April Sinclair and Danzy Senna's Portrayal of the Effect of Mother-Daughter Relationships on Identity Formation and Female Sexuality
As coming of age novels, April Sinclair's Coffee Will Make You Black and Danzy Senna's Caucasia depict mother-daughter relationships that create racial and sexual boundaries that impede the formation of identity and sexuality by the adolescents. In Sinclair's novel, Jean 'Stevie' Stevenson turns to her mother, Evelyn, for guidance in regards to her developing adolescent body and emerging sexuality. She is, however, left uniformed and discouraged by the mixed messages she receives and her mother's avoidance of the subject. Not only does Evelyn attempt to influence her daughter's perception of sex, but also of race, by encouraging her to adopt white standards of beauty. Similarly, Senna creates a mother-daughter relationship that completely inhibits any development of racial identity for her main character, Birdie Lee. Birdie feels invisible because her outward appearance misrepresents her biracial heritage. After her mother, Sandy, forces Birdie and her sister to separate, any hope of a secure identity for Birdie is lost. Her experience with sexuality, however, is far different than that of Stevie's experience and leaves Birdie more able to handle heterosexual relationships. Both novels portray adolescent protagonists who rely on their mothers for identity formation as well as affirmation, but in both cases the mother-daughter relationship only leads to disappointment and confusion as Evelyn and Sandy passively and actively hinder the formation of identity for their daughters.
The relationship between mother and daughter is crucial to the development of the adolescent girl. In Tiffany G. Townsend's article 'Protecting Our Daughters: Intersection of Race, Class and Gender in African American Mothers' Socialization of Their Daughters' Heterosexuality,' it is noted that when considering the process by which African American mothers socialize their daughters, it is important to take into account the systems of oppression females are faced with. In order to teach their daughters to appreciate their identity as African American women, mothers tend to socialize their daughters defensively as a means of protection. They use their worldview, which is shaped by their own experiences, to instruct their daughters on how to function in society among racial and sexual discrimination. This process, often labeled as 'armoring' (Townsend 429), indirectly affects the daughters' worldview as well. In the context of sexuality, 'the way in which a mother views herself, along with the values and expectations she holds concerning romantic relationship affects how she socializes her daughter in the sexual domain' (Townsend 434). Experiences are not the only forces contributing to the formation of a mother's worldview; societal stereotypes and cultural values also add to the mix. Racist and sexist stereotypes such as 'the assertive, overbearing matriarch, the asexual, unattractive mammy, and the sexually promiscuous Jezebel' (Townsend 434) are dangerous to the identity of the African American female. If these images are internalized, a phenomenon referred to as self-stereotyping can occur, which leads to the woman behaving consistently with these stereotypes (Townsend 434). Therefore, the way African American women view themselves and their role as women directly affects the socialization of their daughters.
In an attempt to combat negative outlooks on African American femininity, a conservative perspective on sexuality, including heterosexuality as the norm and patriarchal gender roles, is embraced within the culture (Townsend 435). Other factors, such as economy and religion, contribute to this view of sexuality and gender among African Americans by restricting certain roles to only one gender, which creates within the heterosexual relationship the tendency of women to submit to subordinate roles in order to avoid negative female stereotypes. According to social learning theory, 'mothers influence their children's internalization of values and behaviors directly through instructional communication and indirectly through modeling', of which the latter is most rewarded when imitated (Townsend 435).
Sinclair begins her novel with Stevie's search for answers about sexuality. She is being exposed to such topics in her elementary school, but her na'vet' in regards to sexuality is obvious from the first line of the novel: 'Mama, are you a virgin?' (Sinclair 3). She is confused about the definition of the word after a boy passes her a note in class that asks about her virginity. When Stevie asks her mother later that evening, Evelyn responds: 'Well, Jean Eloise, you should have told him he'll never get the chance to find out' (Sinclair 6). She continues to tell Stevie to 'stay away from that boy' because 'he's got his mind in the gutter' (Sinclair 6). By simply supplying Stevie with a list of commands without explanation, Evelyn leaves Stevie in a state of confusion and never answers her question about virginity. Even though Stevie is approaching puberty and will encounter situations that require knowledge of sexuality, her mother remains closed minded to the topic of female sexuality and continually avoids discussing the subject with Stevie. On multiple occasions, Evelyn is presented with opportunities to share her knowledge of sex and sexuality, as well as discuss gender roles and her own personal experiences with sex, but she keeps her daughter in the dark and leaves Stevie vulnerable to misinformation from her peers. Because boys and girls develop differently and are subject to different types of social pressures, Stevie is left disadvantaged without her mother's guidance.
