Mother/Daughter Dyads and the Search for Identity in Caucasia

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“Our Mothers, Our Selves”: Mother/Daughter Dyads and the Search for Identity in Caucasia

“Our mothers, our selves” is well-known phrase that acknowledges young females’ intrinsic instinct to view themselves as a reflection of their mothers, as well as a mother’s psychological tendency to project her own desires and images of herself onto her daughters. The mother/daughter dyad has been probed and interrogated in psychoanalysis over the past several decades by feminist scholars, who have created a discourse that underscores the unique tensions between mothers and daughters, particularly focusing on the tensions that a mother’s identity creates for a daughter as she emerges to claim her own self, separate from the maternal.  In Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, matrilineal relationships take on a more complex form, intertwining the struggles of race with the tensions of the mother/daughter dyad.  By examining the matrilineal relationships between the young biracial protagonist, Birdie Lee, her sister Cole, and their white mother, Sandy, the assumptions of identity formation within the typical mother/daughter dyad are interrogated and even inverted, exemplifying how Caucasia underscores the effects of race and racial identity on a young female’s psyche, and how that a daughter’s identity can be formed from more than projection of her mother’s ideal in the traditional mother/daughter dyad.

When Caucasia was published in 1998, Danzy Senna’s novel ushered in a reimagining of the passing novel, bringing a fresh voice to the subject of the development (and struggles) of the female biracial identity, in what Badia Ahad calls the “shifting perspectives of racial definition and identification for the mixed-race subject” (132).  Part of that shifting perspective is manifested specifically through matrilineal relationships in the novel.  Caucasia provides an excellent medium to explore the conversation between race and family identification, as the mother/daughter dyads within the text interrogate traditional psychoanalytical assertions about the development, rupture, and reconciliation of the mother/daughter relationship.

Over the past several decades, feminist scholars have labored to create a feminist discourse that probes feminine relationships in traditional psychoanalytical models such as Freud and Lacan, specifically focusing the development of female identity within the context of mother/daughter dyads.  In much of feminist psychoanalysis, the relationship of a daughter and mother become central to highlighting a female’s sense of identity, as well as her need to break from that identity in order to form her own unique, individual self.  In Reproduction of Mothering, Nancy Chodorow states, “[T]he mother is very important in the daughter’s psyche and sense of self, such that core psychological and interpersonal experiences for women can be understood in terms of this internal mother-daughter lineage” (viii).  The importance of the mother/daughter dyad in shaping a daughter’s identity has been largely a part of white, Western feminist psychoanalysis and the primary focus on the shaping of female identity; more recently, African American feminist scholars such as Ahad have endeavored to interrogate classic fields of psychoanalysis to bring to the table new interracial perspectives on the psychoanalysis of the black subject’s development, in what Ahad describes as a “body of African American literary and cultural works that subvert and complicate classical and contemporary psychoanalytic theory in its attention to the racially and ethnically specific circumstances that inform the black psychic character” (Ahad 8).   In essence, female identity for the black subject is a more complex journey in which the roles that race and society play in the influence of a mother/daughter relationship affect a developing black female’s psychic, internalized beliefs about self.  For the biracial subject, this identity becomes even more complex, illustrating how traditional psychoanalytical analysis fails to encompass the impact that race and external social constructs have on the development of a daughter’s identity within the already complex cathexis between a mother and a daughter.

