Go South, Young Woman

Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History
By Danzy Senna.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.

Not often, but sometimes, with great, reverberative force, the flip book of history will do a turnabout, taking people in a new direction to the self. A lot of that has been occurring for African-Americans in recent years, with a kind of pilgrimage south—rather than the frightened flights north of fugitive slaves, the brilliant escapes of Douglass or Tubman, the city-bound exoduses hurdling the Mason-Dixon Line—becoming a means to the hopeful end of understanding and accepting roots rejected, forgotten and dismissed. Younger writers, especially, those pesky searchers into what happened and where it came from, have been making the trek. Counterintuitively for anyone who might prefer to relegate the American compass’ downward arrow to shameful relic, they discover an ineluctable continuum between Southern past and a present elsewhere. Add Danzy Senna to the list. 

Ms. Senna comes closest on the heels, in many ways, of Bliss Broyard, who blurbs this book. Both are the daughters of white mothers and “mixed” fathers; Ms. Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets told her story of growing up not knowing that her dapper dad, the well-known New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, was black.

Ms. Senna’s father’s blackness, on the other hand, and her fair-skinned own, was drummed into her from the beginning, trumping her mother’s illustrious, if ambivalent, descent from New England aristocracy—the Quincys, Howes and DeWolfes of old-line Massachusetts. Doubly suspect for her “blue eyes” and “blueblood,” she was the writer, editor and activist Fanny Howe. Yet no less than Ms. Broyard, Ms. Senna, in the process of detection that became Where Did You Sleep Last Night, had to recognize how mistaken—and misled—she had been. That can even be said of the subtitle she has given this memoir. Unlike her first, autobiographical novel, Caucasia—and her second, a lesser fiction, Symptomatic—the “personal history” turns out to be more Carl Francisco Senna’s, her father’s, than her individual reckoning.

But just because she is in daughter mode doesn’t mean she is writing from, let alone for, a child’s perspective. Inconceivable as it may seem, Caucasia, of which this is a truer, more factual version, was once categorized as YA fiction. But wait. Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Sag Harbor, published this spring as the “post-black” summer-read anno Obama? Following a Q&A at a reading, the blogosphere got hold of the question of whether this literary major leaguer’s strenuously anticipated remembrance of things adolescent should be shelved in the children’s section. Adulthood is apparently still in the eye of racial preconceptions. This book should offer a lasting corrective.

 

THE POIGNANT PART is that Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is, among other things, a very mature meditation on orphanhood. Ms. Senna traces the story of her father—also a writer, a teacher, an alcoholic only recently in recovery, an abusive husband and parent, a politically and personally angry black man, a sponger—back to his unexamined roots as a foster-care enigma in a Creole, Jim Crow South. His abandonment and its mysterious circumstances, she learns as she travels from New Orleans to back-bayou Louisiana and up through Alabama, wasn’t limited to his particular boyhood. Unreliable, ambiguous upbringings had happened to both his parents—whoever, as we wonder along with Ms. Senna, they may have been—and to theirs before them.

Ms. Senna has fictionally and now memoiristically chronicled biracialism, her “white” looks as opposed to her two siblings’ “blacker” ones, her dilemmas about identity and belonging, her fear of setting herself apart, also start to claim a descent from this truncated relatedness. She is relieved, and jealous, to discover that this was remedied for her father in his childhood by what she hails as his black community’s improvisation of extended, circumstantial, multi-ethnic families. It helps her jettison, in her view, one of her father’s many crutches—his harping on slavery’s destruction of black familial bonds—along with the mythic elements of the elusive Mexican boxer he claims fathered him. From her first furious page, she can allow him to emerge the disillusioning, mean, boozy, manic, tardy opposite of the father she portrayed in Caucasia (her mother bore the brunt in that book). After soft-pedaling it in fiction, Kathryn Harrison sealed her father’s reputation with The Kiss. Ms. Senna’s memoir is almost as perverse an embrace. It brings not closure but the need for further exploration, perhaps some form of healing for the woundedness Ms. Senna continues to feel.

Go South, Young Woman