Evelyn also has preconceived notions about male sexuality that restricts her ability to properly educate Stevie about her own sexuality. After Stevie develops breasts and starts to wear a bra, she realizes that men who had never noticed her before call her 'mama' and 'baby' as she walks down the street. This scene demonstrates Stevie's dilemma: she is trapped between childhood and womanhood. The men's sexist language heightens her confusion and illustrates how such language objectifies women. 'Mama' is a demeaning term that refers to a specific gender role in which the woman is the caregiver. Although this extreme is an example of a subservient role women submit to that defines their social status, it is also a term that implies maturity and womanhood. Stevie is unable to attain this concept of womanhood because her mother keeps her in the dark about sexuality. Comparatively, the term 'baby' is related to childhood, and although Stevie wants to move away from childhood to womanhood, she is trapped between these two stages of development. When Stevie grows tired of the men's advances, she hopes for comforting words from her mother, but Evelyn only minimalizes the situation and excuses the young men's behavior: 'It's all part of being female. Men like to meddle, always have, always will. So long as they don't put their hands on you, just smile and keep stepping' (Sinclair 47-48). Stevie's mother accepts the objectification of women and expresses to her daughter that being a sexual object is part of being female. She believes it is a man's world and part of being a man is having the right to treat a woman however he may please. Evelyn also prescribes to the belief that men are unable to control themselves sexually, and it is the woman's job to be responsible for her safety during sexual interactions: 'Mama said that most boys won't go any farther than you let them. 'It's up to you not to let them', she warned' (Sinclair 192).
In Deborah L. Tolman's essay 'Adolescent Girls, Women and Sexuality: Discerning Dilemmas of Desire,' and Judith V. Jordan's essay 'Clarity in Connection: Empathic Knowing, Desire, and Sexuality,' the developmental differences of boys and girls during adolescence is contrasted. There are two developmental paths that occur during adolescence: boys' 'sexual entitlement' and girls' 'sexual accommodation' (Tolman 55). Male sexual entitlement encourages objectification of the other, fosters hostility, and creates a world where 'domination is safety. Thus power is an essential feature' (Jordan 54). The differences between the development of boys verses girls during adolescence lead to women who are unable to understand their own sexual desires because women, who seek mutuality and a sense of connection rather than control, are left empty handed in their attempts to adjust to a world dominated by male norms. Furthermore, a patriarchal society supports the notion that 'male sexuality is powerful and entitled to expression. The man cannot be expected to take responsibility for his actions in the face of these impulses' (Jordan 64). Girls are taught that they are in danger and need to protect themselves, and that 'managing the other's desire at the expense of her own becomes a developmental task' (Jordan 64). This scene plays out repeatedly in Sinclair's novel. One of Stevie's first experiences with the opposite sex occurs when she is walking home with Gail and Denise, two girls from her elementary school. When two boys come from behind the girls and grab their 'booties', Gail and Denise understand the game they must play as females: they are supposed to enjoy being fondled and groped, but at the same time pretend they do not enjoy it. This 'playing hard to get' encourages the male idea of entitlement and objectification; the boys are able to dominate the girls' bodies, and the girls play along. Stevie, however, does not like the 'creepy' feeling she is left with after being touched. She asserts herself and demands to never be touched like that again, and that they should report the boys' behavior. She has trouble understanding why Denise and Gail like being objectified and violated, and when she thinks she is comforting Denise by pointing out that no one touched her, she is really insulting her. Both girls are proud of how many times the boys have 'felt on' them; they carry the violations around like trophies.
When considering Tolman and Jordan's theories on female sexuality that suggest girls' sexual experiences are defensively based, it is clear that girls are not recognized as possessing sexual feelings. Because of this, girls are unable to view themselves as subjects of sexuality: 'If girls could conceive of themselves as sexual subjects, they could then potentially make decisions about their sexual behavior and experience that would be healthy for them' (Tolman 59). In Ine Vanwesenbeeck's essay 'The Context of Women's Power(lessness) in Heterosexual Interactions,' it is suggested that the allocation of subject and object positions in dominant discourses of heterosexuality is unbalanced. She argues that the sexualization of (heterosexual) women and powerlessness are not one in the same:
If we define the sexualization of women as objectification per se, and thereby as degrading and disempowering, we lose touch with an image of strong female (hetero) sexuality, we forget what female sexual (heterosexual) power looks and feels like, and we create difficulties for women about how to promote themselves as heterosexual beings. (Vanwesenbeeck 171)
Because the phallus appears to be the center of power in heterosexuality does not mean that this power belongs solely to men. Vanwesenbeeck holds that women can be sexualized and retain power and control in a heterosexual relationship, and they can obtain subject positions despite the preconceived notion that heterosexuality demands that women take subordinate roles as objects. Where the loss of subjectivity for the female is almost excused by Tolman and Jordan because of the domination of male entitlement, Vanwesenbeeck presents a different outlook on femininity and encourages the creation of 'a heterosexuality that can provide women with subject positions and that grants them strength and power in actual sexual interactions' (Vanwesenbeeck 172). In Coffee Will Make You Black, Evelyn recognizes the sexualization of women as objectification, but does not teach her daughter the power she has over her own sexuality. As Stevie repeatedly turns to her mother for advice about her budding sexual feelings, Evelyn fails to validate those feelings and Stevie is left unable to understand the changes she is undergoing, both emotionally and physically, and she is incapable of owning those changes. Instead, she perceives of them happening to her as an outside force and cannot claim them as her own. Without ownership of her feelings, she can not own her actions.
