AUGUST 1, 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.
This latter sense is what Du Bois had in mind when he aligned the color-line to “the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive”; it was also, of course, the reason for the fundamental disconnect between William F. Buckley Jr. and James Baldwin in their historic debate at Cambridge in 1965, wherein Baldwin argued that whether or not one believed the American Dream was at the expense of the American Negro — the motion of the debate — was ultimately up to “one’s point of view […] what one’s system of reality is.” When you do not experience racism, it is more difficult to see it, to psychologically inhabit that twilit “spiritual world.” The Souls of Black Folk famously introduced Du Bois’s idea of double-consciousness, in which a black American’s sense of self is determined less by self-perception than by how white Americans perceive us. “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois wrote,
this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Yet Du Bois himself sometimes felt distant from the world he walked through. In a famous passage at the start of “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” Du Bois, who had become a freethinker in Germany, described how alien the sounds of a Negro revival ceremony were to his ears as he strolled through the country one night. Despite the near ubiquity of such revivals on his side of the color-line, Du Bois felt, himself, as if he had a foot on yet another dividing line.
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. I was particularly reminded of Everett’s hilarious, brilliant novel, Erasure, in which an experimental black author — often read as “white” due to how and what he writes — decides to write an offensively stereotypical narrative of American blackness, which then, ironically, launches him into national success. Despite thematic similarities, Senna’s voice and narrative are distinct and compelling. And her conflicted, white-passing, multiracial protagonist Maria is both a believable — if exasperating — figure and a partial but disquietingly accurate embodiment of the United States in 2017. How do we live in our own skin, the novel seems to ask, when it is living in our own skin that causes so much grief? How do we live when our own body becomes our perpetual enemy, our familiar yet alien desert planet, our inconsistently locked home?
New People is a paean to the psychosocial complexities of being racially mixed, and, as a result, color-lines, passing, and double-consciousness are everywhere. The book follows Maria, who is on the cusp of marriage to her college love, Khalil. Obsessive and unreliable herself, she is doing her dissertation on Jonestown, a notorious historical example of fanaticism and deception. It is 1996 in Brooklyn, though much of it still feels atmospherically like 2017, only without social media. In her past, “Maria could honestly say she hated white people”; her mother, Gloria, astutely notes that Maria possesses “that particular rage of the light-skinned individual.” Khalil is Jewish and black with light skin; the first time Maria sees him, he looks “both entirely black and entirely white.” Like Maria, but with less self-torment, Khalil learns to embrace his mixed-race status shortly after beginning to date Maria. However, Maria does not feel any fire in her when she is with Khalil. (So cold is their romantic relationship, at least to her, that she wonders as she kisses him if she is really more attracted to women than Khalil.) The one who bewitches her is the black man who opens the book: an unnamed poet whose show she and Khalil have gone to see.
Maria is infatuated with the poet, and the novel soon becomes her attempt to navigate the paths and identities of her future: a simple conventional one, championed by her fiancé, in which she marries Khalil, bears kids, and has a big dog named Thurgood; and an impossible path in which the poet falls for her. The two paths are not parallel, but rather keep crashing into each other, until Maria, herself, is on the verge of destruction. Maria is in search not only for love, but also for who she is. For who she should be. For a clear, stable identity. This is the novel’s consistent theme: the quest for a stable self, especially when you do not even fully know what you are yourself, and how you look prevents you from fully fitting through one door or the other. This is a novel of someone like me, a liminal figure, the placeless person searching for a home that feels like, well, home. Yet even when we think we have found a home — as Maria does in Brooklyn — we may feel tormented by our pasts.
The narrative, indeed, is haunted. Early on, Maria becomes convinced she is being watched, hounded, hunted; some chthonic presence must be following her. She imagines it is in her dorm room in college; soon after, it is under her bed, a breathing she does not recognize, and then it follows her as she flees from her room. When she turns, no one is there — no one, that is, but Khalil, the man she has been herself watching from the distance. Maria has long felt her body is constantly under surveillance, a kind of racial Panopticon all too understandable to me as a woman of color in an America that defines so much by race. However, Maria, too, is an obsessive watcher. Khalil and the poet are the targets that haunt her most, alongside Greg, the white man she loathes but who also gave her the best sex she can remember. Ironically, the thing Maria believes is haunting her may be her own reflection, an emanation of the inside. By the end of the novel, Maria will be doing precisely what that shadowy entity did: lie under someone else’s bed, breathing so shallowly that she hopes he does not hear, so close to the one she desires and yet insurmountably far. The book begins and ends with Maria’s simultaneous distance and proximity to the poet, but in the beginning, the poet acknowledges her in the crowd, while she is merely an unwanted specter in the final paragraphs. Maria has become the thing that haunts her. It is difficult not to feel the deep, pelagic, so-real irony: that we may be the things we rail against the most. That we may be our stygian phantoms.
A patron saint of the eternally conflicted, Maria is always in search of an identity, even if it means doing what is most demeaning and disgusting to her. A victim of double-consciousness, Maria is forever thinking of what others think of her; unlike Du Bois, however, she will be torn asunder. In a flashback reminiscent of Dear White People, Maria and her then-friend Claudette — both seniors in college — get high and decide, in a laughing, pellucid haze, to prank-call Khalil. With voices shoddily disguised, they leave a chilling message on his phone about lynching him. Maria even calls Khalil a nigger — yet she is so high that she does not remember this until she hears Khalil play back the message. At the time, Khalil had just begun to “embrace his black identity” and had recently published a column in the college paper; he had been “oblivious to his own blackness” as a child, having “grown up in a liberal, humanist, multiracial family” that taught him a naïve “color-blind humanism.” The voice message, which Khalil and his friends believe is from white boys on campus, launches him to national attention. Khalil suspects a white fraternity is to blame; he never learns his own significant other is the one who so hurt him. The caller must be white, must be a boy, must be a racist, must not be Maria.
