In Interracial Family's Story, A Nation's Past

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
By Danzy Senna
Hardcover, 208 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $23.00

Read An Excerpt.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna examines her parent's interracial marriage in Where Did You Sleep Last Night? hide caption

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How can one tell the story of a difficult upbringing without lapsing into anger or self-pity? In her memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, two-time novelist Danzy Senna provides a moving example of how not to place blame but to use the past to illuminate the complexities of the present. An uncompromising examination of her parent's interracial marriage and the murky familial origins of her father, Senna's third work is less a moody j'accuse than a gripping detective story, one in which the author travels from New England to New York to the Deep South, following the trail of her father's upbringing in a quixotic effort to understand her own.

In 1968, black Beacon Press editor Carl Senna married Boston Brahmin poet Fanny Quincy Howe, their union not only an expression of love but a self-conscious political act "steeped," Senna writes, "from the start in symbolism." Carl, a rising intellectual, was the son of a black jazz piano player and Mexican boxer. Howe, a talented writer, counted among her many illustrious relations the founder of the Atlantic Monthly and a notorious slave trader. Raising their three children in "hardscrabble bohemian chaos" amid multiethnic literati, Carl and Fanny would remake the world simply by existing.

But these parents were "an interracial couple out of a dream," Senna explains. In solemn meditative sketches, she details her parents' brief marriage, a welter of raging fights and physical abuse. (Howe sought an order of protection before their divorce.) Howe raised the children on welfare, sometimes sending them as emissaries to ask their mostly drunk, late or AWOL father for money. When Danzy publishes her first novel, Caucasia, her father calls not to congratulate but to demand a loan.

Setting this abject failure up against her current happily married life in L.A., where she is raising her son in a building that is "multicultural to the point of absurdity," Senna returns to her parents' history to see where things went wrong. But while the written history of the Howes is available at any library, Carl's past is a dead end. In uncovering a clearer picture of this one man, his daughter finds a larger metaphor for how slavery erased the history of half a nation. "The different parts of my family, when I really look at them," Senna writes, "seem not segregated at all, but rather interlocking pieces of the same incomplete puzzle."

The story of her unhappy family, she realizes, is also the story of a nation, one equally fractured but full of possibility.

Excerpt: 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
By Danzy Senna
Hardcover, 208 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $23.00

My husband has rented a Volvo for our Christmas holiday in Martha's Vineyard. He rented a Volvo to please me, and I think, as I sit on its heated leather seat beside him, that it's the kindest thing anybody has ever done for me. He remembered something I said to him a long time ago, a fantasy I described to him before I even got pregnant—a silly fantasy I had of us driving up to my mother's house in a Volvo station wagon with a baby in our backseat. In my fantasy it was summer, and it is winter here now—the island is emptied out, barren, like a photographic negative of itself—but it doesn't matter, because I am in a silver Volvo with my husband beside me and our baby is cooing in the backseat and I feel like I'm in the car commercial of my dreams as we wind along the country road toward my mother's house. My brother and my sister and their children are all there. We will have a rare reunion with the newest generation of cousins together for the first time. I can almost hear the soundtrack that accompanies us as we drive along State Road, can almost hear the voice-over describing the car's virtues.

I've been susceptible to car commercial fantasies ever since I was small. Car commercials and sitcoms and movie families have embedded themselves under my skin. I used to whine and plead with my eccentric mother, "Why can't you be a real mother?" Real to me was what I saw on TV. And right now, from where I sit in this Volvo, it feels like maybe I've made it, I'm finally there, living inside the car commercial, not on the outside anymore.

Volvos have a particularly special place in my imagination. They were the cars driven by the fathers I never had—fathers with sensible shoes and kind eyes who loved their daughters, preparing them for a life of loving men who loved them back. As we drive toward our destination, it does cross my mind that my husband looks not like those white dads of my youth but rather like my own father, the same copper skin tone, the same soft black curls, the same vaguely mixed features. And so perhaps I've rewritten history by making a black man who looks like my father drive a Volvo.

It's raining when we arrive at my mother's house on the West Tisbury–Chilmark border. It's a classic Cape Cod house, the kind with weathered brown shingles and white window boxes. Tonight the windows glow yellow. I can just make out the edge of a lit Christmas tree inside. It looks like a gingerbread cottage under the rain-darkened sky. It looks like a house from a dream or a fairy tale, like a place where nothing bad can happen.

But as we pull into the driveway, something interrupts my reverie: my three-year-old nephew comes running around the side of the house with his hair soaking wet, naked from the waist down, in a T-shirt and a pair of mud-drenched socks. He's laughing and screaming, and my mother is on his heels. She looks wild herself, with a blue bruise on her chin and her blond hair wild and tangled around her face. Through the windshield I watch as she grabs him and tries to drag him back inside the house. The child flails and tries to break free, his face alight with taunting laughter.

For a moment I had forgotten how mad my family is—all of them—how far from a car commercial we really are.

The Volvo's engine is still running, and we watch my nephew break loose from my mother's arms and run off screaming naked through the rain, and my mother seems to finally see us parked there in front of her. She wipes wet hair out of her face and gives us a weary smile.

"You can turn off the engine now," I say to my husband, who is still sitting inside the car, his hand frozen on the key, staring out at the rain.