Evelyn's influence is evident in Stevie's first relationship which reflects this idea of unequal treatment between genders in heterosexual interactions. Because she is developing relationally, Stevie is convinced that she needs a boyfriend in order to feel validated by her peers. Her first crush is on Yusef Brown, a boy whose gender role ideals are similar to Evelyn's, and who has also been persuaded by the patriarchal society into believing that the female gender is inferior. Since males are socialized to feel a sense of entitlement towards the opposite sex, females are therefore viewed as inferior objects of domination: 'My experience of being individually unique is transformed readily into 'being better than' in order to justify and buttress my entitlement' (Jordan 54). Controlling the other is the same as self-control, and to leave one's self open to loving and giving is leaving that same self vulnerable. While Stevie is willing to overlook Yuself's flaws at first, she becomes less able to tolerate his chauvinistic attitude as he continues to insult her intelligence and degrade her beliefs because she is female. Yuself believes that girls are not able to play chess because it requires too much concentration, and that girls should not want to play basketball when they can date a basketball player and wear his jacket. Stevie believes that a girl may want to play basketball for the same reasons a boy would. After Yuself walks Stevie home and Evelyn sees them kissing, she lectures Stevie about her responsibility as a woman to protect herself and reminds Stevie that she has a reputation to uphold. Stevie attributes this differential treatment to the fact that she is a girl and realizes that the male gender is more privileged. Her mother confirms this assumption when she says, 'I expect more from you than the boys, plus you're the oldest. If anybody has to set an example, you do' (Sinclair 92). Stevie learns from her mother that men are not only superior but also free from accountability. 'Nobody cares much what a man does. No matter how low a man stoops, he can always get up, brush himself off, put on a clean set of clothes, and he's still Mr. Johnson. A woman has to consider her reputation' (Sinclair 93).
When Stevie enters her first serious relationship during her junior year of high school with Sean, a senior, she becomes sexually active but is still confused about her role as a sexual woman. Because of the double messages she has received, she is craving sexual intimacy but also feels the pressure to fend it off. Stevie believes that her job is to keep Sean interested enough to stay with her, but to abstain from sexual intercourse as long as she can for fear of becoming pregnant. According to Jordan in 'Clarity in Connection: Empathic Knowing, Desire, and Sexuality', the most frequent fears about sexuality a woman experiences during adolescence is the fear of not being loved, being 'used', and 'being left' (Jordan 62). Closely related to these fears is the fear of pregnancy. While in the back seat of Sean's brother's car, Stevie gives Sean multiple reasons for not having intercourse: she is afraid someone will walk by the car and see them; she fears he will lose respect for her; lastly, she fears pregnancy, to which Sean replies, 'If I messed a girl up, I'd stand by her' (Sinclair 193), a statement that in and of itself implies that sex is done to a woman, not with a woman. All of Stevie's excuses are relational; she believes that if she becomes pregnant, her parents and teachers will be disappointed. Like most women, Stevie has been taught to say 'no' and to set boundaries, but she has not been taught to shape sexual practice once she has decided to have sex (Vanwesenbeeck 177). She never considers her own feelings during her relationship with Sean and consequently never sees herself as a complete individual being, sexual or otherwise.