In Caucasia, Birdie and Cole Lee are two biracial daughters, growing up in the racially tense climate of Boston in the early 1970s.  Their mother, Sandy, is a white, WASP intellectual and a radical activist for racial reform; their father Deck is a black, Harvard-educated intellectual who is drawn to the Black Power movement, but prefers to approach racial issues from the theoretical world of academia. The two girls’ racial appearances differ dramatically, as Birdie is visibly white, and, as Sandy puts it, “looks like a little Sicilian” (Senna 27), while Cole is racially identifiable as black with “a face that betray[s] all of its origins” (49).  The two girls share a deep bond that is complicated by the tensions between their parents’ racially charged marriage and political beliefs.  The matrilineal relationships between Birdie, Cole, and their mother ruptures, reforms, and even inverts in the novel.  Feminist scholar Marianne Hirsch notes in The Mother/Daughter Plot, “A woman’s greatest attachment and most fulfilling emotional relationships are still said to be to be with her [daughters]…but those children still need to undergo a process of separation” (169).  While this separation is accepted throughout feminist psychoanalysis as a natural, necessary part of the mother/daughter dyad, it takes on new form and meaning for the formation of the young female identities in Senna’s novel.  In Caucasia, the process of separation in mother/daughter dyads is affected by the complexities of racial identities and family tensions in unique ways.   Intriguingly, the first matrilineal relationship established in the novel is not between the daughters and their mother, but rather, between Cole and Birdie. The girls’ individual relationships with Sandy are further complicated by race and social beliefs about race, which eventually compels both girls to seek identity beyond the scope of their mother.  Examination of the relationship between Birdie and Cole at the beginning of the novel, and then the matrilineal relationship between Sandy and the two girls, probes the assumed biological, psychological connections between a mother and a daughter and shows the significance of racial identity, as well as illustrates how the mother/daughter dyad is not necessarily the key relationship in the formation of female identity.

In Freud Upside Down, Ahad mentions Freud’s psychoanalytical assertion that the role of the mother is the “object of desire…the first object…loved as something distinct from the self” (146).   In Caucasia, however, Senna upsets the traditional Freudian mother/daughter Oedipal identification as Birdie begins her story with “Before I ever saw myself, I saw my sister …the reflection that proved my own existence” (5).  Birdie’s first mirror of herself is not in her relationship with her mother, but in what Geneva Cobb Moore calls  “[a] symbiotic relationship with the life-affirming Cole who reflects Birdie’s self-perception” (116).   The maternal imagery begins even in utero for Birdie, as she recounts how Cole would whisper comfort and secrets “leaning her high forehead down to the pale balloon of our mother’s belly” (Senna 6), and, significantly, it is Cole who selects Birdie’s name, rather than her parents, establishing further a maternal focal point for Birdie’s identification.  Birdie’s name selection is symbolic not only in the sense of maternal identification (in Cole), but also, in foreshadowing an identity beyond the racial binaries of her parents’ ideals, as Birdie comments,  “[M]y father wanted to call me Patrice, as in Lumumba, the Congolese liberator; my mother wanted to name me Jesse, after her great-grandmother, a white suffragette.  Cole just called me Birdie—she had wanted a parakeet for her birthday and instead got me” (19).  That Birdie identifies most with the name that Cole selects not only speaks to an intrinsic, psychic mother/daughter connection, but also points to the fact that Birdie finds identity in Cole’s racial “mixedness,” when she answers to a name that is neither black nor white in its origins.   Senna herself supports this idea, stating that “Cole represents this intimate space [for Birdie]…Birdie is the name which allows her to bring all of herself to the table” (Arias 449).

Cole’s “mother role” to Birdie is further intensified when the girls are homeschooled in their younger years by Sandy, who remains largely removed from their interior world, focusing more on the racial politics outside her home to combat the racism that could threaten her daughters, rather than creating a nurturing environment herself.  As the climate within the home becomes racially charged between Birdie and Cole’s parents, and the comings and goings of Sandy’s activist friends, Cole invents a world and a language for Birdie, speaking to the Lacanian psychoanalytical idea of “self” formation in the form of symbol and language in a child’s formative years.  For Birdie, the world of Elemeno, named after the girls favorite letters of the alphabet, is “the secret and fun and make-believe, and that is where I wanted to stay” (7). Ahad highlights that this intimate “language play” is “in alignment with the Oedipal stages of development,” underscoring the fact that Cole dictates and changes the development and nature of the language games (148).  This cements the matrilineal relationship further between the two girls, rather than with their mother. This departure from the traditional Oedipal mother/daughter dyad, in which “the female child in particular identifies with her mother” questions this psychoanalytical notion and speaks to the sense of finding identity beyond the biological, racial framework of mother, as Birdie “rejects her [white] mother in favor of identification with her dark sister” (Ahad 147).  It is this matrilineal relationship with Cole that Birdie will yearn for as her life becomes a journey of forced flight, due to her mother’s choices.  More importantly, the racial identification that Birdie sees affirmed in Cole will prove to be an element of Birdie’s soul that cannot be erased, though her own mother, Sandy, will attempt to do so as the novel progresses. This inversion of the mother/daughter dyad, in which two sisters form the psychological bond first, rather than mother and daughter, not only interrogates the psychoanalytical assumptions regarding the significance of mother/daughter relationships in identity development, but it also highlights the very real role that racial connection plays in the formation of a daughter’s identity.

