Published April 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Let me declare my bias right up front: With few exceptions, I have scant patience for literature -- fiction and not -- that agonizes over the dilemma of the black soul trapped in a body that appears to be white. Most days, people who are visibly members of the African Diaspora suffer such horrors that the angst that their paler compatriots endure over whether or not to claim the race seems a luxury that doesn't merit much complaint. And while dark-on-light color prejudice does, indeed, exist among blacks (from the "She think she cute cause she look white" variety -- an experience I can attest to personally -- to the more pernicious "What's this white MF doing over here on our side of town, let's kick his ass" variety), it's more common the other way around, and often with more dire consequences.

That said, two books about the black soul/white body dilemma have been published recently that made me put aside my self-imposed injunction on the issue. Toi Derricotte and Danzy Senna both have written stories in which passing -- going racially incognito -- plays a pivotal part.

Derricotte, a nationally recognized poet and university professor, has written "The Black Notebooks," an excruciatingly candid memoir of her attempt to come to grips with the oxymoron of looking white while being reared in black American culture. She started the book 20 years ago, deeply depressed about racism, this country's inability to stop sipping from that poisoned cup and her own shame and fear for taking what some would call the easy way out. In a very calculated sin of omission, she chose not to identify herself as black, knowing that others would simply assume she was white if she didn't correct them. She finally decided to 'fess up because, as she told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year, "to show myself in this unfavorable light is to say, 'Let's talk about the things that racism makes us do.'" She hopes that in sharing her own personal and painful evolution in as undecorated a manner as possible, she'll contribute to making us all a bit more willing to examine our own racial fears, prejudices and hopes.

Even as Derricotte begins her confessions -- and they do read as if said in the hushed sanctity of a trusted friendship or, more accurately, the purposefully nonjudgmental safety of the analyst's office -- she worries: "What benefit can this be? It's already been done by somebody better. It's too late ... racism doesn't happen to people of my color ... Light skin gives me such privileges that my complaints are not worthy. I'm not 'positive' enough, not 'black' enough ... Whose side am I on?" And, as my own initial misgivings of the genre show, there is cause for her anxiety. An attractive woman with light skin and features that can, depending on the eye of the beholder, be interpreted as racially ambiguous, Derricotte clearly has had the benefits of a middle-class life: She's been well-educated, she works as a writer in the fine arts and she was for decades married to one of the first black executives in the banking industry. Much of the early part of her memoir is spent recounting her disappointment with life in Upper Montclair, N.J., a bedroom suburb of New York that was, in the early '70s, still white by design until she and her husband integrated it. (And that only happened because she house-shopped without her discernibly black spouse, and chose not to disclose her race to the realtor until all the t's had been crossed, the i's dotted on their deed.)

The joy of attaining the home of her dreams, however, was darkened by a miasma of fury and longing: Derricotte spends far too much time worrying that she and her husband aren't included in the neighborhood's social life, the linchpin of which is a country club with predictably exclusionary membership policies. Her neighbors (some of them) profess to abhor those policies -- but demur to change, even as they sheepishly apologize for their moral laxity: "We met for four hours. Several of us said we would turn in our resignations unless you could come [to a club dinner]. But the majority felt it wouldn't be a good idea because you'd see all the good things and want to join, and since you couldn't join, it would just hurt you and be frustrating. John and I wanted to quit. I feel very ashamed of myself, but the next summer when I was stuck in the house with the kids and nothing to do, we started going again." (Which means, of course, these non-prejudiced people must not have resigned to begin with, just placed themselves on the "inactive" roster until they deigned to go back to the fold. These are the same progressive beings who gasped, "I didn't know black people had houses like this!" when they saw a photograph of Derricotte's mother's home.)

I read passages like that one and I want to shake Derricotte and ask, "Why on earth would you want to be with those people anyway?" It's unfathomable to me, as is much of the similar anguish in this book. Derricotte's early musings possess a level of racial naiveti I find shocking -- but that may be explicable, given our ages. Although she and I are exactly 10 years apart (56 and 46, respectively), it was a critical decade, one in which we moved from being Negro to being black, and became, in many ways, less hopeful of what integration could and would do for us. When I was 15, my family integrated our tree-canopied block in New Haven, Conn.; unlike Derricotte, none of us expected that our neighbors, primarily middle-aged, middle-class and Jewish, would be friends, although some of them, indeed, evolved into friends over time.

Like us, most integrating blacks were people setting off into white neighborhoods like westward pioneers on prairie schooners. We were going with firm purpose and a definite list of wants: better houses, better schools, less crime. If getting those things meant living next to white people, so be it, but living next to white people, per se, was not why we went. Potlucks with the neighbors was not on that list of goals; if it occurred, it was considered a windfall, a little social lagniappe. The integrating black families I knew went with the intention of forming our own islands, socially self-sufficient. We went assuming white anxiety and social rejection were part of the price of upward mobility, the price of the ticket. (And in most cases, they were.)

