Her Father's People

Antonin Kratochvil

For years, Danzy Senna thoughtfully explored issues of race and identity in fiction, including her novels Caucasia and Symptomatic. And then one day the author, walking through Harvard Square, found herself surrounded by signs, buildings and businesses bearing the names and images of Boston’s most prominent families. DeWolfe, Quincy, Howe—they were names of Senna’s forebears via her mother, poet and professor Fanny Howe.

The display reminded Senna, ’92, how much she had always known about her mother’s people—and how little she knew about her father’s. In 1968, Carl Senna, soon to become the youngest editor at Beacon Press, and Fanny Howe married—a commitment that was headily symbolic (personal but also political) in that Carl was black and from Southern poverty, while Fanny, ’62, was white and raised with Mayflower privilege. Their wedding photograph, Danzy Senna writes, showed “the ‘Negro of exceptional promise’ taking the hand of the descendant of slave traders.”

As Senna contemplated those names in Boston, she thought, “What about my father’s side?” After all, “he gave me both my first and last names. Yet I knew so little about him.” So begins her nonfiction book, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which seeks to bring some balance to her family history, and to a larger narrative that reflexively puts whites at the center of the American story and blacks at the margins.

Senna says she did a lot of growing up in the five years it took her to write the book. Single and living on the East Coast when she began, today she is married to novelist Percival Everett, the mother of two sons, and settled four years in Los Angeles, a city about as far away from the blueblood obsessions of Boston as it’s possible to get.

With her father as her guide, Senna made forays into the Deep South and met relatives she never knew existed, unearthing a story that was as illuminating as it was inconclusive. “People tend to devalue black history and culture, which is why my father never told me about himself,” she says. “He was a political activist and writer and intellectual. But he didn’t value his own personal history.”

Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is at once small-scale and big-picture. Senna plumbs the childhood anger and sorrow she felt over her parents’ famously bitter divorce in 1976 and her alcoholic father’s intense but erratic presence in her life; she empathizes with her accomplished grandmother’s struggle to overcome poverty and invisibility in a Jim Crow society. “This is the hardest thing I ever had to write, because I knew it would upset people,” Senna says. “When you write a memoir, you have to accept the fact that you might lose somebody for good.”

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Senna has more, not less, extended family than she did before, and feels better armed against the forces of racial oppression and obsession that would undermine her sons. Learning details about her father’s black lineage has grounded Senna. The different parts of her heritage, she writes, “seem not segregated at all, but rather interlocking pieces of the same incomplete puzzle.”

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times.