Writers and Company

Danzy Senna's darkly comic take on racial identity

The American novelist draws on her experience growing up in an interracial family in her edgy, prize-winning fiction. Her latest novel is New People.
Danzy Senna's novel New People follows graduate student Maria through bohemian Brooklyn in the 1990s as she wrestles with her identity and her future. (Mara Casey)

American novelist Danzy Senna draws on her experience growing up in an interracial family in her edgy, prize-winning fiction. In her latest novel, New People, she writes with insight and subversive humour about what it means to be half-black and half-white. 

Senna was born in Boston in 1970 to parents from very different worlds, who wed a year after interracial marriage became legal. Her mother, the poet and novelist Fanny Howe, came from a privileged background, with English/Irish family roots going back to the Mayflower. Her father, the African-American editor and academic Carl Senna, grew up in poverty in the South, the son of an orphaned black mother and absent Mexican father. In her 2009 memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History, Senna traces her father's family story and her own complicated upbringing following her parents' breakup when she was five years old. Raised with an acute black consciousness, during a time when, as Senna describes it, "'mixed' wasn't an option; you were either black or white," she brings to all her writing an awareness — and astute analysis — of class, race and identity. 

1990s Brooklyn — a thinking space

"I moved to Brooklyn right after college and lived in this amazing hub of black artists and writers. It was a kind of gentrification, but it wasn't racially noticeable — a lot of the people that moved there were college-educated, creatively-minded black people moving to a working-class black neighbourhood. I jokingly call it the 'dreadlocked elite' because we were all wearing signifiers of our black pride and we were coming out of colleges where we were steeped in identity politics. 

"There was a real diversity of blackness and a real conversation about what blackness was. I studied the Harlem Renaissance in college and Brooklyn had this feeling of the Brooklyn renaissance because there was a critical mass of people writing and creating art around questions that were in conversation with each other. I lived in a 10-block radius where a lot of these amazing people lived — Spike Lee's production studio was on one end of my block and there was a café owned by Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker on the other end. I wanted to pay homage to that in New People." 

Blood ties

"Historically, in the United States, if you had one drop of black blood, you were defined as black. You had various names for people who looked as white as their master, but they were defined as black. I didn't grow up identifying as black because of that — for me it was more about pride, culture and my parents' politics. But Maria, like me, walks into a room and people don't see that she's black. She deals with that as a conflict more than just the fact of being mixed. If you pass as white in the world but know yourself not to be white, you're privy to all those uncensored comments about black people that other black people sort of in liberal circles are shielded from. You're constantly aware of this kind of mask falling away.

New people?   

"America has been mixed from the very beginning, it was just a secretive and problematic power dynamic involved in those mixtures. My parents were born around the time the courts decided to outlaw anti-miscegenation laws; I was born out of the civil rights movement — my father's black and my mother's white. The friends I made in college and even before college were this baby boom of biracial children born out of the civil rights movement and the shifts in the culture toward integration. We were finally allowed to exist as a legitimized family unit. 

"I always said I don't want to write sentimentally about race. When I was in Brooklyn during the 1990s, there were a lot of articles and documentaries where people were suddenly saying, 'There are all these biracial people and maybe we've solved the problem of racism through this new race of people.' There was this kind of naive optimism about us, and I wanted to poke fun at that but also celebrate it. I found this character for the novel who was deeply cynical and comic in her abrasiveness around race. The irony of calling biracial people 'new people' is not lost on Maria." 

Haunted by history     

"Each era defines mixed race differently — in the past we were considered this doomed figure. But in this fetishizing of biracial people, I have felt haunted by the way that it erases all of your sadness, all of your ambivalence and those historical tragedies that we'll never find redemption from. I'm really interested in not writing the sort of work that denies us access to that self. I was interested in the ways the propaganda of racial progress, harmony and racial mixture — as a kind of balm to heal history — fails. There are so many ways that we're all haunted by history. We are always living in a haunted house in America and that will never fully go away, if we're honest with ourselves."

Danzy Senna's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: A Re-Occurring Dream by the Chicago Underground Quartet.