AUGUST 1, 2017
IN LONDON IN JULY, at the dawn of a new century, W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in front the Pan-African Conference about the challenges of the era to come. “[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century,” he said, in a statement that would later appear in and come to define his epochal collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, “is the problem of the color-line.” The idea of describing American antiblack racial segregation by the simple, if not even deceptively charming, term color-line, had appeared two decades earlier in the title of Frederick Douglass’s 1881 essay, “The Color Line,” but it would come to be associated particularly with The Souls of Black Folk. So seductive was the phrase for Du Bois that he used it two more times to bookend an essay in the book, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” but it was, of course, more than a memorable line. The color-line was as explicit as it was psychic, delineated in signs, denials, and public executions as much as it was in one’s choice of path, one’s footfalls, one’s bones and dreams. Racism is merely obvious when it becomes visible; its potential existence follows us, invisibly and phantasmally, when we’ve come to expect it.
This latter sense is what Du Bois had in mind when he aligned the color-line to “the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive”; it was also, of course, the reason for the fundamental disconnect between William F. Buckley Jr. and James Baldwin in their historic debate at Cambridge in 1965, wherein Baldwin argued that whether or not one believed the American Dream was at the expense of the American Negro — the motion of the debate — was ultimately up to “one’s point of view […] what one’s system of reality is.” When you do not experience racism, it is more difficult to see it, to psychologically inhabit that twilit “spiritual world.” The Souls of Black Folk famously introduced Du Bois’s idea of double-consciousness, in which a black American’s sense of self is determined less by self-perception than by how white Americans perceive us. “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois wrote,
this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Yet Du Bois himself sometimes felt distant from the world he walked through. In a famous passage at the start of “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” Du Bois, who had become a freethinker in Germany, described how alien the sounds of a Negro revival ceremony were to his ears as he strolled through the country one night. Despite the near ubiquity of such revivals on his side of the color-line, Du Bois felt, himself, as if he had a foot on yet another dividing line.
The problem of the 21st century in the United States is still the color-line, a line that extends back into prior centuries. This is the age of identity — as all ages have been, really, but the very notions of what it means to have an identity or to be something are now, more than ever, at the fore. But even as we have blurred racial lines in ways scarcely imaginable when The Souls of Black Folk appeared in 1903, we still have our clear-cut demarcations. And in many ways, lines of color, alongside the complexities of what it means to pass as one thing or another, may be what best defines Danzy Senna’s epochal — in its most literal sense — new novel, New People. Du Bois is not an explicit presence in the novel, yet his thematic and political concerns — updated, as it were, for this new era — haunt New People. These themes of passing and racial demarcations informed Senna’s first novel, Caucasia, as well. New People also explores an idea common in Percival Everett’s fiction — the two, incidentally, are married — of reclaiming and repackaging racial stereotypes as a person of color. I was particularly reminded of Everett’s hilarious, brilliant novel, Erasure, in which an experimental black author — often read as “white” due to how and what he writes — decides to write an offensively stereotypical narrative of American blackness, which then, ironically, launches him into national success. Despite thematic similarities, Senna’s voice and narrative are distinct and compelling. And her conflicted, white-passing, multiracial protagonist Maria is both a believable — if exasperating — figure and a partial but disquietingly accurate embodiment of the United States in 2017. How do we live in our own skin, the novel seems to ask, when it is living in our own skin that causes so much grief? How do we live when our own body becomes our perpetual enemy, our familiar yet alien desert planet, our inconsistently locked home?
New People is a paean to the psychosocial complexities of being racially mixed, and, as a result, color-lines, passing, and double-consciousness are everywhere. The book follows Maria, who is on the cusp of marriage to her college love, Khalil. Obsessive and unreliable herself, she is doing her dissertation on Jonestown, a notorious historical example of fanaticism and deception. It is 1996 in Brooklyn, though much of it still feels atmospherically like 2017, only without social media. In her past, “Maria could honestly say she hated white people”; her mother, Gloria, astutely notes that Maria possesses “that particular rage of the light-skinned individual.” Khalil is Jewish and black with light skin; the first time Maria sees him, he looks “both entirely black and entirely white.” Like Maria, but with less self-torment, Khalil learns to embrace his mixed-race status shortly after beginning to date Maria. However, Maria does not feel any fire in her when she is with Khalil. (So cold is their romantic relationship, at least to her, that she wonders as she kisses him if she is really more attracted to women than Khalil.) The one who bewitches her is the black man who opens the book: an unnamed poet whose show she and Khalil have gone to see.