Early in the novel, when Maria is on her way to meet family to try on some gowns, she is accosted by a ghost from her past, Nora Convey, who tries to recruit her into Scientology; instead of just saying no, she lets the woman audit her, causing her to be late. Later, Maria is mistaken by Susan, a clueless white woman who lives next to the poet, for her Latina helper Consuela. In a remarkable moment of ridiculous yet real psychology, Maria, unable to say no, plays along, pretending to be Consuela while mentally ridiculing the woman for assuming all Latinas look the same. She takes care of this stranger’s baby, despite the fact that she is supposed to be at a special dinner. (Incredibly, she then sneaks into the poet’s apartment, leaving the baby alone, and creepily drinks one of his beers and tries to imagine living with him in there.) Just as with Khalil, Maria’s true identity is never revealed. Maria struggles to say no; all the same, she can hardly say yes.
All of this identity adoption reinforces that this novel is about a specific aspect of color-lines: those who can walk between them. Those who pass. Maria’s lightness allowed her, in the past, to hear “whiteyisms — those comments white people made about black people when they thought they were alone.” Maria’s ability to “pass” has helped to create her by showing her the terrible things through one door. To “pass” is not the same as being, yet those of us who live on the cusp of identities, a foot in two facing doors, can easily become consumed by the question of which door we fit in better, or if we fit through any door at all. The United States often demands labels, strictures, structures; if we do not fit into a simple binary, we begin to unsettle the learned expectations of others and ourselves alike. Perhaps the most famous text to deal with racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), but the specter of passing is everywhere in American literature, notably in novels by Mark Twain and William Faulkner; in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a kind of anti-passing novel, the unnamed narrator cannot pass for white and is thus, as a black American male, treated as if he is either invisible or a threat. Senna’s novel, in more comedic fashion, joins this legacy.
Sometimes, the novel seems too on-the-nose, exemplified by Maria being misidentified as Consuela. When Susan mistakes Maria for her Latina helper — and what else could she be named but Consuela? — Susan goes so far as to examine Maria from head to toe without realizing Maria is not Consuela. The only hint she senses something may be off appears in a frowning comment about how her helper has changed her hair. Susan may be a mess, but this is still difficult to buy, even as a joke. When Maria turns to tell Susan she is not Consuela, Susan, of course, has just left. Later, Maria takes the baby, who is Chinese, on a walk, and couples around her keep smiling and talking about adoption loud enough for her to hear — they do this in earshot, as the book must make its point about how cringe-worthy this brand of white American can be. After Susan comes back, Maria tries once again to tell her she is not Consuela, yet Susan has fallen asleep by the time the words leave Maria’s mouth.
It is a hilarious, delicious, absurd set of clichés. Senna is aware of this, and, to be fair, Maria would act like this. Yet the book’s tone, to me, does not suggest the Consuela incident, or much else, is meant as a joke; instead, it reads like we are meant to take this all seriously rather than as a winking cliché. I laughed as I was reading, then wondered if I was meant to be laughing; perhaps because we are so close to Maria’s often humorless point of view, it is difficult to understand precisely how to read these passages. This was the point in the book where I almost put it down. But New People is so readable that I couldn’t leave it alone for long, and, to Senna’s credit, most of the novel is not like this.
Contra the title, Senna’s protagonist is a person both old and new. I’ve known a Maria; I’ve almost been one. If the character is an embodiment of America in 2017, that image of America is itself a reflection of what the country has always been: in search of an identity, and, in particular, a racial one. Maria’s causes largely align with a general “woke” liberalism as breathlessly applicable in the novel’s 1996 milieu as it is today — Maria’s causes largely align with my own, as they doubtless would for many of the book’s likely readers — yet she appears designed to be eminently, even at times absurdly, unlikable due to her destructive obsessiveness. Like certain contemporary activists who mean well but argue without nuance, Maria sometimes speaks very broadly of experience, as if all racial experience is the same. But identity, like privilege, is always situational, always meaningless without context. What it means to be anything varies from place to place, time to time. To be black in Maria’s Brooklyn is specific; it will be similar, but not necessarily the same, as being black elsewhere. Blackness in Britain, blackness in the English-speaking Caribbean, blackness in the French Caribbean, blackness in Brazil, blackness in the United States and Canada are all distinct experiences, even if they overlap.
I often felt sorry for Maria. I found myself rooting for her imagined, yearned-for relationship with the poet to somehow, impossibly, bloom outside her dreams. Maria is neither black nor white and knows better than to see the world in black and white, yet largely sees the world in that binary. Maria yearns for a simple, fixed identity, a direction in her compass; she yearns to appear black, yet would rebuke someone else of a light skin tone who yearned for the same. She desires, ironically, a loosely conservative vision of a world, in which all is simple and stable, in which the flux and liminality she embodies fade away.
