A derivative of the Latin word miscere, which means to mix, and casta, a synonym of genus, caste or race, miscegenation has a long, troubled past. Even before two New York journalists, George Wakeman and David Goodman Croly, coined the term "miscegenation" in 1863, in 1661, Maryland authorities were among the first state officials to outlaw marriage between blacks and whites. Two years later in 1663, the state of Maryland legalized slavery, and the illegality of miscegenation combined with legal slavery made absolute the chasm between blacks and whites (Higginbotham and Kopytoff, 2000, p. 136). In one of the first major studies on miscegenation in America, historian Joel Williamson found that in the 1859 census, mulattos accounted for nearly a half million of a total black population of approximately three and one-half million (Williamson, 1980, p. 63). During the Civil War, 1861-65, Wakeman and Croly exploited the fear of racial mingling. They produced a phony tract on miscegenation: facetiously advocating it to frighten whites, smear Abraham Lincoln, ruin the abolitionists, influence political elections, and arrest a modern black emergence. In a "sensate society," Oscar Handlin continues, "the commercial standards of the media governed the dissemination of information. Since whatever sold was news, the salient consideration was one of attracting attention: factual accuracy receded to the remote background" (Handlin, 1979, pp. 409-10).
Media and history propaganda aside, in another study, Werner Sollors asks the provocative question, "What do incest and miscegenation have to do with each other," problematizing domestic relations between white masters, their enslaved women, and unacknowledged progeny (Sollors, 1997, p. 286). The creation of the 1661 Maryland law and the precipitous appearance of the Wakeman/Croly pamphlet mean that slavery is implicit in Sollors's equation, as he determines in discussing literature produced before and after the Civil War. As a triangulation, slavery, incest and miscegenation represent the southern plantation as a brothel and a scene of multiple tragedies that writers from William Faulkner to Mark Twain have explored, respectively, in Absalom, Absalom and Puddn'head Wilson. Whether they passed for white or not, black but white-looking characters courted danger in many ways, testing the boundaries of sex, identity, and phenotype. According to Sollers, Richard Hildreth's The Slave, 1836, presents what Faulkner and others prevented about the possibility of incest. For Hildreth boldly describes a "fully realized incest relationship" between the white master's known mulatto daughter and unacknowledged mulatto son (Sollors, 1997, p. 289). The possibility of incest, however, particularized only one of the problems of slavery, sex, and miscegenation.
Miscegenation confused racial lines, or as another Senna scholar posits, it "expos[ed] the arbitrary racial divides, which underwrite the fiction of identity" (Wall, 2011, p. 2). Moreover, throughout American history, anti- miscegenation law implied a white fear of racial contamination and an obfuscation of boundaries, evidenced by the one-drop rule of color. Inimitably, Mark Twain parodies this racial/social/legal confusion of the one-drop rule in Puddn'head Wilson when the slave Roxy gives birth to a white-looking infant, Tom Driscoll, who is "thirty-one parts white," but a slave "by fiction of law and custom a Negro" (Twain, 1899, p. 12). Senna tropes on Twain's book's title in the naming of the New Hampshire's couple's golden retriever, Puddn'head, after the white attorney in Twain's novel who discloses Tom Driscoll's Negroid identity. As a fugitive passing for a Jewish girl in New Hampshire, Birdie is fearful of being "discovered" when Puddn'head barks at her, as if to uncover her "real" identity. These literary allusions are referenced in the paragraph that also names the comic book Tintin in the Congo (Caucasia, p. 201). This is a nomenclature for taboo acts of miscegenation known throughout history although officially denied, but now made public as with the case, for example, of Thomas Jefferson and his slave-lover/sister-in-law, Sally Hemings, Jefferson's dead white wife's half-sister. Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings had the same father, slave-owner John Wayles, who impregnated Hemings' slave-mother, Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. For over 200 years, the Jefferson-Hemings' sexual relationship had been rumored, beginning in 1786, but now proven by renowned scientists with DNA tests of the pair's male descendents, their Y chromosomes (Foster, 1998, pp. 27-28). Clearly, the ruling master discourse on race excoriated, yet expressed a raced sexual passion with a schizophrenic dizziness.
