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Searching for Identity
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Danzy Senna
Where Did You Sleep Last Night?:  A Personal History (NY:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.  204p.)

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Senna is a novelist, but here she writes the story of her own heritage, as she discovers it.  Danzy Senna is the daughter of a black American father and white American mother.  She tells the story of her life in race-torn Boston, Massachusetts.  I received an Advanced Reader's Copy from the publisher 10 June 2009.  I finally got around to reading the book on the 19th and 20th of July.  Once I started, the book developed a magnetic momentum that compelled me until I finished the story.

Senna's parents married in 1968, in the midst of race strife and war resistance, but divorced 8 years later.  Her mother was the daughter of an ancient, connected, rich Bostonian aristocrat, with colonial connections.  Her father is a child of a poverty-stricken southern Black single mother, who had to leave her children in the car of an orphanage for much of their childhood.

His father was not Black, but Carl Senna knew little about his own father or family.  Perhaps he was a Mexican, or maybe there were some deeper secrets hidden in the Alabama Jim Crow culture in which Carl's mother raised the children before taking them to New England.

Personal Identity
The story is billed as "a potent statement of personal identity, a challenging look at the murky waters of American ancestry."  The author explores the "narratives" created by our lives in interaction with the social forces around us.  The narrative develops as an intriguing adventure, written as a mystery the author investigates.  The mystery becomes more puzzling as she progresses, initially investigating her father's origins.

Carl Senna was supposedly the son of Anna, a beautiful black woman from Alabama, and a Mexican boxer, from whom he got the Senna name.  Danzy takes off on a trek to her father's old connections across the South, searching for relatives and acquaintances who can fill in details.  As she makes contact with individuals who knew both her mother and her father in their childhood and adulthood, the growing body of details simply compounds the mystery.

The Irish Conenction
The genealogical and racial puzzle deepens as she discovers her grandmother's lost connection with an Irish priest named Ryan, a Josephite priest involved in a mission outreach to Southern blacks.  The parish priest seems to have taken pity on a young mother whose Mexican husband had run off and left her.  As the story develops through various kinfolks Danzy tracks down, indications arise that Carl Senna and his two siblings were really children of the priest.

Carl's mother followed the priest to a new posting in New Hampshire when he moved on from the Alabama post.  In this tedious, confusing and yet thrilling process of investigation, Danzy discovers an unknown sister of his father.  Her father gets involved and acknowledges this new sister, previously unknown to him.  He joins the investigation and tracks down relatives of Father Ryan.

Genealogical Discovery
It becomes even more complex, with some later discoveries.  For instance, despite the fact that no one in the family ever met the Mexican fighter Francisco "Cisco Kid" Senna, there was such a person, and he was indeed married to Senna's mother.  This is a story of real-life personal discovery by the author Danzy Senna, previously the author of fiction.

I recommend this book.  The genealogical details are laid out well.  The practicalities might even be helpful to others tracing their hidden or confused family history.  The author also presents insights into the complexities of the southern racial situation and the class discrimination in both South and North that encourages hiding one's past and lying about the realities that led to where we are now.  Senna's adventure makes a gripping and rewarding read.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Music, Race and Society

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Reviewed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble 23 July 2009
Final Review posted on Thoughts and Resources 1 October 2009
Last edited 20 October 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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