Danzy Senna’s New Black Woman (From The New Yorker)

In Danzy Senna’s latest novel, “New People,” the ugliness of segregation has given way to a class of upwardly mobile light-skinned black people.

Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo

In an essay published in
2006
,
the novelist Paul Beatty recalled the first book he’d ever read by a
black author. When the Los Angeles Unified School Board—“out of the
graciousness of its repressive little heart”—sent him a copy of Maya
Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” he made it through a few
“maudlin” pages before he grew suspicious, he wrote. “I knew why they
put a mirror in the parakeet’s cage: so he could wallow in his own
misery.” Observing that the “defining characteristic of the
African-American writer is sobriety,” Beatty described his own path
toward a black literary insobriety, one that would lead to the satirical
style of his novels “White Boy Shuffle” and “The Sellout.” Along the
way, he discovered a select canon of literary black satire, including
Zora Neale Hurston’s freewheeling story “The Book of Harlem” and Cecil
Brown’s “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass
Nigger
.”

Danzy Senna, Beatty’s friend and fellow novelist, makes an appearance in
that essay, smiling “wistfully” as she shows him “the cover of Fran
Ross’s hilarious 1974 novel, ‘Oreo.’” As Senna later wrote in the
foreword to the novel’s reissue
,
“Oreo,” about a biracial girl searching for her itinerant white father,
manages to probe “the idea of falling from racial grace” while avoiding
“mulatto sentimentalism.” Since her 1998 début novel, “Caucasia,” a
stark story about two biracial sisters, Senna, like Ross before her, has
developed her own kind of insobriety, one focussed on comically
eviscerating the archetype of the “tragic mulatto”—that
nineteenth-century invention who experiences an emotional anguish rooted
in her warring, mixed bloods. Both beautiful and wretched, the mulatto
was intended to arouse sympathy in white readers, who had magnificent
difficulty relating to black people in literature (to say nothing of
life). Senna, the daughter of the white Boston poet Fanny Howe and the
black editor Carl Senna, grew up a member of the nineties Fort Greene
“dreadlocked élite”; her light-skinned black characters, who dodge the
constraints of post-segregation America, provide an excuse for incisive
social satire. Thrillingly, blackness is not hallowed in Senna’s work,
nor is it impervious to pathologies of ego. Senna particularly enjoys
lampooning the search for racial authenticity. Her characters, and the
clannish worlds they are often trying to escape, teeter on the brink of
ruin and absurdity.

Senna’s latest novel, the slick and highly enjoyable “New
People
,”
makes keen, icy farce of the affectations of the Brooklyn black
faux-bohemia in which Maria, a distracted graduate student, lives with
her fiancé among the new “Niggerati.” Maria and Khalil Mirsky—the
latter’s name a droll amalgamation of his black and white Jewish
parentage—are the “same shade of beige.” At their wedding—to be held on
Martha’s Vineyard, that summer bastion of interracial prosperity—“they
will break a glass (Jewish) and jump the broom (black).” Khalil thinks
he knows why the New York Times gave them a wedding announcement:
“We’re mulatto,” he says to Maria. “Everybody loves mulatto.” The
novel’s title shares its name with a documentary about this new,
post-Loving v. Virginia generation—“born in the late sixties to early
seventies, the progeny of the Renaissance of Interracial Unions”—and the
mawkish hope they inspire in the bourgeois class. “We’re like a Woody
Allen movie, with melanin,” Khalil jokes to the white documentarian.

There is a hyper-specificity to Senna’s satire that occasionally recalls
Dave Chappelle’s barbed “Racial Draft” sketch: the couple’s favorite
song is Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”; their favorite novel is
Giovanni’s Room”; they sing the futurist liberation song “If I Ruled
the World,” by Nas and featuring Lauryn Hill, at Fort Greene house
parties. Khalil, who works in tech, has grown dreads “past Basquiat” but
“not quite Marley.” Maria perms her hair to make it look kinkier. In
fact, most of the characters in the novel are trying to make their
blackness more palpable. Gloria, a militant academic who dies before
completing a thesis on the “triple consciousness of black women,” was
disappointed to discover, months after adopting Maria, that her baby was
light-skinned enough to pass as Jewish, Italian, or “Jewlatto.” In an
extended flashback, we learn that Maria and Khalil met at Stanford
shortly before Khalil underwent a “born-again negritude,” publishing a
column in the school newspaper in which he denounces the “color-blind
humanism” that had left him unprepared for the racism of the world.
Later, when the couple are engaged, Maria’s obsession with “the poet,” a
dark-skinned black man (not one of the “new people”) whom she first sees
at a reading, forms the central plot of the book: a quest for an
unattainable, an uncomplicated blackness.