In a patriarchal society, one privileging a higher echelon of paternal power and dominance, the white master as father of mulattos influenced a systematic tolerance of an otherwise notorious crime, as the first Maryland law pronounced in 1661, an anti-miscegenation law not overturned in the United States in its entirety until 1967. In that year, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down all miscegenation laws: in response to a 1964 lawsuit brought against the state of Virginia, by Mildred Jeters Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, her white husband. In American slave history, the domestic acceptance of miscegenous sex was generally limited to relations between white slave masters and their slave women whose offspring followed the condition of the mother, ingeniously, as slave mothers reproduced the system that oppressed them. But miscegenous sex between black men, enslaved or free, and white women and the production of free miscegenous bodies was not only a threat to the ideal of white feminine purity, but also a peril to the status quo. Birdie's white mother, Sandy, cryptically alludes to the illegality of the white woman/black man sexual union when she informs Birdie that she (the mixed-race daughter) is "against the law" (Caucasia, p. 302). Indeed, in an example of the fallen white woman, the nineteenth-century, fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs provides an account of an impregnated white woman by a slave in North Carolina. In such cases of the white woman's racial/sexual transgression, Jacobs writes, "the infant is smothered, or sent where it is never seen by any who knows its history. But if the white parent is the father, instead of the mother, the offspring are unblushingly reared for the market" (Jacobs, 1987, p. 52). In his mammoth study of American racism for the Carnegie Foundation, the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal redefined America's anti-miscegenation law as a form of sexual segregation, the "most pervasive form of segregation" in the United States with its "concern about 'race purity'" (Myrdal, 1944, p. 606).
Caucasia signifies on miscegenation history, following the tensions of Boston's 1974 busing program, when a busload of children is prevented from integrating an all-white school in an all-white community. Angry white parents use their bodies as barricades. Across town and in a "swirl of colors," other parents meet in Birdie's Aunt Dot's home, and her father, Deck, the black intellectual, whispers rebelliously, "Welcome to the land of miscegenation" (Caucasia, p. 11). In the doubleness of verbal play, Senna unmasks a representation of America, but alludes to its anti-miscegenation past. Her more extensive, postmodern language games, most notably Ebonics and Elemeno, indicate other radical ways that characters manipulate language to characterize then transcend moments of crises. Following America's mandated desegregation of public schools in 1954, Senna's native Boston in the 1970s represents the exhaustless angst of race.
Persistently illustrating race as a socio-biological conundrum, Senna privileges Birdie's white mother's familial background as one reflecting a long descent of dominance on one hand, but with Sandy's emergence a break with this power on the other. A parodic, postmodern replication of the past is depicted in the image of Sandy's stern Puritan ancestor Cotton Mather as an "octoroon dandy," with the rhetoric of the image of color subverting ideas of white racial purity (Caucasia, p. 108). The Mather parody implies, too, a historical pattern of American interracialism that some of the most famous men in history embraced in secret while supporting slavery and segregation in public. This includes not only President Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slaveholder in the eighteenth century, but also Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a rabid segregationist in the twentieth century. With his family's 16-year old African American maid, a youthful Thurmond fathered a daughter, Essie Mae Washington Williams in 1925. The senator's white offspring acknowledged his paternity, and his first-born offspring, Essie Mae, broke her silence after his death in 2003, publishing her book, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. In Senna's novel, Sandy embraces the protracted experiential, but taboo history of miscegenation. However, as a subversive female miscegene, she believes that the Feds want to capture and punish her for "my goddam fucking sins against the system" (Caucasia, p. 311), not merely for storing guns in her basement, anticipating a revolution.