Stevie incorporates into her own beliefs the gender-biased assertions from her mother, and because of this she believes that it is her duty as a woman to satisfy Sean's desires and keep him happy despite her own unhappiness. By prescribing to the belief that as a man Sean will seek to satisfy his sexual needs one way or another, Stevie decides to have intercourse to maintain their relationship. In Vanwesenbeeck's interviews of college-age girls for her essay on heterosexuality and powerlessness, she noticed that many girls use sex to 'establish and maintain a relationship' and 'to find self-assurance and self-confirmation' (Vanwesenbeeck 175). It is obvious from the results of the interviews that the girls gave up control to the boys during sexual interactions. Many of them did not expect to have orgasm during intercourse, perhaps, suggests Vanwesenbeeck, because 'sexual fulfillment conflicts with their roles as 'mothers' towards the boys' (Vanwesenbeeck 175); the girls exhibited consideration for the boys' sensitivities before their own. Like the girls interviewed, Stevie is more concerned with satisfying Sean's desires than her own, and because of this, her first experience with intercourse is not mutually gratifying. The entire concept of intercourse seems to disgust Stevie: 'I knew that I was supposed to be excited, but what was so exciting about having something pushed inside a hole?' (Sinclair 216). Stevie's description of Sean's erection against her thigh as well as the embarrassment she feels concerning the noises her body is making indicates the tension and forced-nature of this encounter. Most sexual experiences during adolescence are focused on the importance of the relationship in regards to the male's desires, and because of this many women feel they 'gave in' during their first sexual intercourse (Jordan 63). Because the goal of intercourse is orgasm, the experience of intercourse is predominately focused on the experience of the male. During intercourse, women are more concerned with the entire experience and with creating something larger than the individual. Sexual orgasm is defined as the most important even during the exchange, and because of this the woman is left unsatisfied (Jordan 63). Since Stevie's goal is to make Sean happy, sexual satisfaction for her is never her concern: 'I reminded myself that I didn't have to enjoy it, I just had to get through it' (Sinclair 217).
The lack of communication in this mother-daughter relationship is not the only variable that affects Stevie's development. Evelyn has internalized negative stereotypes of African Americans, and by adopting white standards of beauty and encouraging Stevie to do the same, she inhibits the development of Stevie's racial and group identity. Evelyn suggests that Stevie use bleaching creams to lighten her skin color. She places more importance on the hierarchy of skin color than the safety of her daughter when she dismisses Stevie's concerns about the dangers of the creams. She encourages Stevie to be more aware of the opinion of others and minimalizes how Stevie feels about herself: 'Jean Eloise, you can't just think of yourself, you have to see yourself the way others see you' (Sinclair 164). Evelyn's internalized racism also contributes to her decision to marry her husband. She openly states that she chose to marry him because of his lighter skin, and that this choice ensured that her children would have lighter skin as well, and therefore fit into an oppressed society that appreciates and demands white physical markers.
Stevie's hair is also a hot debate with Evelyn. The natural state of African American hair is not considered appealing by white standards, and Evelyn encourages Stevie to keep her hair straight. When she first learns that Stevie is growing her hair into an afro, she responds: 'You're not going around here looking like a Ubangi!' (Sinclair 166). According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Ubangi is 'a woman of the district of Kyab' village in Chad [Africa] with lips pierced and distended to unusual dimensions with wooden disks'. By comparing Stevie to a Ubangi, her mother implies that natural black hair is unsophisticated and primitive. In the racially oppressed society Evelyn and Stevie live in, the state of an African American woman's hair is deeply related to her worth and social status.
Evelyn further restricts Stevie from bonding with her African American culture by focusing on the usage of the English language. Grammatical correctness is such an important skill in Evelyn's eyes that it outweighs the communication between mother and daughter. No matter that topic, she interrupts Stevie correct her grammar and demands that Stevie repeat the proper way to pronounce words and structure sentences. According to Ernie Smith in his article 'Ebonics is not Black English,' Ebonics refers to 'the 'linguistic and para-linguistic features, which on a concentric continuum, represent the language and communicative competence of West and Niger-Congo African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendants of Niger-Congo African origin'' (Smith 112). Ebonics, a termed coined in 1973 that is a combination of the word ebony (black) and phonics (sounds), has a bad reputation as incorrect Standard English. Smith argues that since Ebonics includes the verbal and para-linguistic components of communication, it actually represents encompassing psychological thought processes of an individual as well (Smth 112). In this case, because Ebonics includes non-verbal cues and body language, it is an important aspect of black culture. By denying Stevie the ability to communicate with her peers, and forcing her to perform code-switching in order to fit in, both inside and out of her home, Evelyn is embedding negative stereotypes of her own race into Stevie's psyche, and affecting her ability to form a group identity.
Evelyn and Stevie's relationship exposes the difference in attitudes between generations. Stevie's black pride is largely influenced by the time period she lives in; the generations of African Americans who lived during and after the Civil Rights Movement were able to express pride for their race and ethnicity, whereas Evelyn grew up during a repressed period of white superiority. Because of this, Evelyn has internalized white standards of beauty, as well as language, and is passing this belief on to her children. The argument can be made that by forcing white standards of beauty and Standard English on Stevie, Evelyn is attempting to protect her daughter and prepare her for the best possible opportunities in life. She acknowledges the fact that racial oppression exists, and understands that because she is surrounded by this oppression, she can either fight it or play along. Without proper explanation, however, this strategy merely appears as internalized racism instead of the utilization of the system. By denying Stevie's desire to affiliate herself with her racial culture, Evelyn fails to affirm her daughter's identity as a young black woman.