Yet the world the novel inhabits is one antithetical to the “stable” world so often desired by contemporary American conservatism. Maria’s journey, through the avenues of New York City and of herself alike, represents what animates so much literature and art: a yearning for us to understand ourselves and to find where we fit in. The novel’s ultimate message seems, however, to be one both true and unsettling, if unsurprising: that color-lines have never left America and likely never will, and that those of us who walk between the lines may always be tormented, always followed by something dusky and doubtful we cannot quite catch sight of. America has always been divided, was built, indeed, upon divisions in blood and bone; and Marias, once the stock “tragic Mulatto” characters of past centuries, still often star in our mundane tragedies, when we begin to wonder, on too-quiet evenings, where, if anywhere, we fully belong.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, and The New York Times.
Identity as Skin Color: Performing a 'White' Identity in Caucasia
'My body would fill in the blanks, tell me who I should become, and I would let it speak for me,' says Birdie Lee, the lost and searching multiracial protagonist of Danzy Senna's novel Caucasia (Senna 1).The 'blanks' are her identity, agency, and individuality. Satirically, Birdie acknowledges the impossibility of a body speaking for a person, but she also points out that with race, a person's body does speak for him/her. Danzy Senna, in writing Caucasia, exposes identity and the race one affiliates with as a fa'ade someone can assume rather than a concrete, unchangeable sense of self. As Birdie shows throughout the novel, identity is perception as she takes on the identity of Jesse Goldman, a young Jewish girl, in a small, racist New Hampshire town while she is really a young half-black, half-white girl who grew up in Boston during the racial upheaval of the 1970s. The novel follows Birdie from ages 8 to 14, from Boston to New Hampshire back to Boston again. Birdie's parents, Deck and Sandy Lee, strive to create a family blind to the racial stratification surrounding them. Living blind to race eventually destroys the family and forces them to play the racial game, causing the family to split up and separating the sisters, Cole, Birdie's darker and older sister, and Birdie. In this separation, they revert to the roles they are most able to fit, not the ones in which they most identify. For Sandy and Birdie, it is White, and for Deck and Cole, it is Black. Birdie loses her true sense of identity by passing and performing as opposed to possessing it. She feels fragmented and disembodied, looks to other people for her own sense of self, developing a double consciousness.
Race is like a crayon box configuration; it attempts to assign a distinct name to a color that could have various hues. A 'black' person is anyone with a brown tint to their skin while a 'white' person is more or less a peach colored person. As it relates to a person, the colors 'black' and 'white' are not exactly what they seem to be. Anyone with lighter complexion can be categorized as white even though the person's ethnicity can be anything from Italian to Asian-American. Critics Joan Ferrante and Prince Browne Jr. agree with this by pointing out, 'Whether people fit into a racial category or not, the categories remain central to how people think about their own identity and the racial identity of others' (Ferrante 113). The key is the physical appearance and the perception of that physical appearance to others. Performing identity, however, is only essential because of the many problems race creates for Birdie Lee and her family. Race, in Caucasia, permeates everything around the Lee family, even the construction of the family. The effect, psychologically and socially, is the breakdown of their family unit, loss of relationships, and obsessive focus on color.
Trying so hard to beat racism and not see color, Deck Lee, a black intellectual Harvard graduate and Sandy Lee, a white blueblood-raised woman, marry and have children. Critic David Brunsma points out the complexity and difficulty of this task though by saying:
Contemporarily, they [interracial families] are trying to navigate a complex, "changing" racial terrain where multiraciality is discussed and debated, where race and racism is denounced and supposedly diminished, ' race still matters as an axis through which goods, services, opportunities and life chances are distributed unequally to members of the same society (Brunsma 1132)
Race being 'supposedly diminished' and 'distributed unequally' are where the hypocrisy of equality and racism lie; where equality is supposed to happen, racism happens instead. The Lee family tries hard to be a family who ignores race, but the familial and environmental pressures around them force the family to acknowledge race. One of the characters in the novel even calls this family dynamic an experiment: 'I remember thinking your parents were such great mad scientists, embarking on this marvelous, ambitious experiment with you and your sister' (Senna 349). As an 'ambitious experiment,' an interracial family is braver and more courageous than it is common. Race or the defiance of it, therefore, creates the family, but ultimately destroys the family, showing that societal pressures permeated into the family so much that color mattered more than love.
As race breaks the marriage, it also breaks the ties between the sisters: Cole, the 'black' one, and Birdie, the 'white' one. The parents split the girls according to the parent they look like the most or with the one they can pass with. The parents even see the children, who are biologically biracial, as fitting into one racial category, as either black or white. Sandy does so when she reflects on Cole fitting into the predominately white New Hampshire town: 'imagine if Cole had come with us. Imagine her in this town. She would have been miserable. That fucks up a kid. Being the only one. A token' (Senna 216). Cole would have looked like 'a token;' however, she really would not be as Birdie is biracial as well. Though she knows that she has two daughters from the same father, the color of her daughters' skin keeps her from seeing the biological truth of Cole and Birdie. Similarly, Deck sees Cole as his prot'g' 'black' daughter and favors her over Birdie arbitrarily: 'Cole was my father's special one. I understood that even then. She was his prodigy'his young, gifted, and black. At the time, I wasn't sure why it was Cole and not me, but I knew that when they came together, I disappeared' (Senna 55-6). Always an underlying feeling of displacement, Birdie's realization that her father's favoritism results from the color of her skin rather than the person she actually is troubles Birdie and makes her feel nonexistent in her father's presence.
