Review: Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Akin to One’s Skin

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, by Danzy Senna, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009, 224p, $23 cloth.

What does it mean to “be known,” to be recognized? Does this sentiment have a purely existential dimension? Or is this quest for recognition and identity also grounded in social construction? These questions and overarching suppositions about the formation of a racialized identity, particularly the representation of a biracial identity, provide the tour-de-force issues that Danzy Senna grapples with in her memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History. In fact, the underpinning theme of this memoir, the elusiveness of identity, is introduced in one bold stroke by her father—the protagonist of her memoir—when he asks her repeatedly: “Don’t you know who I am?”

What she does know is this: in 1968 her mother, Fanny Howe—a Stanford dropout, Civil Rights activist, and a descendent of eminent Bostonian families, the Quincys and De Wolfe Howes—exchanged wedding vows with her father, Carl Francisco José Senna, a promising writer, a son of the Deep South, and the son of a single black mother and an absentee Mexican father. Her parents’ interracial marriage was a symbol of both the hope and the promise of racial equality, conveying their idealistic conviction that the established fault lines of race in America could be disrupted by racial integration. This utopianism and the optimism of the 1960s civil rights era manifests itself in their marriage, placing an unbearable burden on their tenuous union, a marriage resistant to yet mired in the United States’ racialized history.

Senna, confounded by this promise and the subsequent disintegration of her parent’s marriage, confides that her own memories of her parents’ troubled, volatile marriage do not remotely resemble the romanticized reportage of a 1969 Boston Sunday Globe profile of her mother. In recognition of her mother’s first published novel, Forty Whacks, the Globe published “A Dropout Rejoins the Family of Writers.” Looking from the vantage point of historical posterity, Senna rejects the Globe reporter’s glowing assessment of her parent’s creative conjugal coexistence. According to the article: ”She [Fanny Howe] is concerned, but not overwhelmed by the problems of bringing up children of their mixed racial marriage.” Senna, dismayed by the mythologizing of her parents’ marriage, retorts some forty years later: “[t]hese are glittery, hopeful people—an interracial couple out of a dream. They are not the same people I met when I came into the world one year later.”

Rather than dwell on her own misgivings about her parents’ marriage and the privilege of her mother’s pedigreed family, the “long-tailed Bostonians,” these narratives remain peripheral, a foil to the unfolding of her personal history. In her direct and credible first-person narration, Senna states that this memoir will focus on restoring and reclaiming her father’s family, the Franklins, and in particular her late grandmother Anna Franklin. As she tells readers, “ . . . it was the absent story that I hungered to find—that is, my father’s family story, and through it to find my father himself, he who seemed to have had no tail, or tale, at all.” With these words, Senna’s purpose becomes clear. She plans to reconstruct history, to make visible the shadowed story of her father’s family—a family that through her memoir will move from margin to center and in turn, help to explain the breakup of her parents’ marriage.

The Franklins’ story unravels slowly, sporadically, in jagged fragments—pieces of mismatched jigsaw puzzles. The unfolding and serpentine narrative provides clues to the mystery of Carl Senna. Her father, although absent from her childhood, is nonetheless a larger-than-life, near mythological figure. There is no pretense of objectivity in her assessment of her father, no exoneration of his behavior as she writes that he is “ a walking, talking contradiction.” To illuminate these inconsistencies, she creates a list of descriptors: “Intellectual. Alcoholic. Wanderer. Race-man. Con artist. Member, briefly, of the Communist Party. Capitalist. Exile. Chameleon.”

Senna, seeking biological and genetic reassurances, peruses the genealogical records at her disposal. What she finds are discrepancies, clues into the fragmented truths, myths perpetuated by her grandmother. According to her father’s baptismal certificate, his father is listed as Carl Francis Franklyn, not Carl Francisco José Senna. The priest who presided over the baptisms of all three of Anna Franklin’s children was Father Francis E. Ryan. And this isn’t the only discrepancy that Senna finds. Anna, who Senna affectionately calls Nana, was “the source of color—the otherness—that would be watered down with each subsequent generation.” Racial markers, or lack thereof, were a source of anxiety amongst Anna’s children. Their racial identity was circumspect. As Senna shares, questions ensued: “How to explain the color difference? She was a deep dark brown verging on black—yet her children were the light copper color of pennies,” with Anna’s explanation being that their father was “white Mexican.” Or was it that their father was white, an Irish-American priest?

Senna’s father, in one of his alcoholic hazes years earlier, had confided in her. He insisted that his mother had had an affair with an Irish-American priest when he was a child. For her part, Senna admits her skepticism, protective of her grandmother’s reputation, resistant to her father’s frayed recollections: “I thought of it as marginalia, something scribbled at the edge of a page—the part you skip past while reading the main text.”

Yet it is this story in the margins that leads Senna to speculate that it is her father’s misgivings about his paternity, the abandonment by his black mother, and the absence of an authentic experience of “blackness” that incites his obsession with race: “He constructed for himself—and imposed on us—a blackness that was intellectual and defensive, abstract and negatively defined (always in relation to whiteness).” This was her father’s tragedy and tragic flaw; no amount of social mobility and racial transgression could salve the wounds of his conflicted identity.

By the end of the memoir, Senna has eloquently shown that it is in our failures, in both marriages and revolutions, where we forge our core identities, where we resist the conventions of socially-constructed racial identities. She reaches the hard-earned understanding that the 1960s idealism of miscegenation as a strategy for overcoming the problems of race in America failed to grasp the deeper complexities, and the much more formidable obstacles, that stood in the way of true racial integration. In this intimate and profoundly personal memoir, Danzy Senna reveals that when it comes to the question of race we must always be mindful of the perils and trappings of history.

Review originally published in North American Review 294, no. 1 (January–February 2009): 44–45.