Sinclair's novel contains many common experiences adolescents encounter while trying to find their own sexual identity. The relationship between Stevie and her mother is pivotal and grooms Stevie for confusion once she becomes socially and sexually active with the opposite sex, as well as exposed to a racially oppressed society. Likewise, Senna's novel Caucasia discusses absent mothers in regards to identity formation. The formation of identity typically occurs during adolescence, but for biracial children this already daunting task is complicated even further by the search for racial identity amid two races. Birdie is not able to fit in with the black community because her skin is significantly lighter than her sister's. Both she and her sister Cole are biracial, but Birdie's light skin and straight hair more closely resemble white physical markers, whereas Cole, with her curly hair and darker complexion, looks black. Birdie desires to identify with her 'black self', but because her mother, Sandy, forces her to adopt a new white identity, Birdie struggles to understand who she is at all.
Deck and Sandy Lee marry with the hopes of breaking racial barriers during the turbulent 1970s in Boston. They raise their daughters with the notion that 'Race is a complete delusion' (Senna 391), but because they ignore the impact of a racially oppressed society on their daughters, Cole and Birdie are ill-prepared for the world. Sandy and Deck view their biracial daughters as experiments, examples that 'race mixing produced superior minds, the way a mutt is always more intelligent than a purebred dog' (Senna 26). Before Birdie is old enough to concern herself with identity, she looks to Cole '' as the reflection that proved my own existence' (Senna 5). Birdie feels unseen from the beginning, before she realizes that her skin color can be a defining marker to the outside world. She recognizes that her reflection does not resemble her sister, but despite the physical differences between the girls, they are inseparable and at times seem to be one entity. This unification, however, is challenged by not only the white community, but the black community as well. Without Cole by her side, it is difficult for Birdie to claim ownership of her black heritage. She often feels stuck in the middle of two races and unable to fully identify with either one of them. This inner conflict is common for biracial children. In the 2006 study 'Biracial Females' Reflections on Racial Identity Development in Adolescence,' Karia Kelch-Oliver and Leigh A. Leslie interviewed nine black-white biracial, college-age women in an attempt to better understand their experiences. The interviews reported that 'the most common experience was a feeling of being marginal between two cultures' (Kelch-Oliver and Leslie 53). The study pointed out that while the least common type of interracial union is of one African-American partner and one Caucasian partner, it is also 'the most negatively stigmatized' (Kelch-Oliver and Leslie 54). Of the nine women interviewed, six identified themselves as biracial, three as black, and none of the women identified themselves as white. One of the women who identified herself as biracial recognized and internalized her racial identity as belonging to a distinct category that emphasizes the importance of the race of both parents. She explains: 'A part of me is Black, but why would I just call myself Black and not acknowledge the other half?' (Kelch-Oliver and Leslie 56). Another woman said that she identified herself as Black because of the racial discrimination and prejudice she had experienced: 'My reason for saying I'm Black is because' the struggles that I face, the opportunities that I have, the places where I'm most comfortable, the things I can relate to ' they're Black' I'm not going to lead the life that a White woman would have' Black's a culture and an experience, and it's who I am on a deeper level' (Kelch-Oliver and Leslie 57). This woman most closely resembles Birdie's attitude toward her own racial identity; Birdie feels most comfortable in the black community, but is unable to fully submerge herself into the culture because of her physical appearance.
Despite Sandy and Deck's attempts to deemphasize the importance of race, the girls are still very aware of racial tension. In order to protect themselves from outside scrutiny and still maintain their sisterly bond, the girls create a language through which they alone can communicate. This language, Elemeno, has no exacting structure or grammar: 'It was a complicated language, impossible for outsiders to pick up ' no verb tenses, no pronouns, just words floating outside time and space without owner or direction' (Senna 6). This language strengthens and defines the girls' relationship, and even though Elemeno is a spoken language, the communication seems to be almost non-verbal. Since there is no pattern to the language and no predictability, the girls are solely relying on their ability to instinctually understand each other.
Birdie and Cole build not only an oral barrier to protect them from the outside world, but also a physical barrier. They guard themselves in the confines of their attic where they create their own cities out of stuffed animals and dress up in costumes. Birdie describes the feeling of keeping the outside world at a distance, 'as far away as Timbuktu ' some place that could never touch us', as comforting (Senna 7). When the reality of the racial tension in the outside world permeates their attic, the girls imagine that Elemeno is not just a language, but also a place where people 'could turn not just from black to white, but from brown to yellow, to purple to green and back again' (Senna 7). At a young age, Cole is very perceptive to racial tension, even though she does not fully understand the source. She says that the goal of the Elemenos is invisibility for sake of the survival of their species. Birdie's perception of Cole as seen, verses her self-perception as unseen, does not coincide with Cole's own view of her physical appearance. As Cole explains that the Elemenos change colors and forms in order to disappear into their surroundings, Birdie wonders, 'What was the point of surviving if you had to disappear?', a question she will identify with later in her adolescent life.