This disappearance, however, translates over to the 'white' side in respect to Sandy's family. It is now, however, reversed in the way that Birdie is the one in the spotlight for the white audience, her grandmother: 'I always seemed to get the brunt of her attention, while Cole was virtually ignored' (Senna 100). Indeed, Sandy's mother always seems to favor Birdie for the very reason Deck favors Cole: skin color. What she does not realize, critic Brenda Boudreau points out, is that 'how Birdie looks has nothing to do with who she is' (Boudreau 64). Unable to separate the two, Birdie's grandmother is emblematic of the racial resistance Birdie faces later in the novel at both the Nkrumah school and the New Hampshire town. Therefore, skin color, as a physical attribute, dominates Cole and Birdie's identities even when it is supposed to be unreal.
Even though race is more of an illusion, as Ferrante and Browne note earlier, 'the categories remain central to how people think about their own identity and the racial identity of others.' Therefore, the hypocrisy in the categories prevails in Deck, Sandy, and Sandy's mother, showing that race has ultimate power in perception but not at all in reality. Birdie exploits all of this ignorance by revealing: 'it was as if my mother believed that Cole and I were so different. As if she believed I was white, believed I was Jesse' (Senna 275). Birdie's anger in her mother's perception illustrates the frustration she feels as she identifies with one race, but is categorized in another. Ferrante and Browne also point out the ignorance in the obsession with skin color by asserting, 'A shortcoming in systems of racial classification is that racial categories and guidelines for placing people in them are often vague, contradictory, unevenly applied, and subject to change' (Ferrante 114). Moreover, race is 'vague' and 'contradictory, but it has so powerful of an effect that it destroys the Lee family structure and leads to favoritism of either daughter. Therefore, race as a fantastical and irrational concept can be more realistic and devastating than it seems it could be, but it nevertheless is powerful within Caucasia.
As race is supposedly an illusion, the concept of passing is also an illusion. Passing is, as identified by Brooke Kroeger, 'when people effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be' (Kroeger 7). As Kroeger maintains, 'effectively' is key to successfully pass as another person. For Birdie in Caucasia, passing is how she and her mother are able to maintain their anonymity in New Hampshire: 'My body was the key to our going incognito" (Senna 128). Hiding and avoiding their past, changing their identities allow them to pass as a Sheila and Jesse Goldman, wife and daughter of the late David Goldman, a classics professor at Harvard who had worked with Sandy's father years ago. As 'incognito,' Birdie's transformation to Jesse only works because of her ability to pass as white. However, as Kroeger stated earlier, success in passing is also based on pretending to be someone 'other than whom they understand themselves to be.' Therefore, Birdie has to see herself as someone other than Jesse for passing to succeed.
Juda Bennett exposes the concept of race and its inherent hypocrisy by saying, 'The idea of passing relies on a rule that is variously referred to as 'the one-drop rule,' 'the traceable amount rule,' and 'hypo-descent rule'' (Bennett 5). The 'one-drop rule,' as Bennett poses, is the key concept in passing. The one-drop rule, as Richard Payne states 'essentially designates as black anyone who has any trace of African ancestry, regardless of physical appearance' (Payne 161). In Caucasia, the one-drop rule applies in Sandy's decision to pass off Birdie as a Jewish girl rather than a black girl. Indeed, if she were to be found out, she would automatically be seen differently, differently as in inferior and lesser since she would be seen as black as the one-drop rule dictates. However, critic Sidonie Smith points out the paradox with skin color: 'Border of both integrity and violation, that skin defines an inside/outside boundary wholly other than that of the universal subject. For that place is inside the body where, paradoxically, inside and outside meet' (Smith 12). Smith stresses the differences in skin color and the actual body. In this though, she also points out how homogenous skin and self can truly be: though a paradox, many people, as seen in Caucasia, see them as homogenous.
Similarly, Birdie's blueblood white grandmother concerns herself with how far her granddaughter can pass as any race but black. 'She said quietly, 'You know, Birdie, you could be Italian. Or even French. Couldn't she, Sandy?' (Senna 107). The idea that Birdie 'could be' someone other than she is brings to view the possibility of an identity change that passing can create. Indeed, as stated earlier, Birdie's grandmother always favored the 'whiteness' Birdie possessed. Therefore, the fact that her grandmother is suggesting Birdie could pass shows her grandmother's discontent for blackness. Namely, in ignoring her blackness and suggesting that she can pass as 'white,' Birdie's grandmother explains the social hierarchy of race in the novel, including the attempt to hide Birdie's blackness as the 'one-drop rule' seeks to expose it. At the end of the novel, however, Birdie realizes her grandmother's faults in saying: 'She believed that the face was a mirror of the soul. She believed, deep down, that the race my face reflected made me superior. Such a simple, comforting myth to live by.' (Senna 366). In saying 'the race my face reflected,' Birdie reveals the dichotomies between black and white, inferior and superior that the novel toys with throughout. Birdie satirizes her grandmother's way of thinking by the sarcasm of 'simple' and 'comforting.' Indeed, the supposed superiority of white over black Birdie's grandmother points out illustrates the hypocrisy and illusion race can become when a person passes as another.
