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'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' by Danzy Senna

The author's memoir seeks to untangle the complicated past of her mixed-race family and come to terms with the father she barely knows.

June 21, 2009|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

Where Did You Sleep

Last Night?

A Personal History

Danzy Senna

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 200 pp., $23


Danzy Senna is a novelist whose graceful explorations of race and identity in works like "Caucasia" stand in stark contrast to the chaotic experiences that inspired that work. That wasn't supposed to be the case. Senna is the daughter of Carl Senna and Fanny Howe, two gifted writers whose marriage in 1968 shone with a defiant but hopeful symbolism of the age. He was black, she was white; he was an upstart, a figure who emerged from a new, intellectually empowered black class; she came from a prominent Boston family whose roots went back to the Mayflower (and, as it happens, to wealthy slave-traders).

That was the macro, and it was heady stuff. The micro was a very different story. Carl Senna was violent at times, and his divorce from Howe in 1976 was bitter. Among many questions Danzy Senna struggled with was the uneasy one of what her father's race had to do with his volatility -- how the macro drove the micro, how the historical and political might have waylaid the personal. In the introduction to her new memoir, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?," Senna bluntly addresses the question in describing how she felt watching her father devolve over the years from a proud symbol of racial accomplishment into something painfully ordinary: a loser who drank, got fired from his job and once beat her mother in public. "Gone was the 'negro of exceptional promise,' " Senna writes with almost palpable disappointment and some embarrassment, "and in its stead he lived up to all the stereotypes that his fellow Americans had ever secretly or not-so-secretly harbored about black men."

Yet, like lots of children of divorce, Senna loves her father. But she also knows very little about him. She has a kind of epiphany about that fact one day in Cambridge, Mass., as she looks up and sees names and images of her mother's famous family reflected around her in signs and advertisements. Her mother's history, broadly writ as the history of white America, is public, its importance assumed; her father and his people's are virtually invisible. The Cambridge moment prompts Senna to finally attempt to excavate her father's past and to figure out how this visibility gap might have affected her parents' failed marriage.

It's no easy task to weave vast social forces into an individual story of family discovery, but Senna does a mostly admirable job. She's got her work cut out for her. Her father is black, with a caveat or two. His mother, Anna, was black, and his father was an itinerant Mexican boxer who exited Carl's life early. He and his siblings stayed with friends and makeshift families while Anna went off to work and strove to develop her musical talents.

The search turns into a whodunit when Danzy discovers that an Irish priest could actually be her grandfather and that the story of Anna's own parentage is far from clear. One of the more piquant facts of this memoir is that Senna takes her father with her down South as a guide to his history but also as an observer: Carl remembers all the stones and markers, but he doesn't really know what he'll find, either.

Senna sounds a bit out of her element. The prose is brusque and more elemental than it needs to be -- material like this deserves bigger treatment. The best-wrought episode is in a Pentecostal church in Alabama. In a wonderful deadpan, Senna describes how she's made to "fall out" and feel the spirit when she frankly doesn't. "I didn't faint, but I did close my eyes and go limp," she writes, "the way I learned to do in college while I was rehearsing for civil disobedience." It's a moment that captures the sincerity but unexpectedly surreal nature of her quest.

The book's title has multiple meanings, but most broadly it speaks to the uncertainty of black family history, black history as a perpetual question. When Senna meets Ernestine from the Zimmer Home, an orphanage where her father spent some time, Ernestine is thrilled to meet Carl's daughter. Yet she has no real idea about his origins. "There were a lot of mixed kids in the home," she writes, "because at that time mixed kids just happened, the evidence of secret lives that nobody wanted to acknowledge, so the parents got rid of the kids." Vague information and dislocation have long been a part of life for blacks, and the American directive of self-discovery -- which Danzy is following -- often feels beside the point.

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