In the Alchemy of Race and Rights, law professor Patricia J. Williams asks the equally provocative question, "Is there not something unseemly, in our society, about the spectacle of a white woman mothering a black child? A white woman giving totally to a black child: a black child ... dependent for everything, sustenance itself from a white woman?" Williams answers her own query, "The image of a white woman suckling a black child ... such a picture says there is no difference." Yet, as a caveat, she complicates the image of the dyad by discussing the lawsuit of an inseminated white woman who by mishap gave birth to a black child. In the woman's malpractice suit, she sought remuneration for her tragedy and the child's torment. The white mother's "tragedy" causes Williams, a native of Senna's Boston, to reflect upon her experiences and if her mother should have sued for "my maturation in the racism of the Boston public school system" (1991, pp. 226-27, 186). Williams describes the volatility of experiences in two mother-daughter dyads, as the sine qua non of a socially determining construction of race and propriety: the white mother sues for damages that the black mother is expected to endure as the known psychic cost of American racism. Between these two perceptions of a mother's crisis and comportment against mental and emotional breakdown, Caucasia is infused with examples of Sandy's negotiation of both states of being, clarifying that before meeting Deck, she had "no particular interest in Negroes at this time--not in them or their cause" (Caucasia, p. 34). It is in experiencing the bigotry against her two daughters, Birdie and Cole, that the white mother is transformed, collapsing her learned social indifference.
Earlier, after Sandy had rebelliously married Deck, a photo of the wedding reveals her family's dominating gaze of disapproval behind a frozen smile. The photo also documents her final rift with an Anglo-patriarchal tradition, unlikely to continue, as her brother Randall is described as unmarried, childless, and effete. Birdie's interracial parents, Deck and Sandy Lee, are more alike, however, than the traditional grid or taxonomy of race allows, but they recognize the bane of miscegenation. Intellectuals who read Albert Camus and Richard Wright, they exhibit an existentialist dread about the chasm existing between a racialized society and their individual desire, frequently pronouncing how much they miss each other even before they are forced to part. A Boston University anthropology professor, Deck Lee, the intellectual, and Sandy, the progressive Boston Brahmin, attempt to educate their daughters "free of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism" (Caucasia, p. 138). The girls' education begins at home since Sandy homeschools them, a choice that undermines the otherwise mainstream curriculum of the Boston public school system and its teachers whose own education has been shaped by those same dominating influences. In her study of anti-racist education, educator Julie Kailin avers, "Because teachers' perspectives are shaped by the same social forces that mold us in the society at large ... the cognitive categories they employed to understand their world reflected the stereotypes held by the dominant group of which they were members" (Kailin, 2002, p. 115).
Despite the cool intellectualism of their endeavor, Deck and Sandy still face difficulties. Sandy's Wasp mother had predicted the dilemma the mixed-raced family would face. "It was doomed from the start. Tragedy in the making. Your mother should have stuck to her world," she remarks to Birdie (Caucasia, p. 365). Sandy's sins are encoded on the miscegenous bodies of her daughters whose differing skin coloration further complicates the box of race. In several examples, Senna analyzes assumptions about character types, based on bodily (mis) identification, revealing the link between physical appearance and social acceptance, based not upon what is real, but rather on what is perceived as being socially correct and acceptable. As different kinds of bodies-in-crises, Cole and Birdie divulge the unreliability of physical bodies as markers of racial identities. Deck's black girlfriend, Carmen, for example, embraces the cinnamon-skinned Cole, but not the white-skinned, introverted Birdie, who has inherited her father's health condition and is more like him than the extroverted, dark-skinned Cole. Sandy's mother favors the "white" Birdie, but rejects the "black" Cole who, despite skin color, resembles her white grandmother, having the same green eyes, high forehead, and delicate hands as her white mother. As Sandy reads selections from Colette to Cole, Birdie notes their aesthetic likeness: "my sister's face held both my mother's and my father's within it, the raw and the cooked in aesthetic harmony" (Caucasia, p. 94).