Maria is infatuated with the poet, and the novel soon becomes her attempt to navigate the paths and identities of her future: a simple conventional one, championed by her fiancé, in which she marries Khalil, bears kids, and has a big dog named Thurgood; and an impossible path in which the poet falls for her. The two paths are not parallel, but rather keep crashing into each other, until Maria, herself, is on the verge of destruction. Maria is in search not only for love, but also for who she is. For who she should be. For a clear, stable identity. This is the novel’s consistent theme: the quest for a stable self, especially when you do not even fully know what you are yourself, and how you look prevents you from fully fitting through one door or the other. This is a novel of someone like me, a liminal figure, the placeless person searching for a home that feels like, well, home. Yet even when we think we have found a home — as Maria does in Brooklyn — we may feel tormented by our pasts.
The narrative, indeed, is haunted. Early on, Maria becomes convinced she is being watched, hounded, hunted; some chthonic presence must be following her. She imagines it is in her dorm room in college; soon after, it is under her bed, a breathing she does not recognize, and then it follows her as she flees from her room. When she turns, no one is there — no one, that is, but Khalil, the man she has been herself watching from the distance. Maria has long felt her body is constantly under surveillance, a kind of racial Panopticon all too understandable to me as a woman of color in an America that defines so much by race. However, Maria, too, is an obsessive watcher. Khalil and the poet are the targets that haunt her most, alongside Greg, the white man she loathes but who also gave her the best sex she can remember. Ironically, the thing Maria believes is haunting her may be her own reflection, an emanation of the inside. By the end of the novel, Maria will be doing precisely what that shadowy entity did: lie under someone else’s bed, breathing so shallowly that she hopes he does not hear, so close to the one she desires and yet insurmountably far. The book begins and ends with Maria’s simultaneous distance and proximity to the poet, but in the beginning, the poet acknowledges her in the crowd, while she is merely an unwanted specter in the final paragraphs. Maria has become the thing that haunts her. It is difficult not to feel the deep, pelagic, so-real irony: that we may be the things we rail against the most. That we may be our stygian phantoms.
A patron saint of the eternally conflicted, Maria is always in search of an identity, even if it means doing what is most demeaning and disgusting to her. A victim of double-consciousness, Maria is forever thinking of what others think of her; unlike Du Bois, however, she will be torn asunder. In a flashback reminiscent of Dear White People, Maria and her then-friend Claudette — both seniors in college — get high and decide, in a laughing, pellucid haze, to prank-call Khalil. With voices shoddily disguised, they leave a chilling message on his phone about lynching him. Maria even calls Khalil a nigger — yet she is so high that she does not remember this until she hears Khalil play back the message. At the time, Khalil had just begun to “embrace his black identity” and had recently published a column in the college paper; he had been “oblivious to his own blackness” as a child, having “grown up in a liberal, humanist, multiracial family” that taught him a naïve “color-blind humanism.” The voice message, which Khalil and his friends believe is from white boys on campus, launches him to national attention. Khalil suspects a white fraternity is to blame; he never learns his own significant other is the one who so hurt him. The caller must be white, must be a boy, must be a racist, must not be Maria.
Early in the novel, when Maria is on her way to meet family to try on some gowns, she is accosted by a ghost from her past, Nora Convey, who tries to recruit her into Scientology; instead of just saying no, she lets the woman audit her, causing her to be late. Later, Maria is mistaken by Susan, a clueless white woman who lives next to the poet, for her Latina helper Consuela. In a remarkable moment of ridiculous yet real psychology, Maria, unable to say no, plays along, pretending to be Consuela while mentally ridiculing the woman for assuming all Latinas look the same. She takes care of this stranger’s baby, despite the fact that she is supposed to be at a special dinner. (Incredibly, she then sneaks into the poet’s apartment, leaving the baby alone, and creepily drinks one of his beers and tries to imagine living with him in there.) Just as with Khalil, Maria’s true identity is never revealed. Maria struggles to say no; all the same, she can hardly say yes.