Passing however, leads to serious problems of identity and sense of self. Critic Daniel Grassian notes, 'Birdie will later discover the sense of "completion" is not only an illusion, but it can be destructive in its own way. With time, Birdie feels more vibrant, but at the same time, devoid of an identity and ethnicity' (Grassian 329). The war between the perception she gives off and who she identifies within herself become confused and, therefore, undistinguishable as she does not know who or what she looks like anymore. Birdie's passing game becomes more of a game and it seems as if she is beginning to see herself as white as well. She even says after extended time in New Hampshire acting as Jesse, 'I wondered if whiteness were contagious. If it were, then surely I had caught it' (Senna 329). Therefore, passing is now a disease she feels as if she has acquired'it seems it is no longer an act, it has become reality. Contagious as a cold, Birdie acquires Jesse; Jesse then overtakes Birdie's former life in seeking to exhibit whiteness inside and outside of Birdie.
As Jesse, Birdie illustrates how performing her identity as Jesse while still maintaining herself as Birdie leaves her without a true identity. As Jesse, Birdie believes she is truly taking on a role like an actor'she believes she can turn her identity as Jesse on and off. Her choice in her identity stems from a concept ciritc Catherine Rottenberg articulates as, 'Racial norms, to be sure, are spawned by a particular configuration of power relations, and these norms are both the condition of possibility of viable subjects and help produce and shape the subject's very preferences, aspirations, desire, and identification' (Rottenberg 449). Rottenberg asserts, therefore, that the 'power relations' or the black/white dichotomy is what creates the racial norms in Caucasia. From the racial norms, white superiority and passing, Birdie develops herself to become white and become Jesse in order to fit in according to the norms. Fitting herself according to these norms, Birdie's passing act elicits a personality, stylistic, and even dialect changes. These changes, however, only elicit performance. Grassian even makes a claim about Caucasia and its performative aspects by saying: 'By centering on a racially mixed young woman and her family, Caucasia complicates and deconstructs the black/white binary and challenges multicultural theory. Caucasia is a Generation X post-passing novel, arguing that race itself is performative and considers the possibilities for its gradual effacement' (Grassian 321).
Therefore, identity, as Grassian claims, is an act that Birdie keeps up; she will gradually erase it as she continues to fool race into thinking she is fully white, rather than multiracial. The performance she puts on reflects how race can be completely performative as well. Moreover, Grassian's claim about race's 'gradual effacement' is more of a double consciousness for Birdie. She begins to feel guilty for abandoning her old self when she sees her self as Birdie fading. To maintain her old self, then, she plays memory games to recall memories of her sister, father, their life in Boston, and Nkrumah just to feel that she is still connected to her former life. In playing this game, Birdie creates a double consciousness. Double consciousness, for Birdie, is the divide between black and white, superior and inferior, and especially, Birdie and Jesse. In considering her 'self' a body, Birdie has developed a double consciousness about the 'black' personality she identifies with and the 'white' person she resembles. Owens Moore, in researching the effects of a double consciousness on a person, asserts that, 'A double consciousness can delude a person to believe they can mentally fixate themselves into someone else's reality' (Moore 759). This delusion translates into guilt as Birdie feels guilty in passing as a Jewish girl rather than a biracial girl. Fixating herself into another reality, she has taken on two identities: Birdie Lee and Jesse Goldman. With these two identities, she acts the part for both Jesse and Birdie, leaving her real identity as a person, mysterious.
Her acting, however, started long before Jesse came along; she had to learn to act as Birdie in the Nkrumah school to fit in as 'black' rather than stick out as 'white.' Even though she identifies herself as black, others do not see her as black. Therefore, she has to prove her heritage to her schoolmates. Dagbovie reiterates this point by asserting, 'While Birdie "passes" for something she both is and is not (white), she also passes for something she is and is not (black). To "camouflage" her whiteness in the black world, Birdie must find ways to look blacker. She needs her "white" body to make a "black" statement' (Dagbovie 105). The tension between something 'she is and is not' in both black and white further illustrates Birdie's confused identity. Namely, she has to hide her skin color to be considered black, but then again she has to act black to be considered black as well. Therefore, to pass in the black world, she begins the process of assimilating in with the crowd. In her attempt to do this, she changes the way she talks, dresses, and acts so she can feel like everyone else.
Both Lee girls have to change themselves in order to fit into the school. Cole, however, has to make minor changes while Birdie has to almost completely change herself. Reading an article from Ebony, Birdie and Cole seek to conform and speak like everyone else. Cole says, 'We talk like white girls, Birdie. We don't talk like black people. It says so in this article' (Senna 53). In this, however, it is not only about physical appearance anymore, it is about being able to participate in the community they seek to conform to. In another situation, students make fun of Cole for having ashy knees and elbows. With this, they suggest that she is unable to take care of her black skin, as it is, to them, completely different than skin of different races. When Cole is able to get lotion to stop being made fun of, Birdie strives to do everything she can to make it appear as if she is as black as her sister and the other students. Commenting on the lotion, Birdie says, 'The Jergen's lotion made me feel like I was part of some secret club' (Senna 49). This secret club is ironic, though. She is, in fact, already in the club because of her father; but the light color of her skin keeps her from feeling completely a part of the club. With all these changes, Birdie, not ignorant to her ever-changing self says, 'But only at Nkrumah did it [make-believe] become more than a game. There I learned how to do it for real'how to become someone else, how to erase the person I was before' (Senna 62). Birdie's nonchalant attitude towards changing herself is alarming because of how important identity is to an individual. She shows, however, that she is completely separated from her persona and her self in this moment and throughout her stay at Nkrumah school.