. . .

We have our Christmas Eve dinner in the clutter of my mother's house. She and my brother have pushed a series of small tables together so that it has the feeling of a long line of child's tables rather than one adult one. My cousin Rebecca and her husband Jeff and their daughter Iris have come from New York City. They are white and Jewish and add to the feeling that none of the parts fit together.

My sister's three children are half Pakistani, and they all live in England. My brother is married to a woman who is half Chinese and half white, and they have a nine-month-old daughter named Xing. My father is there too. He showed up at the crack of dawn this morning, without warning, after a thirty-sixhour bus trip from Canada, wearing a rumpled suit. My sister glanced out the window to see him meandering across the lawn, like the ghost of Christmas past, like Lov Bensey of Tobacco Road, who walks seven miles home eating a raw winter turnip. Tomorrow, his long-lost sister, Carla, the secret child of his black mother and the Irish priest, will show up on the island with her Indian girlfriend. They too are part of this picture now.

That night my father and my mother sit at one table like husband and wife, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. All of the children are sick with the flu, and they take turns sticking their germy fingers in the baby Xing's mouth. My father cuts the chicken and serves tiny portions to the hungry guests. There really isn't enough food for this many people, and so we each eat a dollhouse version of a meal: on each plate a few peas, a teaspoon of mashed potatoes, a single cut of chicken, a paper-thin slice of beet. Nobody has dared to mention that there isn't enough food except one of the children, who screams, "I'm still hungry!" while the rest of us smile and nod and cut the tiny bits of food into even tinier pieces, trying to make it last the length of a normal meal.

A few years ago, in this same house, a white man tried to break in during the night. I awoke to my mongrel dog barking and the sound of somebody trying to remove the screen from the window. He was an island drifter who had developed an obsession with me based on our small interactions at the corner store, where our dogs would play together. Now, seated here, I imagine somebody, maybe that intruder, staring in at us all. I wonder what the person on the outside would make of this motley group—if they would see a table of strangers, or if they would know, from the way we interact, from the invisible history that echoes through our every interaction, that we are family, that we have known each other for a long, long time, that we have always been linked.

Some of us are linked by blood and are only now just meeting. Others are linked through the pain as much as the joy we've brought one another. There is history at this table. My mother has a bruise on her chin from the three-year-old's head butt. It is a fresh mark, but I can't look at it without remembering the ancient, now faded bruises my father inflicted on her face and body once upon a time with his fist. There are reverberations here in this room. My sister and I barely speak. We have hurt each other too. My brother and his wife hide in the bedroom, enraged at my mother and sister for letting the other children infect Xing, their baby. My infant son stares around the table with the biggest, blackest eyes I've ever seen on a child, his plump lower lip falling out, adding to the aura of bewilderment on his face. My cousin's daughter—the Jewish one with the bright red hair—is only eleven but has recently declared herself a lesbian. She is dressed in drag today, the way she dresses every day, hoping to confuse strangers into calling her "sir," as the waiter did at her eleventh birthday dinner, to which she wore a suit. Her father jokes around and says she is the son he never had. She is a child out of a Woody Allen movie, all sardonic and alienated and wisecracking. She has written a novel and wants me to blurb it. My sister's children, the Pakistani-English cousins, seem quaint, old-fashioned in comparison, like characters from one of the Noddy books we used to read as children.

In this spirit, perhaps, the English-Pakistani cousins have brought from across the ocean a Golliwog doll—coal-black face, white bug eyes, red felt smile, a snappy pinstriped suit. They present it to their cousin Xing as a gift. My brother loves it and says, "Anybody who finds him offensive can get the fuck out!" My sister informs us all that the term wog is not so offensive as it seems. She says the letters stand for Westernized Oriental Gentleman. Somebody has propped the Wog on top of the Christmas tree in lieu of a northern star. I look at the racist caricature strung up in the tree and think it's a kind of inverse of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." The multiracial family has lynched a Golliwog tonight, put him in his place. My sister's three children, three Westernized Oriental gentle boys and girl, sit together beneath this tree shaking presents and trying to guess the contents. A palpable excitement is building among the Jewish and Muslim brethren of our clan on this most Christian of holidays. As dessert is served—the only part of the meal during which we actually have enough for everybody—the three-year-old runs across the room and does a flying leap into the pile of presents. We all wince at the sound of breaking valuables, crunching boxes, ripping wrapping paper, destroyed gifts. My mother rushes toward the child, where he lies on the heap, flailing his legs and laughing maniacally, and drags him into another room for a time-out. My sister, disapproving but not rising from her seat, sighs and rolls her eyes and says to nobody in particular: "My mother just loves to discipline my children."

Despite these craggy moments, or perhaps because of them, I have the sense as we sit together that maybe this dinner is a victory—a sign that we have survived the terrible blows we have inflicted upon one another, that we have wrestled history itself, in all of its brutality and all its deceptions, to the ground. I imagine there is a sign above the table reading, "Anybody who finds this offensive can get the fuck out." Tonight this awkward, meager meal is a victory so subtle, you might just miss it if you weren't looking.

Excerpted from WHERE DID YOU SLEEP LAST NIGHT? by Danzy Senna, published May 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Danzy Senna. All rights reserved.

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