The mother/daughter dyad is further probed in Caucasia through Sandy’s relationship with Cole.  While the matrilineal relationship is not explored in depth between Cole and Sandy, it still provides a window into the realities of psychological, political, and social forces that shape a mother/daughter relationship. Geneva Cobb Moore references Patricia J. Williams’ question and resolution, “Is there not something unseemly, in our society, about the spectacle of a white woman mothering a black child…the image of a white woman suckling a black child…such a picture says there is no difference” (111).  This suggests that race should not matter in a relationship between a mother and her daughter.  However, in the case between Sandy and Cole, the matrilineal relationship is strained because of racial difference. Cole and Birdie grow up in an environment where Black Power politics demand a black identity that is deeper than skin, a performance as well as an appearance, and Sandy’s inability to affirm this internal black identity is what dissolves her connection to Cole.

While Birdie has had Cole to look up to for a black mother figure, Cole has been largely left without a female role model that resembles her own visible race.   Ahad asserts that “Sandy serves as an inadequate model for her black children” (146), which becomes most strikingly apparent when the girls enroll Nkrumah, a Black Power school.   Sandy spent years homeschooling the girls in an effort to keep them safe from the “racism and violence of the world” (26), but she neglects to give her daughters a sense of a black identity that they crave. For Cole, Nkrumah becomes the first time she realizes how much she has been left out of black culture and black identity, having had a white mother who wishes to ignore the reality of a black identity beyond skin.  Sandy, unskilled on how to care for her black daughter, neglects to nurture this identity in Cole’s earlier years, leaving Cole to “run around with … a ‘dustball’ on her head…[not quite understanding] the disapproving glances of the black people on the street” (50). But at Nkrumah, Cole is bullied and teased for her “ashy knees” and “nappy hair ” (50). She laments to Birdie, “Mum doesn’t know anything about raising a black child” (53).  Brenda Boudreau comments that  “[Sandy’s] inability to do her hair becomes the most telling evidence for Cole that her mother is an obstacle to her “becoming” black” (63), and Cole responds with open disdain, particularly when Sandy attempts to cornrow her hair, tossing the mirror on the floor and running to her room, crying.  Sandy brushes off the outburst as teenage defiance, and one could argue that the relationship is weakening due to a natural adolescent display of hostility, where a girl “often becomes very critical of her family, especially of her mother” (Chodorow 137).  However, for Cole, the inherent lack of black identity that her mother fails to nurture is what fuels the fire behind the hostility.

The relationship between Cole and Sandy is further weakened along the color line by the appearance of Carmen, Deck’s new girlfriend who is described as “a black Barbie come to life” (89).  In Carmen, a mother/daughter relationship is formed almost exclusively on the basis of racial appearance and performance, creating a rift along race lines between Cole and her mother. In Carmen, Cole finds a maternal relationship that nurtures her black identity.  Carmen provides Cole with the latest fashions, a trip to the salon, and mother/daughter bonding that is focused on female black identity.  Carmen represents a mother replacement for Cole in that she “understands how to deal with a black child in a way that Sandy cannot” (Boudreau 64), a replacement that Sandy does not try to challenge.  Chodorow describes a daughter’s psychological need to break from the “maternal omnipotence” that her mother represents (195); however, for Cole, the need to break with her mother is not based on a sense of “maternal omnipotence,” but rather a sense of maternal lack, a lack of racial acknowledgement and connection.