Because Sandy does not encourage appreciation for Birdie's biracial heritage, and Birdie's claim to her black heritage is largely related to her sister, her separation from Cole affects her immensely. While Birdie hops from state to state in the Northeastern part of the country, she feels like she is 'just a body without a name or a history, sitting beside my mother in the front seat of our car, moving forward on the highway, not stopping' (Senna 1). Her mother gives her a new race, religion, and name while eating in a diner in Maine as if none of those characteristics attribute to a person's sense of self; Sandy treats Birdie as if she is moldable and her identity as if it is replaceable. By renaming Birdie, Sandy is further erasing Cole from her life; Cole named Birdie after she was born: 'Cole just called me Birdie ' she had wanted a parakeet for her birthday and instead got me' (Senna 19). Cole, in essence, is both the 'creator' of Birdie's identity and the force Birdie gravitates around for stability. Once Birdie and Cole are separated, Sandy creates Jesse Goldman, a new identity Birdie must accommodate. Unlike Cole, however, Sandy is not a steady force Birdie can use to form her identity.
The struggle Birdie faces in the formation of a racial identity is unique because she is forced to pass as not only white, but also Jewish. In his article 'Racial(ized) Identity, Ethnic Identity, and Afrocentric Values: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges in Understanding African American Identity,' Kevin O. Cokley says that '' the development of a racial identity is a result of minority status, and because of this minority status a developmental challenge is to negotiate and develop a positive group identity' (Cokley 518). When considering Birdie's situation, it is important to denote the differences in racial and ethnic identity. According to Cokley, the models used in racial identity refer to the reactions to societal oppression based on racial markers, and the models used for ethnic identity describe the 'acquisition and maintenance of cultural characteristics such as religious expression and language' (Cokley 518). In other words, 'ethnicity refers to differences in nationality, ancestry, religion, language, culture, and history to which personal and social meanings of group identity are usually attached' (Cokley 518). Sandy not only forces her daughter to pass as white and ignore her black heritage, but she also forces upon her a fake ethnic identity by giving Birdie a false past, a deceased, imagined father, a new religion, and by denying her the ability to communicate through Elemeno. Because of these actions, Sandy denies Birdie any opportunity to form a positive group identity because she cannot identify with any group.
Senna portrays Sandy as a 'white savior', an idea that she clearly criticizes. Even though she appears to want to help her daughters with their struggles with being black, Sandy dismisses Birdie's black half. Sandy's choice of religion for herself and her daughter reflects her interests in the realm of politics and race. As a young girl, Sandy demonstrates these interests from the way she is 'obsessed by the footage she had seen of the Jews being liberated from Treblinka' (Senna 32) and how she cries 'over photographs of the sad-eyed skeletons of the camps' (Senna 32). Her fixation on the liberation of the Jews is interesting considering her decision to designate Birdie as a 'cultural Jew', which means that she does not practice the religion, but is only Jewish by heritage (fake father, David Goldman). Sandy also does not debrief Birdie on the history of the Jewish religion or its people; Birdie simply wears the Star of David like a costume to hide behind.
By labeling Birdie's white identity (Jesse Goldman) as a cultural Jew, Sandy is liberating Birdie from her old biracial identity, which Sandy perceives as imprisoning. The symbolic notion of choosing such a religion for a prescribed identity suggests that, even though she marries a black man in an attempt to change the world and challenge social and racial boundaries, Sandy sees her biracial daughter as trapped by her own heritage. She wishes to free her daughter by passing her off as a white Jew, a culture of people who suffered but prevailed on to freedom. Birdie does not perceive of her new identity the same way her mother does; in fact, she sees her situation as just the opposite. Birdie feels that she is caged and trapped by passing as a white girl, and she longs to free herself from this false identity.
Ironically, Birdie is socially scrutinized for claiming to be Jewish, a cultural identity that is supposed to protect her while she and her mother are in hiding. Even though Birdie recognizes that this story concocted by her mother is a game of make believe, she starts to feel connected to this made-up character, Jesse Goldman. After neighborhood boys throw pennies at Birdie, she realizes she is being called a 'kike' because of the Star of David she wears around her neck: 'I felt a pang of loyalty toward this imaginary father, and touched the necklace' (Senna 246). After she is forced to live a new life in New Hampshire, the only sense of connection Birdie feels to any group is that of a false group. She is so detached from herself and confused about who she is that she begins to internalize this Jewish identity.