The psychological effect of passing as black at Nkrumah may have altered Birdie's way of thinking about her self and her identity. Trying so hard to fit in, she 'erased the person [she] was before' at Nkrumah, completely alienating the perceived body and the inherent identity. Grassian quotes Werner SoUors in his article to point out that those who pass see themselves as separated from their new identity: 'In NeitherBlack Nor White, Werner SoUors argues: 'Passing may even lead an individual who succeeds in it to a feeling of elation and exultation, an experience of living as a spy who crosses a significant boundary and sees the world anew from a changed vantage point, heightened by the double consciousness of his subterfuge'' (qtd. in Grassian 253). Similarly, Birdie feels that 'I was a spy in enemy territory. This was all a game of make-believe' (Senna 269). Posing it as make-believe, Birdie avoids the reality of her change'she is no longer separated from her new identity: she is becoming her new identity. As she is changing races, Grassian's 'gradual effacement' of racial identity applies to her overall thought of her self: 'The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe that this was still a game. That my real self'Birdie Lee'was safely hidden beneath my beige flesh, and that when the right moment came, I would reveal her, preserved, frozen solid in the moment in which I had left her' (Senna 233). As Birdie plays the role of Jesse more fluidly and naturally, she ignorantly believes that she will be able to change automatically back to her old self as soon as she is playing her part. Her realization that being Jesse is no longer a game reveals to her that her true identity as Birdie is starting to deteriorate. This fading identity as the person she was before Jesse illustrates the foolishness of race. Race is merely on the surface, and it is able to be changed. Though for Birdie, this change results in an identity change as well.
As race is easily changed, Birdie reveals that racial identity, though denied by some as real, is real. After Birdie meets up with her father again, she tells him about her passing escapade and how she successfully fooled many people into pretending she is white. Her father's reaction, however, points out the hypocrisy of race to begin with: 'But baby, there's no such thing as passing. We're all just pretending. Race is a complete illusion, make-believe. It's a costume. We all wear one. That's just the absurdity of the whole race game' (Senna 391). He states that race is an illusion, but he does not explain why it works or even exists in a post-Civil Rights America. Birdie's voice of reason response to this is, 'If race is so make-believe, why did I go with Mum? You gave me to Mum 'cause I look white. You don't think that's real? Those are the facts' (Senna 393). In replying, though, Birdie's poignant question about his choice to leave her behind brings a concept about race to reality: it is not supposed to exist, but it does. Indeed, even the most liberal and racially conscious person can still fall into the race trap. Senna's irony here shows that race forces a person into having a double consciousness where he/she has to choose one race over the other to simply be able to live without conflict from the people around them just as Birdie experiences at Nkrumah and would have experienced in New Hampshire had she claimed her blackness as her identity. Though creating a new identity saves Birdie from ridicule, it does not save her from her internal identity turmoil: having two fragmented identities.
In regards to race, the lighter the skin color, the more superior a person; it is when the body becomes a person's sense of identity rather than his/her actual identity that the hierarchy of skin color appears. The effect of Birdie trying to become superior or white is then fragmented identities, for who she believes she is does not match up with who everyone else perceives her to be. For Birdie Lee, the psychological effects of acting for two identities leaves her unable to even complete one defined sense of self, like defining one's self as a black person. This tension, therefore, leaves Birdie unable to develop as a person, showing that sense of self, as it relates to physical identity, is essential to developing as a whole person. Her fake identity forces her to fragment her body into two, however. It is, according to Sandra Bartky, critic of the essay called 'Psychological Oppression,' 'the splitting of the whole person into parts of a person, which in stereotyping, make take the form of a war between a 'true' and 'false' self' (Bartky 23). Therefore, a person is now 'parts of a person' rather than a complete person. Moreover, Birdie is forced to erase her 'true' identity completely as a half-black/ half-white girl because of her mother's trouble with the FBI. Her new 'fake' self as the Jewish Jesse Goldman leads her to feel like a disembodied stranger who feels herself watching her body from above like a foreign object. Feeling fragmented, Birdie eventually internalizes this separation by repeating this idea about the disconnect between her self and her body.
As Jesse, Birdie feels alien in her own body. In one instance, Birdie notes, 'Now I felt myself floating, looking down at us' (Senna 248). She only feels herself floating when she encounters or thinks about her past, real identity as a biracial girl rather than the identity she is currently assuming. This separation, though, results from her double consciousness. One critic says, 'the body becomes an obstacle to autonomy and self-agency as the girl tries to reconcile her body to the demands of a socially proscribed gendered identity, leading, paradoxically, to feelings of disembodiment' (Boudreau 43). Indeed, forced upon her, Birdie seeks to fit into one body, but at the same time, feels more disconnected from her body. Birdie says, 'I felt myself to be incomplete'a gray blur, a body in motion, forever galloping toward completion'half a girl, half-caste, half-mast, and half-baked, not quite ready for consumption' (Senna 137). She feels herself 'forever galloping toward completion,' but she will never achieve completeness Indeed, she is not fully one entity for she feels as if she is only partially done and 'not quite ready for consumption,' her fragmented self is realizing the deficiency. Critic Brenda Boudreau, in researching Birdie's identity, says, '[Birdie] will never be complete until she owns both her blackness and whiteness and claims her bi-racial body' (Boudreau 68). Owning both her identities rather than separating the two dictates Birdie's unresolved conflict she faces throughout the entire novel. Never able to connect the two, Birdie remains at a loss when it comes to her identity.