Perhaps the most poignant and symbolic display of the complexities of the mother/daughter dyad and race identity in Caucasia occurs when Sandy attempts to reconnect to her daughters before the inevitable flight from the FBI by recreating a game she played with them when they were small. Birdie notes the significance of the shift in the role of this game, as she says:

It was a game we had played when we were little, a game I’d almost forgotten. She would put on a mask, any mask, and say, ‘I’m not your mother,’ in a scary voice. At first Cole and I would laugh, but eventually my mother always took it just a step too far and we’d start to scream and cry and beg her to come back to us. Only when we were nearly in hysterics would she take the mask off, and we’d shower her in kisses and hugs and all would be well again. (77)

The irony here is multifaceted, in that Sandy chooses an African mask to wear to disguise her identity, symbolizing the racial divide between herself and her daughters; the “blackness” that Sandy wishes to be a part of is merely a mask that she can don, and it is a caricatured, frightening one, not a face of comfort, signifying Sandy’s lack of connection to the girls’ black identity.  The mask itself represents not only black race, but also symbolically provides a barrier between mother and daughters; it is race that separates the girls from their mother; the characteristic that Sandy cannot embody, and therefore, cannot pass on to her daughters. Ironically, bellowing  “I am not your mother” in a scary voice and “taking it a step too far” had evoked in the girls in their younger years an emotional, psychological reaction that reaffirmed Sandy’s unmasked identity as their mother, but  really the scene displays weakened bonds between the girls and Sandy, showing how both race and biological maternal connection are subverted by external social racial perceptions, politics, and the girls’ desires to be nurtured in a way that embraces their interior racial identities.  This underscores the fact that race is not a mask that can just be shed at will, and the key factor in disrupting the matrilineal relationship between Sandy and her daughters.

While Sandy asserts that “it doesn’t matter what your color is or what you’re born into….[I]t matters who you choose to call your own” (87), this idealistic belief is not projected fully onto her daughter, whose lived experience as biracial subjects prove otherwise.  Sadly, Sandy herself demonstrates to Cole how color does matter in a traumatic way, as Cole is ultimately separated from her prematurely because of Sandy’s need to flee from her perceived threats by the police. Sandy leaves her visibly black daughter with Deck and Carmen, who go to Brazil, keeping Birdie who is visibly white and will not tip off the FBI who could be looking for a white woman with a black child, which means Sandy is essentially forced to reject her child on the basis of color.  Ironically, Sandy later says that she chose to participate in the illegal activism because of Cole, because “having a black child made me see things differently…It hurt to see your baby come into a world like this, so you want to change it” (275).  But her choices illustrate instead that race does indeed matter in the mother/daughter identification, as it ruptures her relationship with Cole and creates what Ahad calls an “unbridgeable gulf” for Cole that her mother cannot cross (146).

While the traditional mother/daughter dyad is challenged by the initial formation of a matrilineal bond between Cole and Birdie, and then interrogated further between Cole and Sandy as race becomes the chasm that separates their bond, the relationship between Sandy and Birdie completely inverts and reimagines the assumptions about matrilineal identity and interior racial identity, as in the latter half the novel, Birdie is compelled to pass for white and take on an entirely new family and racial identity in order to protect her mother.   Birdie suffers not only from the unwanted “rupture” of her original mother/daughter relationship when Cole leaves for Brazil with their father, but she also experiences a series of dizzying role reversals and re-identification with her mother. Birdie recognizes an intrinsic maternal need to protect Sandy from her own loss of self, stating that, “I understood in those flashes…that she had nobody…to protect her from this unnamed threat. Nobody, that was, but me” (82).  The “unnamed threat” is more than a threat of incarceration for Sandy; symbolically, it is the rupture of a mother/daughter dyad far too soon; the loss of her daughter Cole, and loss of maternal identity.  For while Sandy had justified her activist actions as a way to demonstrate maternal love, saying “I love you and your sister more than anything in this world, and [I] did it for you”(88), in reality, Sandy’s idealized beliefs about race and her inability to hold onto a maternal connection with her daughters ruptures all mother/daughter dyads between the three.

Sandy’s loss of a maternal role is evidenced even further when the family dissolves. Deck’s final words to Birdie when he comes to say goodbye before leaving Brazil are, “Take care of your mother. She needs you now” (121). Cole, too, rather than saying goodbye, instructs Birdie to “Tell Mum I love her, okay?” (121). Young, traumatized Birdie, goes “looking for solace, or answers, I suppose, in the arms of my mother,” but instead finds Sandy “curled fetal on the floor” (121).  This significant image points to more than just a loss of a family structure; here it also symbolizes a death of the mother’s role, as Sandy has psychologically been reduced to an infant-like state, in need of nurturing, rather than being nurtured. For Birdie, however, she is forced to become, essentially, a mother to her mother, an identity reversal that will continue to be reshaped and challenged throughout the remainder of the novel, which will ultimately leave Birdie unanchored in any sense of a maternal relationship with Sandy that she can truly build upon to strengthen and develop her own female, racial identity.

