Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker

By Harrison-Kahan, Lori | MELUS, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker


Harrison-Kahan, Lori, MELUS


Imitation of Life, one of the classic narratives of racial passing, originated as a 1933 novel by Jewish writer Fannie Hurst, but it is perhaps best known as the 1959 melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk. (1) In the sob-inducing finale of the Sirk film, the prodigal black daughter, who has crossed the color line and passed for white, returns home for her mother's funeral, collapsing in tears on the coffin as she blames herself for her mother's death. Despite the progress of racial politics between the publication of Hurst's novel and the release of Sirk's film, whiteness continues to be positioned as the privileged identity, a positioning that the 1959 adaptation successfully critiques. In the film, the light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane Johnson, reviles her blackness as an object of self-hatred from a young age. Given a black doll by her white playmate, Susie, Sarah Jane throws the gift to the floor, crying, "I don't want the black one." The camera seizes upon the image of the rejected doll, foreshadowing the inevitable events to come: Sarah Jane's forsaking of her dark-skinned mother in order to reinvent herself as a white woman. With her story's heartbreaking ending, Sarah Jane becomes yet another tragic mulatta, joining the ranks of mixed race women in American literature and culture who typically meet bitter fates for their transgressions of the color line.

Almost forty years later, however, the narrative of passing does, finally, experience a significant shift. In contrast to most literary and cultural representations of passing, Danzy Senna's 1998 novel, Caucasia, casts blackness as the ideal, desired identity. For protagonist Birdie Lee and her sister, Cole--offspring of a civil rights movement union between their white activist mother and black intellectual father--whiteness simply pales in comparison. In childhood, Birdie and Cole form strong bonds with each other and with their black heritage. Unlike Sarah Jane who discards the black doll as easily and cruelly as she discards her black identity, the two sisters transfer their love for blackness to Golliwog, the black puppet perversely bestowed on the darker sister, Cole, by their white, blueblood grandmother. Although their mother insists that Golliwog with his "perfect black" circular face, hair of "steel wool," and "perpetually mocking smile" is "a racist tool, a parody, a white-supremacist depiction of African people," the sisters embrace his difference, viewing him as "wild, laughing, cool" (98).

By reversing the racial dynamics of more traditional passing narratives such as Imitation of Life, Senna's novel reinvents the theme of passing for a multicultural, post-Civil Rights era to tell the story of a biracial female protagonist who comes of age during the 1970s. Raised to identify as black, the fair-skinned, first-person narrator, Birdie, is educated in her African American heritage at Nkrumah, the black power school she attends in Boston. Acting black does not always come easily to Birdie, who must learn to speak black English, wear her straight hair in tight braids to mask its texture, and accessorize with gold hoops, Sergio Valente Jeans, and Nike sneakers. Once she is initiated into "the art of changing" (62), Birdie is finally able to pass for black, accepted by the most popular girls at school as a member of the Brown Sugar Clique. (2)

Birdie's world is turned upside down when her parents' marriage is unable to survive Black Pride. Sandy and Deck Lee divvy up their daughters according to their color: "cinnamon-skinned, curly-haired" (5) Cole disappears with their father, who goes in search of a racial utopia in Brazil, while Birdie and her paranoid mother go underground, eventually recreating lives for themselves in predominantly white small-town New Hampshire. According to Birdie's mother, the fact that her daughter could pass for white would allow them to elude the FBI, who are on her trail, she presumes, for her involvement with a radical activist group.

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Passing for White, Passing for Jewish: Mixed Race Identity in Danzy Senna and Rebecca Walker
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