Critics who argue that Senna "colors" Deck and Cole more visibly "black" than Birdie and then reveals their differences and intersections of identity based on "gender, sexuality, and so forth" (Ibrahim, 2007, p. 165), should consider Senna's deliberate postmodern assault on eighteenth-century scientific racism. It is not only the "intersections of identity" that are underscored here, but also Senna's upsetting the notion of identity when based solely on racial stereotypes. One sees this idea more clearly in the term "aesthetic harmony," regarding Sandy and Cole's conjoined loveliness, trumping Carolus Linnaeus's taxonomy on race in 1758. Botanist Linnaeus, who invented the term Homo sapiens, extolled the Caucasians' phenotype as fair and sanguine, but demeaned the Africans' as frizzled and phlegmatic (Gould, 1996, p. 403). Sandy's experiences with Cole, though, tests Patricia J. Williams' analysis that there is "no difference" in a white woman mothering her black child. Away from the domestic sphere, Cole and Sandy enter hostile public territory when Cole embraces the 1960's Black Power Movement, its vanitas and accoutrements. Cole and Sandy's relationship interrogates what British feminist France Winddance Twine refers to as "the trope of maternal incompetence invoked by some black family members as multiracial families' households bear the burden of producing black subjectivities out of multiracial lives" (Twine, 2000, p. 79). Deck intercedes, but isolates the white-skinned Birdie while attempting to unite further with the darker Cole who begins to prefer Carmen, the black girlfriend, to Sandy, her very own mother.
With this poignant illustration of the encumbrance of internalized racism, Senna critiques a near-totalizing asphyxiation of perceived racial difference, sending the asthmatic Birdie wheezing through her migratory flights from the East to the West. Cole and Birdie continue to be accepted or rejected by the public as well as by family and friends, based on skin privilege: another perception of "difference" even within difference. As an alternative to the white public schools, Sandy enrolls them at Nkrumah, the Black Power school, named after Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of the West African nation, Ghana. The school's name implies the black pride taught to its students who have also taken a stance in the racial wars, accepting Cole while rejecting Birdie until Cole emphatically identifies her as "black." Thus, even the terms "black" and "blackness" shift in meaning from that related to physical appearance to that ascribed to radical political consciousness, doubly destabilizing the history-making formation of identity politics with its borders of race, color, and sensibility.
Indeed, Caucasia's description of the sparring of whites and blacks captures the contemporary period and its racial nightmare in contrast to the innocence of Birdie and Cole, toting play-kids' Sesame Street lunch boxes to school while terrified to enter the angry, adult-controlled world. For Caucasia is inundated with symbols of war, perhaps a reason for Senna's frequent literary allusions to Homer's classic tale The Odyssey, and Ellison's novel Invisible Man. Both are epic narratives of the war-like struggle for identity--of Homer's Odysseus, guilty of hubris, and Ellison's no-name and invisible protagonist, guilty of the crime of color. Readers witness one of the first of Senna's semiotics of war and its imagery in Birdie's naming predicament, but also in the description of her characters' fighting bodies and dress code of Army fatigues and combat boots. Class and race warfare is Birdie's inheritance as the more fragile of the two sisters: the canary in the toxic coalmine of society. Upon her birth, Birdie's parents had argued about a suitable, but warrior-like name for her after the African Congolese liberator Patrice Lumumba, or Sandy's white suffragette, great-grandmother, Jesse. Birdie and her body function as a tabula rasa. In a country where racial identity is seemingly fixed, but can shift in meaning, anyone can inscribe his/her view of her upon her body. "I wondered," she reflects on her personal war, "if I'd ever transcend the skin, the body" (Caucasia, p. 321).
The combativeness of the novel with its ubiquitous references to wars and bombs, e.g., in Viet Nam, in Central America, on the Berkeley campus, on the Boston streets, extends finally to the personal war within the Lee family, which soon disintegrates. With Cole's flippant rejection of Sandy (who cannot cornrow her hair), Senna appropriates a near-Foucaultian reverse discourse of power in the black daughter's betrayal of the white mother in contrast to Nella Larsen's quasi-autobiographical novel Quicksand, 1928, where the white mother rejects her black daughter. While Larsen's protagonist Helga Crane is a victim of her white mother's non-resistance to Jim Crow America, Senna's Sandy is a casualty of Cole's Black Power conceit. In both examples, the bi-racial authors, Larsen and Senna, knowingly extract the maximum penalty of drawn racial lines: the separation of mother-daughter, a dyad that Adrienne Rich describes as the bonding of an emotional cathexis, one leading to a "painful estrangement" (Rich, 1976, pp. 225-6, 23), and abandonment and flight.