The complexity of Birdie's detachment becomes more intense once she begins to view herself from the outside: 'I would, quite literally, feel myself rising above a scene, looking down at myself, hearing myself speak' (Senna 190). At one time, Birdie felt invisible, but now she is putting herself under the microscope and looking at herself as an object: 'I would gaze down at the thin girl sitting by the fence, the one with her brown hair falling into her eyes, drawing patterns in the dirt, and watch this girl with the detachment of a stranger' (Senna 190). Once 'Birdie Lee' is erased from existence in New Hampshire, Birdie is left feeling not only invisible, but non-existent, with nothing solid to hold on to. Birdie's psychological and emotional stability takes a toll at this point, especially once the mere mention of her former self becomes taboo. An extremely confused Birdie begins to think of herself in terms of 'you' instead of 'I', and uses this as a coping mechanism during her four years on the run with her mother: '' as long as the girl was 'you,' I didn't feel that I lived those scenes, only that I witnessed them' (Senna 190).
Since Sandy's identity is more fluid than Birdie's identity, Sandy cannot grasp how Birdie is affected by being forced to pass as white. As a young girl, Sandy is an outsider within her own social group. When Sandy is in high school, she is ''a hefty and pensive girl in a world of lithe and winsome debutantes, girls who accepted their good fortunes with style and manners' (Senna 32). The only solace Sandy feels is after she marries Deck and becomes involved in political activism. She comes from money and a Harvard-educated family, but until she challenges racial and social boundaries by marrying a black man and taking a stance on the race war in Boston, she does not feel as though she has a purpose. Once Sandy has taken on the role of 'Sheila Goldman', she easily transitions into a 'Wasp', a group of people she readily insults and degrades. According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Wasps are people 'of Northern European and especially British ancestry and of Protestant background; especially a member of the dominant and the most privileged class of people in the United States'. Sandy makes disparaging comments about Wasps of people, but because she is born into this group, she has the ability to communicate between both worlds. Ironically, she is only readily accepted by Wasps after her physical appearance changes: she loses weight and dyes her hair with henna. The time she spends on the run is perceived as somewhat of a game of pretend to her. Switching identities has no emotional effect because she has no real connection to an ethnic identity, so she can change fit the situation. For Birdie, however, floating between two identities is severely damaging to her emotional and psychological development and leads to detachment. While Sandy is accepted because of her physical appearance, Birdie has to lie about her heritage in order to find acceptance due to her appearance.
Birdie's racial and ethnic identities are not the only aspects of her development affected by her mother. In contrast to Stevie's sexual experiences in Coffee Will Make You Black, Birdie's mother exposes her to a very open and experimental sexual environment at a young age. The first time Sandy and Birdie step away from their transient lifestyle and expose themselves emotionally is when they arrive at a women's commune called Aurora in upstate New York. In this commune, Sandy describes her relationship with one of the women as 'Sapphic bliss' (Senna 136). Merriam-Webster defines the word 'Sapphic' as related to the Greek lyric poet Sappho, whose poems are associated with female homosexuality, and whose birthplace, Lesbos, is the etymological origin of the word 'lesbian'. At Aurora, women participate in such behaviors as skinny dipping and smoking marijuana. They are also topless most of the time. The freedom women in the commune express can best be explained in 'Breasted Experience: The Look and the Feeling' by Iris Marion Young. She explains that in the absence of the male gaze, women can feel de-objectified. Breasts emerge at the same time identity is typically developed in adolescence: 'Breasts are the most visible sign of a woman's femininity, the signal of her sexuality' (Young 191). Young discusses the unique experience women encounter in a lesbian-dominated space where breasts can be exposed without the intrusion of the male gaze: '' a woman's breasts become almost like a part of her face. Like her nose or her mouth, a woman's breasts are distinctive, one sign by which one might recognize her' (Young 198). By being exposed to this type of freedom, Birdie's sexual development, as well as sexual identity, is affected differently than Stevie's sexual development.
In witnessing the conduct at Aurora, Birdie acknowledges the homo-erotic behavior of her mother, and has a short lived relationship herself. While Birdie and Alexis' relationship is homosexual, it mimics heterosexual behaviors. Birdie recounts the time she spent with Alexis: 'Some nights, on the mattress we shared, I had straddled her in a game we called 'honeymoon.' She would say, 'You be the guy, and I'll be the girl. Pretend you have to hold me down. Pretend you're the boss' (Senna 199). Like Stevie in Coffee Will Make You Black, Birdie and Alexis have adopted the notion that men have control over women during heterosexual interactions, and are role playing to fulfill this belief. Even though they assign each other a male or female role, their overall attitude contrasts with that of Stevie's mother, Evelyn. Stevie learns from her mother that her body and sexuality should be stifled, but at the same time her peers send the message that sexuality and the female body is a tool used to maintain relationships and keep a man satisfied. While Birdie is taught that sexual experimentation is acceptable and her first exposure is removed from the male gaze, Stevie feels like her supposed-homosexual feelings toward another woman makes her an outcast; because Stevie does not want to have sex with Sean, she thinks she is a lesbian. For her, sexuality is black and white, but for Birdie, sexuality is fluid.