All of this identity adoption reinforces that this novel is about a specific aspect of color-lines: those who can walk between them. Those who pass. Maria’s lightness allowed her, in the past, to hear “whiteyisms — those comments white people made about black people when they thought they were alone.” Maria’s ability to “pass” has helped to create her by showing her the terrible things through one door. To “pass” is not the same as being, yet those of us who live on the cusp of identities, a foot in two facing doors, can easily become consumed by the question of which door we fit in better, or if we fit through any door at all. The United States often demands labels, strictures, structures; if we do not fit into a simple binary, we begin to unsettle the learned expectations of others and ourselves alike. Perhaps the most famous text to deal with racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), but the specter of passing is everywhere in American literature, notably in novels by Mark Twain and William Faulkner; in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a kind of anti-passing novel, the unnamed narrator cannot pass for white and is thus, as a black American male, treated as if he is either invisible or a threat. Senna’s novel, in more comedic fashion, joins this legacy.
Sometimes, the novel seems too on-the-nose, exemplified by Maria being misidentified as Consuela. When Susan mistakes Maria for her Latina helper — and what else could she be named but Consuela? — Susan goes so far as to examine Maria from head to toe without realizing Maria is not Consuela. The only hint she senses something may be off appears in a frowning comment about how her helper has changed her hair. Susan may be a mess, but this is still difficult to buy, even as a joke. When Maria turns to tell Susan she is not Consuela, Susan, of course, has just left. Later, Maria takes the baby, who is Chinese, on a walk, and couples around her keep smiling and talking about adoption loud enough for her to hear — they do this in earshot, as the book must make its point about how cringe-worthy this brand of white American can be. After Susan comes back, Maria tries once again to tell her she is not Consuela, yet Susan has fallen asleep by the time the words leave Maria’s mouth.
It is a hilarious, delicious, absurd set of clichés. Senna is aware of this, and, to be fair, Maria would act like this. Yet the book’s tone, to me, does not suggest the Consuela incident, or much else, is meant as a joke; instead, it reads like we are meant to take this all seriously rather than as a winking cliché. I laughed as I was reading, then wondered if I was meant to be laughing; perhaps because we are so close to Maria’s often humorless point of view, it is difficult to understand precisely how to read these passages. This was the point in the book where I almost put it down. But New People is so readable that I couldn’t leave it alone for long, and, to Senna’s credit, most of the novel is not like this.
Contra the title, Senna’s protagonist is a person both old and new. I’ve known a Maria; I’ve almost been one. If the character is an embodiment of America in 2017, that image of America is itself a reflection of what the country has always been: in search of an identity, and, in particular, a racial one. Maria’s causes largely align with a general “woke” liberalism as breathlessly applicable in the novel’s 1996 milieu as it is today — Maria’s causes largely align with my own, as they doubtless would for many of the book’s likely readers — yet she appears designed to be eminently, even at times absurdly, unlikable due to her destructive obsessiveness. Like certain contemporary activists who mean well but argue without nuance, Maria sometimes speaks very broadly of experience, as if all racial experience is the same. But identity, like privilege, is always situational, always meaningless without context. What it means to be anything varies from place to place, time to time. To be black in Maria’s Brooklyn is specific; it will be similar, but not necessarily the same, as being black elsewhere. Blackness in Britain, blackness in the English-speaking Caribbean, blackness in the French Caribbean, blackness in Brazil, blackness in the United States and Canada are all distinct experiences, even if they overlap.
I often felt sorry for Maria. I found myself rooting for her imagined, yearned-for relationship with the poet to somehow, impossibly, bloom outside her dreams. Maria is neither black nor white and knows better than to see the world in black and white, yet largely sees the world in that binary. Maria yearns for a simple, fixed identity, a direction in her compass; she yearns to appear black, yet would rebuke someone else of a light skin tone who yearned for the same. She desires, ironically, a loosely conservative vision of a world, in which all is simple and stable, in which the flux and liminality she embodies fade away.
Yet the world the novel inhabits is one antithetical to the “stable” world so often desired by contemporary American conservatism. Maria’s journey, through the avenues of New York City and of herself alike, represents what animates so much literature and art: a yearning for us to understand ourselves and to find where we fit in. The novel’s ultimate message seems, however, to be one both true and unsettling, if unsurprising: that color-lines have never left America and likely never will, and that those of us who walk between the lines may always be tormented, always followed by something dusky and doubtful we cannot quite catch sight of. America has always been divided, was built, indeed, upon divisions in blood and bone; and Marias, once the stock “tragic Mulatto” characters of past centuries, still often star in our mundane tragedies, when we begin to wonder, on too-quiet evenings, where, if anywhere, we fully belong.