Caucasia's migratory bodily-logo of characters being frequently in flight, leaving their homes and jobs to seek wholeness elsewhere, moves attention away from the subject of history and miscegenation, and onto larger issues of society, seemingly. For the opportunities that are supposedly "out there" in the world never really materialize, suggesting the inescapability of race from state to state, continent to continent. Deck, Carmen, and Cole, for example, fly to Brazil, hoping to find a race-free society. But as a former South American slave colony, Brazil has its own ghostly legacy of slavery. Disappointed, the three characters return to America: Deck and Cole relocating to California, and Carmen to Atlanta, Georgia. Outside the ostentation of skin color, the father and daughter realize they have nothing in common with the bourgeois Carmen, just as Deck comes to see that he and Cole are unalike. The circularity of their migration enables Senna to underscore the uncertainty of finding liberation elsewhere and to review race/color reductionism, which had brought together the "black" Deck, Cole, and Carmen over and against the "white" Sandy and Birdie.
Following Deck and Cole's departure, Sandy moves further North with Birdie whose white skin enables her to pass as the daughter that she already is, but without the social opprobrium of miscegenation. Sandy and Birdie's escape is more detailed in the novel because Senna presents them as neo-fugitive slaves: "My dad [Walter Marsh] says he thinks you and your mother are running from something, but he doesn't know what. Is it true? Are you running from something?" (Caucasia, p. 192). Deck informs Birdie, "Your mother's running from something" (p. 312). When the fugitive mother and daughter first leave Boston, they look to the "edges of the city, toward the exit north" (p. 125). They flee Boston, searching for the fugitive slave's North Star, leading to the Promised Land of freedom. Initially, with the entire family, Sandy had wanted to escape to Canada, the fugitive slave's haven. But alone with Birdie, whom she informs she has left Boston like a fugitive slave with "nothing but the clothes on [my] back" (p. 229), Sandy moves to upstate New York, staying at Aurora, a lesbian commune. Their heterosexual bodies morph briefly into lesbian bodies. Birdie experiences a lesbian relationship with the teen, Alexis, and Sandy with Bernadette, an Australian who rips all fault-lines of identity: sex, gender, and geo- politics by smoking cigars and riding a Harley. The Aurora commune resembles Calypso's Ogygia island in Homer's The Odyssey in that both are populated by women who temporarily hold the sojourners captive in "Sapphic bliss" (Caucasia, p. 136), a literary allusion to Sappho, the Greek lesbian-poetess.
Here, and after Aurora, Sandy and Birdie encounter the typical fugitive slave experiences, as gleaned from slave narratives: running, spying, trusting no one, harboring secrets, and changing names. Sandy becomes Sheila Goldman, Birdie, Jesse Goldman, a Jewish girl who could also be a "Puerto Rican, Sicilian, Pakistani, and Greek" (Caucasia, p. 130). Birdie further fantasizes herself as a Mexican and the Wasp daughter of stuffy New Hampshire neighbors who avoid the "townies," send their son Nicholas to prep school, and live in "the big house" (p. 147), just as slave masters lived in the "Great House." Slipping in and out of identities, they illustrate feminist theories that bodies are culturally adaptable to their environment, but socially untenable to laws regulating their freedom, hence their compelling urges to migrate and relocate.
In simple transposition, mother and daughter take on different identities and answer to different names in a postmodern denial of stable identities. At one point, the merging of bodies into names and their identities is confusing, as when Dot and Jim simultaneously call the white mother by two distinctly different names: "Dot tried to pull my mother off me. 'Sandy, let go of her'" while Jim reasoned, "Sheila, calm down" (Caucasia, p. 333). Although she tries to resist, Birdie discovers that the "name Jesse Goldman no longer felt so funny, so thick on my tongue, so make-believe" (p. 190). Senna utilizes Sandy and Birdie's secrecy about their "real" identity to suggest the psychical process by which two fugitives can become inured to their environment before entrusting others with their "secret." A change begins when Sandy meets Jim, the white Vietnam veteran who becomes, like Deck's Carmen, a romantic compromise. As a couple, Sandy and Jim blur the boundaries that would have made her confiding in him impossible. Not only does she reveal their "identities, but also cries on his shoulder about Cole, becoming a slave informer. Birdie/Jesse protests, "This was supposed to be our secret" (p. 271). Sandy's desire to stay in New Hampshire and begin life anew provides a social correction to her earlier social transgression. Through Sandy's portrayal, Senna illuminates the ease with which the white mother can re-enter white society, but at a cost that Birdie rejects and Sandy prays over. "I've already lost one child in this war they call America," and "I refuse to lose another" (p. 331), she cries. Birdie defies the nearly all-white society just as she rebuffs Ellison's motif of an elderly black couple's historic dispossession in Invisible Man, and in the novel the 1960s' militant box of Negrobilia artifacts, which includes a fisted pick. Challenging the white/black construction of identity, she desires a new vision of existence, unfettered by race, which Senna remarks "has never been about blood or reason," but about "economics and history" (Senna, 2005, p. 85).