Similar to Stevie's experience, Birdie is also confronted with questions pertaining to the status of her virginity. When Nicholas inquires about Birdie's virginity, it is clear that Birdie adheres to the heterosexual definition of a sexual act. Birdie ponders the relationship between Alexis and herself, and admits to doing 'strange things' (Senna 199). Her understanding of sexuality consists of 'hold[ing] her down and rub[bing] my body against hers, my face hot and moist in the crook of her neck, while I felt a sharp pleasure that turned to melting between my legs' (Senna 199). Birdie plays the dominant sexual role with Alexis, leading the way through the exploration of their bodies. Nicholas, however, takes control with Birdie, and this confuses her: 'It was difficult. With Alexis I had always been the one on top, the one doing the groping and the grinding, the one doing what Nicholas was doing' (Senna 166). Birdie is not sure of how to act while in the subordinate position of intimate heterosexual interactions. When he guides her hand 'towards his shorts' (Senna 203), she validates the 'slight tingling between her legs' by comparing it to how she felt with Alexis. Because Birdie's first exposure to the sexual world is homosexual, her sexuality exists on a continuum. Given this, however, she still does not feel comfortable with making her homosexual encounters known. When Nicholas asks Birdie where she learned to kiss, Birdie replies, 'With this friend of mine, Alex' (Senna 204). Because Birdie drops the '-is' from Alexis' name, Nicholas assumes Alex is male. Even though Birdie has been exposed to homosexuality in an environment where it is accepted, she is not comfortable admitting to participating in such acts.
Despite Birdie's acceptance of a subservient position with Nicholas, she asserts herself when the situation becomes 'too real' (Senna 203): 'Then he put his hand behind my head and began to push it down, in the direction of his crotch. I heard him whisper, 'Suck me Poca[hontas].' I panicked and jerked out of his grip' (Senna 203). Birdie risks damaging her relationship with Nicholas by rejecting his command, but her refusal is met with a positive reaction; unlike Sean with Stevie, Nicholas respects Birdie's decision to stop. Because of this, Birdie's (partial) control of the situation is ratified, and therefore she has taken ownership of her actions and is able to control what happens to her body. Stevie perceives of sexual intimacy and intercourse as happening to her, whereas Birdie acknowledges a sense of control of her body. This enables Birdie to develop a sense of sexual autonomy, but because she cannot form an identity, she still views herself as object.
The influence of mothers in Coffee Will Make You Black and Caucasia is detrimental to the racial, ethnic, and sexual identity of both Stevie and Birdie. Stevie is unable to successfully communicate with her mother about sexuality and is left at the mercy of her peers as this lack of communication follows her into her heterosexual relationships. Stevie's adolescence occurs during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, a time when gender roles were being challenged and the restraints of female sexuality were being broken. Traditional gender roles were still very prominent, and this clash of ideals causes Stevie to be pulled in two directions as she attempts to form her own opinions about sexuality. Because the men she associates herself with are for the most part chauvinistic and have conformed to society's definition of a 'man', Stevie has trouble holding on to her more feminist beliefs about womanhood. She conforms to the pressures of a subservient female in her relationships in order to maintain them, and once she breaks free of that conformity, her relationships suffer. If Evelyn was more open minded about sexuality when it came to her daughter, Stevie could have felt more secure in her female sexual identity.Like Stevie, Birdie also forms her identity in relation to others, specifically her sister. In Birdie's case, her racial identity depends on the presence or absence of Cole. Once she is separated from Cole, she struggles to form an identity at all; the only link she feels she has to the black community has been taken away, and her mother's invention of a false racial and ethnic identity creates even more uncertainty. Being a biracial child in the 1970s is already challenging because race is delineated yet restrictive, but Birdie is forced to live the majority of her adolescent years in a whirlwind of false identities, none of which seem completely her own. Unlike Stevie, however, Birdie is exposed to an environment where sexuality is fluid. This allows for her sexual identity development to exist on a continuum. According to Jill McLean Taylor in 'Adolescent Development', ''autonomy is the courage to be an independent individual who can choose and guide his own future' (Taylor 30). Neither Stevie nor Birdie are able to guide their own futures because their mothers negatively impact their psychological and sexual development by forcing them to conform to what the mothers want instead of affirming the daughters' identities.
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