42 pages 1 hour read

Danzy Senna


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Danzy Senna’s debut coming-of-age novel Caucasia (1998) takes place in Boston, Massachusetts during the tumultuous Black Power Movement of the 1970s. It is the story of two mixed-race sisters, Birdie and Cole Lee, who have an African-American father and a white mother. In the beginning of the novel, Birdie tries to gain acceptance as black to fit in with her social circle and her family’s politics, but when she and her mother go on the run, she must change her name and pass as white. The novel is in three parts, and features 17 titled chapters. This guide numbers each section and chapter for clarity and refers to these numbers throughout.

Caucasia won numerous awards, including the Stephen Crane Award for Best New Fiction, the American Library Association’s Alex Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and The Los Angeles Times named it one of the Best Books of the Year. Danzy Senna is the author of three novels, a memoir, and a collection of short stories. All of her work deals with the experience of being mixed-race in America.

Plot Summary

Caucasia’s protagonist is Birdie Lee, an adolescent mixed-race girl from Boston who lives with her black father Deck, her white mother Sandy, and her sister Cole, who is three years older than Birdie. The novel begins in 1975 and spans Birdie’s life from age eight to 14, ending in 1982. Birdie narrates the novel in first-person past tense. Most of the story’s conflicts stem from Birdie’s white appearance. Her sister takes after their father and has African-American features, while Birdie inherited her mother’s light skin, European features and straight hair. They look so different that people do not usually realize they are sisters.

The novel begins with a short introduction that foreshadows Birdie’s racial identity crisis. The first chapter describes Birdie’s close relationship with her older sister Cole, who she sees as a reflection of herself. The sisters develop a language called Elemeno that only they can understand. As Birdie gets older, she becomes aware of her parents’ political activities. Her mother holds secret meetings in their basement, and her father gives his daughters lessons in Afrocentrism. Torn by personal and racial strife, Birdie’s parents soon separate. Her father moves out, and the girls continue to live with their mother. Birdie’s aunt Dot, who serves as a black female role model, moves to India early in the narrative, leaving Birdie with little connection to the African-American side of her family.

Sandy enrolls Birdie and Cole in an all-black private school called Nkrumah. Even though Sandy is white, she wants her mixed-race daughters to maintain their sense of black identity. Birdie has a difficult time fitting in because her classmates think she is white, but they easily accept Cole, who has darker skin and curly hair. Birdie tries hard to fit in and soon becomes part of the popular group. Part 1 of the novel, “negritude for beginners,” provides the basis for Birdie’s dilemma and the personal crises that follow.

The first major plot point occurs near the end of Part 1, when Birdie’s parents decide that Sandy’s activity in the Black Power Movement has put them at risk for arrest by the FBI. The FBI arrests many of their friends, and the parents want to avoid the same fate. To Birdie’s horror, she realizes that they have arranged for Deck and his new girlfriend Carmen to take Cole to Brazil because they will blend in there, while Birdie will go on the run with Sandy because she looks white. They tell Birdie that the FBI is looking for a white woman with a black daughter, so Cole’s looks would give them away. Deck, Carmen, and Cole look like a black family and would not arouse suspicion in Brazil. Birdie can pass for white, so she and her mother can change their names and fly under the radar in the US.

In Part 2, “from caucasia, with love,” Birdie spends six years on the run with her mother, who grows increasingly paranoid and unstable. They have adopted the identities of Sheila and Jesse Goldman. Sheila is a young widow whose husband, David Goldman, was Jewish. Jesse’s dark hair and ethnic features come from her Jewish side. These years are difficult for Birdie because just as she had become comfortable with her identity as a black girl, she must not only adopt a false identity now but live as white. This change has serious psychological consequences. The country is racially divided, and Birdie does not want to identify with the group responsible for racial discrimination and violence. She feels that she is betraying her family and herself. Emotionally, Birdie cannot stand separation from Cole and feels like she has lost a part of herself.

After four years of staying in motels, their van, and a women’s commune, Birdie and her mother settle in New Hampshire as Jesse and Sheila Goldman. They move into a cottage on the property of a wealthy Wasp family, the Marshes. The Marshes accept Sandy because she seems to come from a blue-blood Boston family, despite her bohemian appearance. They live in a white rural area, and Birdie faces the difficult task of adjusting to her new identity as Jesse the half-Jewish white girl. She ignores her classmates’ racism because she cannot risk giving herself—and her mother—away. Part 2 emphasizes the novel’s themes of racial passing and Birdie’s feeling of invisibility. Birdie is becoming the “tragic mulatto,” who must choose between being black or white but can never truly be either.

After living as Jesse Goldman for two years, Birdie becomes unsure of who she really is. Just as her psychological and emotional stress are coming to a head, she finds a postcard to her mother from her aunt Dot, which reveals that Dot has been in contact with her father. Meanwhile, without Birdie’s knowledge, her mother has told Jim Campbell, the man she is dating, about their real identities. Birdie feels deeply betrayed because for six years her mother taught her never to trust anyone. The stresses Birdie faces at the end of this section lead to the novel’s climax in Part 3, when she runs away from New Hampshire to find her father and sister.

At the beginning of Part 3, “compared to what,” Birdie returns to Boston to get information about her father and sister. Birdie believes they are still in Brazil, but she knows they have contacted Dot. Dot is shocked when Birdie appears on her doorstep. She can see that Birdie is desperate but does not have any more information about Deck and Cole. Birdie reconnects with her boyfriend from Nkrumah, Ali, whose father, Ronnie Parkman, was Deck’s best friend. Ronnie tells Birdie that Deck only stayed in Brazil for two years and returned to the US in 1977, meaning that he has been in the country for the last four years. Birdie is upset that neither he nor Cole tried to find her. Ronnie gives Birdie her father’s address in the Bay Area, and with financial help from her wealthy white grandmother, Penelope Lodge, Birdie flies to California.

She finds her father’s address in Oakland and finding no one home, climbs through his open window. When Deck arrives, he is emotionally distant and fills her in on his new racial theories. He gives Birdie Cole’s address, which is only a few blocks away. After nearly seven years, Birdie reunites with her sister. She decides to stay in Berkeley and go to high school. She notices that Berkeley is racially diverse, and mixed-race people are not a rarity. She can now move forward with her life and no longer has to pretend to be someone else to fit in.

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