The rupturing of the neo-fugitive, mother-daughter dyad materializes when an independent Birdie leaves Sandy, New Hampshire, and racist school friends who--unaware of the racialized identity her white body masks--speak openly of "'nigga, spic, fuckin' darkie" (Caucasia, p. 233). In these episodes, Senna highlights the deep shadow that race casts in America not only in public discourse, but also in private dialogue, leaving Birdie to migrate again, searching, as freed and fugitive slaves did, for the missing family. Looking for Deck and Cole, Birdie attempts to complete her mother's interrupted journey. Caucasia's homeland theme, then, is based on Birdie's search for self, beyond black or white, or the Either/Or category of race, which has led some racially mixed people to start a "movement that attained increased visibility during its campaign for a 'multiracial' box on the 2000 Census" (Hunter, 2002, p. 300). Birdie wants her family to reunite as a family as she was encouraged initially to believe. Only the fragile heroine remains true to the fugitive slave's task. In looking for her family, for an integral part of herself, Birdie represents a mini-history of fugitive slaves after the Civil War and Reconstruction, searching for the lost family.
Historian Herbert G. Gutman remarks that the reconstitution of families, sold or lost during slavery, became the goal of many African Americans: "A father reconstituted most involuntarily broken slave families, but kin outside the immediate family and grown siblings within it also played that role" (Gutman, 1976, p. 204). That Senna gives the asthmatic Birdie the goal of trying to reunite the family stresses the novel's metaphor of her as the vulnerable canary in the coalmine. Her quest is tenuously linked to Nella Larsen's, Deck's tragic canary/mulatta, a figure that disappeared in the militant 1960s, but made a more conscious and self-affirming "comeback" for biracial authors in the 1990s, another critic opines (Jones, 2008, p. 89). As Deck explains, miners frequently carried the fragile canary into the mines with them to test for poisonous toxins. If the canary had weakened and died, the mine was declared unsafe for the workers. Birdie's rejection of the tragic-mulatta motif and her survival of the poisons of society emphasize the importance of her mission for self and Other.
"When I closed my eyes," she ruminates, "it was my father, mother, sister, and I that I saw together. No Carmen. And certainly not this shaggy white man [Jim] in clogs. My mother was supposed to be waiting for my sister, but also for my father, so we could start where we had left off" (Caucasia, p. 179). When she arrives in Boston, her Aunt Dot contacts Sandy who leaves New Hampshire and comes for her, and the two women wrestle in a bout that determines the daughter's independence from the mother, but also Adrienne Rich's "painful estrangement." For Birdie had recognized the value of Sandy's maternal instruction, invariably introducing her and the stories she told, possessively, namely with the personal pronoun "my": " 'Now get this straight,' my mother was saying. 'I'm talking about liberal Wasps. Not Republican ones. The liberals have more class than the conservatives and tend to be more interesting. We never mingled with Republicans growing up' " (Caucasia, p. 153). Sandy's lesson on whiteness is intended to foreclose Birdie's adoption of a monolithic view of all white people as racist oppressors, yet, ironically, reveals one of Sienna's admonitions about the near-intractability of traditional barriers.