The mother/daughter dyad between Sandy and Birdie is further complicated as the two flee Boston and change their identities to protect Sandy from potential arrest. While Sandy herself experiences a symbolic “rebirth,” she forces Birdie back into a Freudian “preoedipal-like” state of mother/daughter “oneness” by reinventing Birdie’s familial history, name, and racial identity, resulting in Birdie feeling like “half a girl, half-caste, half-mast, and half-baked, not quite ready for consumption” (137).  Melanie Walters argues that “Sandy fails to protect her daughter by not encouraging Birdie’s biracial identity” (77); however, Sandy’s maternal betrayal goes deeper than mere lack of encouragement, as she completely reinvents Birdie’s racial and familial identity in order to protect herself.  Sandy erases all traces of Birdie’s connection to family, and particularly, her black identity.  In fact, it is Birdie’s black identity that is most threatening to Sandy at this point, because Sandy believes the authorities would be looking for a woman with a visibly biracial daughter. Sandy explains that Birdie will be the perfect disguise, her white body being “the key to our going incognito” (128).  Birdie comments on the strangeness of feeling like “such a blank slate” (130) as they sit in a restaurant to brainstorm new identities, her mother blithely explaining that with Birdie being relabeled as white, they would be “a couple of new people overnight” (128).  For Birdie, however, this erasure of identity serves to render her invisible, and, as Boudreau points out, “trivializes her daughter’s racial consciousness” (64). What is worse, this new identity is not one that Birdie has any choice in fashioning.  Sandy seems to offer Birdie an opportunity to choose, initially, asking her input on a new name, but “didn’t wait for my answer” and instead symbolically chooses “Jesse” after Sandy’s great-grandmother, the suffragette, the name Sandy had originally wanted to call Birdie when she was born. The name choice also highlights Sandy’s insensitivity to Birdie’s lost black identity, as it links Birdie now to Sandy’s ‘white, racist ancestors” (Rummell 7).  Kathryn Rummell argues that “Sandy’s status as mother renders Birdie powerless in her own self-definition”(7); for the mother/daughter dyad, this is much like a rebirthing again, where Birdie is reduced to an infant-like state, where her mother dictates all aspects of Birdie’s identity.

Sandy takes control even further by disregarding Birdie’s suggestions to be Italian and instead says, “Jewish is better, I think” (130). Birdie realizes then, “the decision had been made” (130). Sandy here, in just a few brief comments, effectively repurposes, renames, relabels and even re-races Birdie’s body. This complete erasure of Birdie’s black racial identity and insensitivity to racial identities, in general, may mirror a sort of “projection” of ideals that a mother might place on her daughter in a mother/daughter dyad.  However, Sandy no longer is nurturing an identity born of biological connections; rather, she is essentially using Birdie’s visible body as a lump of moldable clay to refashion a racial and female identity that suits Sandy’s needs for re-identification.  In this odd twist in the mother/daughter dyad, Birdie, still a young child, cannot push against her mother’s projections in a “standard” Oedipal rupture, for she views the change in identity as “game” of survival to protect her mother, her last familial connection.  She has become her mother’s shield, and her sense of self is subsumed into a “costume” that will protect Sandy; a weight of responsibility that Birdie feels keenly.

This erasure of Birdie’s sense of self and connection to her black heritage leaves her feeling like a “gray blur” (137) where only their false names “remained constant” (139). Sandy’s failure to nurture Birdie’s biracial identity and provide room for Birdie to form a female identity for herself also “erases Birdie from blackness, causing Birdie to feel racially invisible” (Dagbovie 104).  This constant shift in relationship and identity prevents Birdie from even feeling connected with her own body.  She describes instead experiencing “a sense of watching myself from above” (190), a sort of out-of-body observance in which her true self is merely a spectator watching her body perform. Birdie carries the burden of always hiding her true self, which essentially holds her captive as a protector of her mother, a “forced” inversion of the mother/daughter dyad. She feels that her soul is invisible, and her identity is unanchored and unformed, as it is stunted beneath a fictitious identity that she cannot connect with; Birdie’s body is an empty shell; a mask for her mother.