At the beginning of the novel, Birdie positions herself to the readers, from the start, as fragmented and confused in her sense of self. She poses that 'when I stopped being nobody, I would become white'white as my skin, hair, bones allowed. My body would fill in the blanks, tell me who I should become, and I would let it speak for me' (Senna 1). As I asserted earlier, the body comes to speak in place of the person rather than alongside the person. Her body, not her true self 'would become white,' as much as her physical self would permit. Moreover, Smith asserts that people like Birdie, 'Those [people] positioned peripherally to the dominant group, those claiming and/or assigned marginalized identities, find themselves partitioned in their bodies and culturally embodied' (Smith 10). Birdie's 'assigned marginalized identity' as Jesse leaves Birdie devoid of her own body and forced to confirm her supposed sense of identity with the influences around her, like her mother and the people of the New Hampshire town. She is, essentially, who they want her to be or forcibly 'culturally embodied.'
As taken over by culture rather than her 'self,' Birdie's conformity to this separated sense of self reveals the true superiority of societal influences. However, on the one hand, Sidonie Smith says, 'Independent of forces external to it, the self is neither constituted by, nor coextensive with, its class identifications, social roles, or private attachments' (Smith 6). Smith claims, then, that the self is completely divorced from the influences around it. On the other hand, though, Birdie's character and deterioration of her identity as Birdie Lee shows that the self has to be constituted and coextensive with her identity as either black or white, society's hierarchy of whiteness, and her mother's need for her whiteness. Displaying the coextensive embodiment of her societal influences, Birdie says, 'But I did feel different'more conscious of my body as a toy, and of the ways I could use it to disappear into the world around me' (Senna 65). Seeing her body as a toy divorces her body from her self much like watching her body from above does. When she sees it as a toy, she also becomes aware of her ability to hide or assimilate with the world around her, much like she does when she is just one of the crowd as Jesse Goldman, a culturally Jewish girl in a small New Hampshire town.
Seeking to pass, therefore, leads Birdie into feeling disembodied and fragmented, but it also leaves her narcissistic. Narcissism, as Helene Deutsch, author of Psychology of Women, identifies it, is when 'the feminine woman' is characterized by her struggle for a harmonious accord between the narcissistic forces of self-love and the masochistic forces of dangerous and painful giving' (Deutsch qtd. in Bartky 38). As Deutsch asserts, the mirror is where a woman finds positive reinforcement about herself, but it is also where she destroys herself. Birdie reflects narcissism because she is constantly worried about the perception of those around her to her skin color. Changing herself to fit into Nkrumah School, as her form of masochism, correlates with this narcissism. It says that her identity as a light-skinned biracial girl is not good enough. She needs to be perceived as a full black girl. Because she feels singled out, she changes herself to 'escape the burdens of subjectivity by identifying her entire self with her bodily self' (Bartky 39). Therefore, as a body, she is not her 'self.' She has, in fact, lost her self by seeking to transform it into everyone but her 'self.' The effects of this, therefore, lead her to reclaim her past through her family, but it sets-up a fantastical situation of finding her 'self' in which she can never achieve because it does not exist.
Lost in her 'self', she claims her sense of self as merely the persona she gives off. Bartky explains narcissism as, '' the self undergoes doubling: An Other, a 'stranger' who is at the same time myself, is subject for whom my bodily being is object. This Other may take on a number of identities'that of a remembered or fantasized parental regard;'even a self struggling toward self-actualization and a wholesome affirmation of the body' (Bartky 39).
This other then is object when Birdie is subject, creating another self metaphorically in her conscience and literally as she inhabits both the identities of Jesse and Birdie. Therefore, this narcissism in seeing herself as two makes Birdie perform as she needs to affirm Jesse's existence to the real Birdie and vice versa. Birdie's intransigent sense of identity coincides with Bartky's idea of a narcissistic subject and object that, in turn, creates further turmoil for Birdie and her quest for an identity.
Narcissism relates to Lacanian theory in Caucasia becausein trying to find herself, Birdie is constantly worried about the persona she presents to others. When she looks at the mirror she says, 'I would look at my own body the way I that I looked at another's. I would think, 'You,' not 'I,' in these moments, and as long as the girl was 'you,' I didn't feel that I lived those scenes, only that I witnessed them' (Senna 190). As she translates 'I' to 'you,' she separates herself from her body, fragmenting her identity, but also looking into the mirror that is another person to find herself. Indeed, Birdie's constant changing of her self is Lacanian but with a twist. Birdie Lee, in fact, looks to others as the mirror image she wants to reflect. As Sandra Bartky says, 'Woman lives her body as seen by another' (Bartky 72). Birdie's body and, therefore, reflection lives her body for her; she is not able to function without the approval of others.