Senna also addresses Werner Sollors's query about interracial families. He asks, "Who is the more important parent, a mother or a father?" (Sollors, 1997, p. 41). In various scenes, Senna discloses the intensity of the mother-daughter union, but also the necessity of the father's mediation even though in this one case he stumbles. Living in California, and writing a 700-page tome on race, Deck instructs Birdie on the social construction of race, as he tries to heal the wounds she felt when "passing" in New Hampshire. He tells Birdie "there's no such thing as passing" because "Race is a complete illusion" and a "scientific error" (Caucasia, p. 391). His theory blasts Linnaeus' eighteenth-century grid, but also, as one critic argues, represents his "perfidy" (Elam, 2007, p. 753), because he simultaneously negates Birdie's painful experiences in the maze of race where perception is reality. "If race is so make-believe," she retorts, "why did I go with Mum? You gave me to Mum 'cause I looked white. You don't think that's real?" (Caucasia, p. 393). Trapped in the racial labyrinth in spite of his best scholarly intentions, Deck is both "right" and "mad" (Grassian, 2006, p. 333), but reveals the hoax of the Feds looking for Sandy. He confesses that in another compromise, the parents had decided to separate, taking the daughter who closely resembled them in Linnaeus's racist taxonomy, playing out the dicta of race to its exasperating finale.
Visual Distortions of Mirrors and Language Games of Self-Mastery
Jacques Lacan and Jean-Francois Lyotard's respective metaphors of the mirror stage as the formation of the "ideal I" of the bodily ego (Lacan, 1998, p. 179), and the performativity of postmodern language games, invested in "self-knowledge" (Lyotard, 1997, p. 62), unify Caucasia's seemingly discursive images of smoking mirrors and verbal playoffs. The doubleness of mirrored images (rendering no steady self) and word plays (demonstrating dual contextual meanings) unveils an otherwise perceived and stable appearance of a truly shifting world. For Lacan, the "ideal I," as reflected in the mirror stage of the child's early development, "situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being (le devenir) of the subject, asymptotically" (Lacan, p. 179). In Lacanian theory, the physical image of the child's body as projected in the mirror becomes the Gestalt of his or her developing consciousness, providing the appearance of a unified bodily ego in the framework of coming and threatening social relations, as Birdie discovers.
On the other hand, Lacan's mirror model as a social determinate for the early establishment of identity is inverted, symbolically, in Caucasia. "Before I ever saw myself," Birdie begins the narrative, "I saw my sister. When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her as the reflection that proved my own existence" (Caucasia, p. 5). In reverse Lacanian discourse, Senna deftly (re)appropriates the mirror stage to illustrate Birdie's symbiotic relationship with the life-affirming Cole who reflects Birdie's self-perception. Without Cole's mirror of representation, the fragile Birdie sees herself as "too small for mirrors." Therefore, the fugitive's search for the absent Cole is necessary since the sisters are connected, umbilically: it is Cole who caresses Sandy's impregnated body, speaks to the fetus, and names Birdie after failing to get the parakeet she requested. If we follow Senna's depiction of Birdie's reflection as visually reproduced in multiple mirrors that are distorted, smoked, and cracked, we see the fiction scripted on her body by strangers, family, and friends, and even herself. Differing visual reproductions of the body all function to deny Birdie a consistent self-consciousness, hence her reliance on Cole.
Senna adopts the image of distorted mirrors to suggest Birdie's fragility and by extension other characters' transformations as well. As an indication of the Ellisonian invisibility she experiences in New Hampshire, one of her friends "inhaled deeply on her cigarette, watching me in the mirror through her smoke" (Caucasia, p. 221), with the smoke obscuring Birdie's visible presence. At other times, Birdie becomes darkened "in the smoked-mirror ceiling" as the "tint of the ceiling mirror darkened me" (p. 70). Yet, on a bus en route to Boston from New Hampshire, she sees through the window a "pale reflection" of herself in contrast to her previously darkened image (p. 293). Besides Birdie's changing visual appearances, virtually everyone in the novel, including Sandy and Deck, is subject to change or disappear, temporarily or permanently. In a postmodern schema of unsettling bodies and identities, even characters' addresses and phone numbers are written on napkins and matchbooks (pp. 356, 380).
