Caucasia Summary

Danzy Senna


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Caucasia Summary

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Caucasia was a debut novel that was first published in 1998. Senna’s narrative centers around a young girl named Birdie Lee, and takes place during the 1970s and 1980s, in Boston. The novel ultimately addresses themes of race, identity, family, and love. It was well received for its candid views on these subjects, and continues to inspire debate, as well as action, with its timeless message of identity and self-worth.

Birdie Lee is a young girl whose father, Deck, is black, while her mother, Sandy, is white. This dichotomy sets up much of the tension in the novel. Other marked differences soon make themselves known in the narrative as well. For one, Birdie’s father is an intellectual. It is revealed that he has managed to rise from oppressive circumstances to get to where he now is. Now, however, he is consumed with ideals concerning the roots of racism, as well as its effect on people like him. Standing in contrast to this, Birdie’s white mother comes from wealthy, blue-blooded stock, but has become revolutionary in her thinking. As such, she favors actual action over mere theories and her husband’s non-action approach to racism.

Birdie’s life is further segmented by the reality of skin tone, especially with her sister. Birdie’s sister Cole has dark skin, thus casting her as more “authentic” as a black person, while Birdie’s skin is light. This difference in tone aligns Birdie more with her mother, and will cause much turmoil later on in the novel. Yet the difference in skin goes unnoticed by the two sisters, at least in the beginning. Before they are made aware of their differences by their parents and their peers, they play together unworried by the difference, even making up a language to communicate with one another. The made-up language will continue to be used by the sisters throughout the novel.

Cole and Birdie are initially homeschooled by their mother. When they first begin public schooling, however, their difference is hit home almost immediately. Cole finds it easy to make friends at school as her dark skin allows her to blend in with the other students. Likewise, the other students think her “authentic” due to her skin tone. As Birdie’s skin is lighter, however, she must work harder than Cole to make friends as her classmates genuinely doubt that she is black.

Due to the differences in thought, Birdie’s parents eventually come to despise one another. Neither can accept the other as authentic due to their respective stances on racism and action. For Sandy, Deck simply talks but never does anything about racism, while Deck thinks Sandy’s revolutionary leanings are both dangerous and out-of-touch with reality. This divide causes the marriage to break apart dramatically, and both Birdie and Cole must choose a side. Their choice is ultimately based on racial identity, of which their skin tone is a defining factor.

When Birdie finds herself living with her mother, she begins to feel that she is taking on a false identity just to appease Sandy. This identity also forces her to live away from her own father and sister, which further isolates Birdie from her world. In the end, Birdie decides to break with her mother’s way of thinking and seek out her father and sister, thus accepting a different way of viewing race and identity, as well as reminding herself of who she is and what genuinely matters to her.

Caucasia is a powerful novel about coming-of-age, and dealing with differences both in family and social life. Birdie must form an identity that is true to her ideals of selfhood. She must do this daunting task while growing up in a culture that has its own prejudices for people of lighter skin tones, as well as in a family culture where individuals are pitted against one another based on belief and skin tone as well. Birdie comes to realize that family is important, no matter the skin tone, and that living solely for others, or living based on concepts that other people expect one to live for, is lifeless and banal. In the end, defining one’s own sense of identity and worth is far more rewarding, and far more authentic.