The most prevalent mirror image Birdie tries to emulate is that of her sister, Cole. Through Cole, Birdie affirms her biracial descent: 'When I was still too small for mirrors, I saw her [Cole] as the reflection that proved my own existence. That face was me and I was that face and that was how the story went' (Senna 5). As Cole is of darker skin, Birdie sees herself as darker skin as Cole takes the place of Birdie's mirror. Cole 'proves' her existence as if she is incomplete without her sister's presence. This affirmation, later lost by their separation, explains why Birdie is without an identity: she does not have Cole to confirm her as Black or even as Birdie, a biracial girl. Birdie even comes to the point that she tricks herself into believing that she resembles Cole: 'I found that if I pouted my lips and squinted to blur my vision in just the right way, my face transformed into something resembling Cole's' (Senna 70). She not only wants to do the things Cole does anymore; she wants to be Cole. De Beauvoir also concludes that with narcissism, 'It is impossible to be for one's self actually an other and to recognize oneself consciously as object' (de Beauvoir 630). De Beauvoir's concept that a person has to make a choice between being his/herself or emulating another self is telling to Birdie's decisions to mimic other people. Choosing to emulate others, she has, in fact, chosen to see herself as the other person rather than her own self. She breaks the seemingly permanent concrete of her own identity and chooses to fix herself temporarily in other people's identities.
Similarly, in her and Cole's secret world and language of Elemeno, they hide from the world and become who they want to be. Elemeno seems to foreshadow Birdie's ever-changing self when Cole asserts, 'they were a shifting people, constantly changing their form, color, pattern, in a quest for invisibility. According to her, their changing routine was a serious matter'less a game of make-believe than a fight for the survival of their species' (Senna 7). This make-believe species, however, becomes very much like the species Birdie comes to inhabit much later in the novel. A species of passers that do not quite inhabit the black species or white species around her; it is a species of her own. Invisibility is also a concept Birdie continually strives for, suggesting that in order to survive, she has to succeed in passing.
When arriving in New Hampshire as a new person, Birdie looks to other girls her age to figure out what she should look like. She caught one girl's, later known as her friend Mona's, glance, and noted: 'The look on her face reflected how strange I had become'I saw myself in that girl's eyes, and I appeared wild and ill-fitting, like a girl raised by wolves' (Senna 144). Her reflection, therefore, is not in a mirror, it is in the girl's eyes because 'woman lives her body as seen by another.' Birdie is repulsed by how she sticks out from other girls her age or as she says 'like a girl raised by wolves'; she sees herself as something less than an equal. Only able to clutch onto the images and identities of others, Birdie feels angst and wanting to be similar to the other girls around her. Since she does not have an identity, she looks to others for a sense of identity, thus creating a skewed Lacanian mirror.
Wanting to assimilate, she does what she can to fit in with the other girls in the school much like she did at Nkrumah school. Bartky, in speaking about narcissism, asserts, 'The sexual objectification of women produces a duality in feminine consciousness. The gaze of the other is internalized so that I myself become seer and seen, appraiser and the thing appraised.' (Bartky 38). Therefore, as Birdie feels as if she does not fit in, it is actually her own self that is prohibiting. She has now become her own judge. Self-judging herself, she seeks to become the 'seer' and the 'appraiser' to appease the duality she feels in her consciousness as both Birdie and Jesse. Internalizing the perception of others, Birdie allows other people to become her reflection; at first, Cole is her reflection, but when she moves, another girl becomes the self Birdie wants to become.
With one girl in particular, Mona, Birdie notes, 'I became her [Mona] shadow over the next few months. From the outside, it must have looked like I was changing into one of those New Hampshire girls. I talked the talk, walked the walk' (Senna 233). She still believes she has not quite made the transformation, but is coming close to it as she 'talked the talk' and 'walked the walk.' At this point, she still performs her part of Jesse as a 'shadow' of Mona. Later, however, Birdie realizes that mirroring Mona and the other girls is not a game; it has become reality. When reflecting on her former life, she thinks: 'But I wouldn't fit in there. I was a New Hampshire girl now' (Senna 244). Her realization that she is now one of them shows readers that pretending translates into reality.
As Birdie mirrors both Cole and Mona, she feels herself becoming them rather than merely mimicking them. Critic Jenijoy La Belle, goes further to say that 'Since the self is never fully achieved, it is necessary to look in the glass to see how one is doing in the process of constantly reinventing the self' (La Belle 17). Therefore, the 'self' is ever-changing and inconsistent, mirroring Birdie's constantly changing sense of self as Birdie to black Birdie to white Jesse to unidentifiable Birdie. She may never need to fully commit herself to one identity, but that might lead her to a negative consequence. As Grassian asserts then, 'Birdie passes back and forth between a series of mirror stages, never cementing her identity' (Grassian 322). Therefore, though she finds people to reflect, she never feels or is able to feel fully content in mimicking another. Separated from Cole and Mona, Birdie does not know who she really is. She constantly 'reinvents the self,' but as the novel ends with 'just a blur of yellow and black in motion' (Senna 412), she never finds her self and has no real identity.
Confusion, illusion, and reality among others combine to create the broken mosaic that is Birdie Lee. As she tries to overcome the adversities of race, she falls deeper into the racial chains that continue to hold her back from realizing equality. Foreign even to herself, Birdie faces a tension between herself as the original Birdie and the new Jesse throughout the novel of Caucasia. In doing so, however, she never regains her own sense of self because she truly never had a sense of self as she always looked to others, like Cole and Mona, to define her self. Constantly floating above herself, she sees that she is hiding from her true self. She, however, does not want to be herself. Birdie's Aunt Dot even tells Birdie that 'Then there's invisible color'that color rising above you. It's the color of your soul, and it rests just beyond the skin' (Senna 321). Finding out that her soul is black, she still wants to be 'black like someone else' (Senna 321). Never relenting from this 'other,' 'someone else,' or even as her own self-judge, she will forever remain an unidentifiable object that is a 'blur of yellow and black in motion' running away from the reality of her self.
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