After signifying on Lacan's mirror stage in reference to identity making, Senna illustrates Lyotard's innovation of postmodern language games and word plays. Lyotard cites Wittgenstein's influence in the invention of the term "language games," positing that he "focuses his attention on the effects of different modes of discourse." Differing games and strategies are "composed," Lyotard remarks, "of language moves" (p. 10), implying the verbal gymnastics required to "play" the game of language for self-mastery and self-empowerment. In the meta-discourses of individual narratives, Senna manipulates language games to reveal language and their stories as related to social and political climate as seen, for example, in Cole and Birdie's facilitation of Ebonics and Elemeno. But in the girls" racial performance of imitating the language sounds of Ebonics, Senna risks reducing inner-city children to their phonological difference from mainstream English and society. Out of necessity, however, Cole and Birdie "perform" race, this time phonetically rather than bodily. They manipulate the language game of Ebonics when the girls attend the Nkrumah school of black resistance and try to fit in with their new peers. Thus, they master Ebonics or black English with the maternal-acting Cole assuming the lead," 'Like, don't say, 'I'm going to the store.' Say, 'I'm goin' to de sto'" (Caucasia, p. 53). The game becomes so serious that Birdie not only practices before mirrors, implying doubleness of identity again, but also tries out her skills at dinner before a disapproving Sandy and her white friend, Jane. Birdie asks, "Jane, pass de butta, please?" (p. 54).
Far more complex, Elemeno, a neologism of the girls' favorite letters of the alphabet, is a language that adults are prevented from knowing, prevented from entering the girls' imagined third space, its actuality having been hammered repeatedly by the barricades of reality, affecting the development of their "subjectivity" (Boudreau, 2002, p. 60). Deck misidentifies Elemeno as "high-speed patois," and their widowed grandmother, Penelope (named probably after Odysseus' long-suffering wife, Penelope), forbids them to speak it in her Cambridge home (Caucasia, pp. 6, 103). Cole and Birdie interpret Elemeno as an eclectic blend of a loving comfort language, a tactic for surviving a brutal adult world, which destroyed their parents' marriage and threatened their sisterly bond. "They should have stuck together. They should have tried harder" (p. 407), the sisters console each other. For them, Elemeno also represents a mythological people. In their invention of Elemeno, the girls use language as a weapon to work for them. When they first speak Elemeno, it is after they hear their parents' quarrel. In the privacy of their bedroom, they whisper "questions and answers to each other like calls to prayer: shimbala matamba caressi. Nicolta fo mo capsala." Cole names the Elemenos a shifting people who "could turn not just from black to white, but from brown to yellow to purple to green, and back again, a shifting people" (Caucasia, p. 7), deftly navigating the murky waters of race.
Senna's innovative appropriation of verbal gymnastics is a tour de force. The artfulness of the sisters' games reminds one of Nietzsche's philosophy on the necessity and importance of Art: "For a philosopher to say 'the good and the beautiful are one' is infamy; if he goes on to add, 'also the true,' one ought to [beat] him. Truth is ugly. We possess [A]rt lest we perish of the truth" (Nietzsche, 1968, p.435). In the American odyssey of race, the migrating Birdie rediscovers with Cole the Art of survival with the creation of the Elemenos. Birdie survives the buffeting of the dreadful Scylla at hand in a racialized American society, and the ghastly Charybdis of its enslaving and anti-miscegenation history. Like Homer's ancient warrior who alone encounters the twin breathing monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, and faces the near-insuperable task of escaping their deadly clutches, Senna's postmodern warrior confronts monstrous realities alone, too. With the wisdom of the ancients, Birdie survives to narrate her personal story of lessons learned from history, past and present.
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GENEVA COBB MOORE--UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-WHITEWATER
Geneva Cobb Moore is A former Fulbright Scholar of American and African American Literature at the University of Ghana, And Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She has published essays and book reviews in the Co-ncise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Southern Literary Journal, Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women's Diaries. The Black Scholar. and Auto/Biography Studies. Currently, she is revising her book-length manuscript on black women writers from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison.
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|Author:||Moore, Geneva Cobb|
|Publication:||The Western Journal of Black Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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