The matrilineal relationship between Birdie and Sandy is further inverted, as Sandy’s psychological behavior mimics more of the views of a child, rather than a mother. Chodorow references Alice Balint’s argument that “people retain towards their own mothers this naïve egoistic [idealization] and fail to see their mother’s interests altruistically” (81), but for Sandy, it is she who fails to see Birdie’sinterests altruistically, focusing instead on her own needs and identity.  The two settle in New Hampshire, an almost entirely white community, where Sandy says she wants to stay, because “I’m happy here…I’m tired. I need a break from all the running” (215). For Birdie, as long as the identity is simply a “game” that tides them over until they can be reunited again with Cole and Deck, she is willing to play along, staying locked in the false identity for the sake of protecting Sandy.  But as Sandy begins embrace her new persona as Sheila Goldman, losing weight, finding a new boyfriend, creating a new life for herself—in Birdie’s words, “doing the unthinkable—becoming a presence” (177), Birdie’s need to break from her mother becomes acute. While this need for a separation seems to mirror the classic adolescent rupture from mother, for Birdie it is more complex.   When Sandy at last confides their secret identities in Jim, her white boyfriend, Birdie is driven to break from her mother and decides to run away from New Hampshire and return to Boston to begin the search to find her father and Cole and shed the false identity of Jesse Goldman, wanting more for her female, racial identity aside from a “body without a name or a history” (1). In an inversion of the classic female reconciliation with her mother, Birdie breaks from one mother to find the original mother/daughter dyad in her sister Cole. As Birdie leaves in the night, she even begins repeating words in Elemeno, “words that I no longer understood but whispered still the same.  Kublica marantha boda. Lasa mel kin”(289). Her reversion to her “first language” of Elemeno marks what Ahad calls “[Birdie’s] intent to reclaim the distinct yet nebulous space she once occupied with her sister” (151).  But it is more than to just reclaim a space– Birdie begins the journey “back” to her “original mother,” Cole, redefining the mother/daughter dyad in a profound way, as Birdie’s journey to find her own identity includes reconciliation with her biracial sister, rather than her mother.

When Cole and Birdie are at last reunited, the reformation of the original mother/daughter dyad is complete again, however both girls recognize a lack in the relationship, which speaks to an identity outside of the constructs of matrilineal relationships and fixed racial binaries.  For Cole, the loss of connection to Sandy has been acute, and Cole blames herself for the separation, “because I…picked Carmen—this woman I didn’t even know—over Mum ‘cause …she looked like a woman who could be my mother” (407), whereas for Birdie, the long-hoped-for reunion with Cole and the sense of finding racial and female completion is slightly deflating, as Birdie realizes that Cole had not come to find Birdie, but had continued on to develop her identity and her life instead.  Birdie muses that “I had believed all along that Cole was all I needed to feel complete. Now I wondered if completion wasn’t overrated” (406), hinting at the possibility of a space to form identities beyond the mother/daughter dyad and beyond the constructs of race.

Through the examination of these complicated, shifting mother/daughter dyads in Caucasia, the psychic constructs of identity through matrilineal relationships are probed and even inverted.  Traditional psychoanalytical analysis falls short of both fully defining these complicated mother/daughter dyads, and defining the scope of a girl’s identity based solely on her formative relationship with her mother.  In Caucasia, social and racial constructs of identity also play key roles in affecting and reimagining these relationships, which ultimately challenge these traditional psychoanalytical patterns, as both Birdie’s and Cole’s struggle to form an identity lead them not only beyond their mother, but black and white binaries, as well.   Thus Caucasia points to the broader idea that no race, relationship, or person fully influences and encompasses a female’s identity; that all of these factors are parts, but not the whole, and that a space exists for a female to form an identity beyond even the deepest psychologically formative relationship—the mother and the daughter.

Works Cited

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Moore, Geneva Cobb. “Caucasia’s Migrating Bodies: Lessons in American

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