Maria, Senna’s anti-heroine, is puzzling—seductively so. There are
moments when she resembles the classic mulattress. She is alienated from
her mother, whom she doesn’t resemble. She is a hysteric, experiencing
panics and peculiar lapses in memory. By the time we meet her, in her
late twenties, Maria lives in brownstone Brooklyn—but really she exists
in her own private swoon, easily caught in peripheral drifts, always
running late. In an early episode, on her way to a wedding gown fitting,
a college acquaintance intercepts her and invites her inside what turns
out to be a Church of Scientology. (Naturally, her personality test
reveals her perilous potential.) The scene is dreamlike—mordant at
first, and then increasingly chilling; Maria, it is clear, is too easily
swayed. She finally makes it to the fitting, late. “Five gowns displayed
on mannequin bodies on the opposite side of the room. They stand in a
row, headless, waiting for her to fill them.”

Recently, a new character has emerged in popular culture. Like Issa Rae
of “Insecure,” or the eponymous heroine of “The Incredible Jessica
James,” this modern black woman flaunts her neuroses with style. The
“carefree black girl” is an archetype spawned of the Internet—a woman
who quirkily breaks expectations of how black women ought to behave in
society. As Bim Adewunmi recently wrote of Jessica, “Her race is not at the center of this movie. But the story is structured around this
tall and interesting black woman, and that’s something that is rare and
wonderful.” Listless and dreamy, these women are perfectly imperfect—and
their imperfections are carefully tailored to evoke in their black
viewers a sense of recognition.

There were moments when, reading “New People,” I wondered if Senna had
crafted Maria as a rebuttal to the lure of relatability in black art,
which is itself a new form of sobriety. Just when we think we understand
Maria—as a wayward, Brooklyn twenty-something in search of stability
just like everyone else—she shocks us. Far from being a victim, she is
slightly feral; her crush on the poet, which begins as distraction from
academia-induced agita, slowly becomes a hunt. When, after sitting next
to him at a birthday dinner, she notices that he has left behind his
Pittsburgh Steelers hat, it is almost as if she had willed it. She
sniffs the hat for days, soon concocting a plan to return it to him.

At other moments, she seems sociopathic. So much of “New People” is
about the erosion of feeling. We learn that, as a child at an ice rink,
Maria dropped a skate down a flight of stairs, hitting another skater on
the head. It was an accident, but Maria’s disinterest in admitting any
fault makes her seem vicious. Later, horrifyingly, she shakes a baby “to
surprise her out of her fury, the way men in old movies slap the
hysterical woman across the face.” An early turning point occurs in the
flashback, during Khalil’s activist awakening. Maria, irritated by her
boyfriend’s incipient righteousness, plays a prank by leaving a voice
mail for him in a lowered voice. “We’re gonna string you up by a
dreadlock, man, and light you on fire,” she says.

The campus plotline in Senna’s novel reminded me of a moment in Justin
Simien’s “Dear White
People
,”
a somewhat platitudinal film that also takes on self-serious young
people who are newly, and superficially, occupying their racial
identities. In Simien’s film, the biracial heroine, Sam White, initiates
a campus-wide panic after posing as a member of a campus organization
and sending out an e-mail invitation to a blackface party. The incident
in “New People” similarly escalates: Jesse Jackson comes to their
college, telling the “young brother” to “keep hope alive.” But unlike
Sam White’s prank, which is at least intended to spur her peers to
action—and which she later comes to regret—Maria’s appears meaningless.
Khalil never finds out that it was Maria who left the message, and she
never tells him. Instead, we learn, he makes “slow, solemn revolutionary
love to her.” For Senna, identity, far from being a point of solidarity,
is a beckoning void, and adroit comedy quickly liquefies into absurd
horror.

Video

Jhumpa Lahiri at Work

At her home in Brooklyn, Jhumpa Lahiri chats about writing, and about working on her book "The Lowland."

via The New Yorker http://bit.ly/2FeiWIX

April 5, 2018 at 10:14AM