Which makes me wonder: Where were Derricotte's black anchors? The elite women's social groups, the men's fraternal organizations made up of doctors, lawyers, MBAs? If you could scan photos of these groups taken at the same time that Derricotte lived in Upper Montclair, you would see immediately that there was no lack of white-looking black socialites; major cities of the Eastern Seaboard and the South were (and, to some degree, are) still full of them. Why was Derricotte not among their numbers? Especially since she has no guilt (unlike some privileged blacks a few years later) surrounding the issue of remaining in the upper middle class. Even if she wasn't religious and eschewed the church route, there were other ways (such as the ones just mentioned) to be included among W.E.B. DuBois' "Talented Tenth." That she did not avail herself of them remains one of the many unspoken mysteries in this book.

Danzy Senna's "Caucasia," which is fiction, has the ring of a more recognizable truth throughout. Senna, a biracial 26-year-old, has written what one can only guess is a partly autobiographical novel. It shows with devastating clarity what happens when the well-meaning but solipsistic white radicalism of the late '60s collides with the corrective but also solipsistic black nationalism of the early '70s. As always, it's not only the people driving those runaway ideologies who are injured; innocent bystanders are, too.

In "Caucasia," those bystanders are children, Cole and Birdie Lee. Their mother, Sandy, is the shy, overweight daughter of a Cambridge blue blood (Cotton Mather is a cherished ancestor) and a liberal Harvard academic. Their father, Deck, is a bright, upwardly mobile graduate student who grew up scant miles (and yet light years) away, in the Orchard Street Projects of Dorchester. Like a lot of interracial couples at the time, Sandy Lodge and Deck Lee marry in the assumption that the Gordian knot that is America's race problem would loosen, if not come undone, in the foreseeable future. It doesn't, of course. In Boston it grows even tighter, as the tension surrounding the great busing experiment of the early 1970s polarizes the city's black and white populations to an even greater degree.

As their parents' marriage disintegrates under the twin pressures of their mother's radical leftist activities and their father's deepening submersion into his newfound interest in black culture, Birdie and Cole are left to pick their way through a social minefield. After years of home schooling, they're plunked into the Nkrumah School in Roxbury, a private academy stressing black culture and politics with a nationalist world view -- another one of the grand social experiments of the time. (There were real-life counterparts, like the Nairobi School in East Palo Alto, Calif., but they have mostly died out now.) Cole, who is brown-skinned with her father's kinky hair and her mother's green-gray eyes, fits in immediately. Birdie, ivory-skinned with straight brown hair, finds every day a torture. Like Toi Derricotte in later life, she's made to declare her blackness over and over to disbelieving students who wonder how someone who looks as she does can be trusted to think as they do.

Eventually, things fall apart. In a disastrous, ad hoc agreement between the estranged parents, Deck splits in the middle of the night for Brazil, taking Cole with him. Hours afterward, Birdie and her mother depart too. It seems her mother's radical activity (unspecified throughout the book, but inferred as hiding stockpiled weapons for use in some future revolutionary insurrection) has caught the eye of the dreaded feds. Or at least her mother suspects that's the case. To escape surveillance, Sandy has an "ingenious solution": She and Birdie will simply disappear into America. "The FBI would be looking for a white woman on the lam with her black child. But the fact that I could pass, she explained, with my straight hair, pale skin, my general phenotypic resemblance to the Caucasoid race, would throw them off our trail. The two bodies that had made her stand out in a crowd -- made her more than just another white woman -- were gone; now it was just the two of us. My body was the key to our going incognito ... We'd be scot-free, she told me, a couple of new people overnight."

And so they do just that, plunging Birdie into a world of carefully crafted subterfuge. She's rechristened Jesse Goldman, daughter of a distinguished, recently deceased Jewish classics professor and a goy mother. Their lack of contacts with relatives is explained with oblique references to joint parental disapproval of this fabricated, mixed-religion marriage. Birdie passes reluctantly, not to gain entry to a racially exclusive venue or to avoid painful or embarrassing disclosure but to save her mother from apprehension and jail.

Jesse's journey back to being Birdie takes the reader through a host of '70s scenes that have, by now, become clichis, fodder for the rightist rants of people like David Horowitz and Bill Bennett. The escapees sojourn at a feminist commune in upstate New York. They rent a small cottage in rural New Hampshire, the tenants of limousine liberals who sneer at the locals for their prejudices, yet get caught with their own racial panties showing a few times. She gets an earful of what her white, prole peers, less worldly and far less educated, think of black folks: They're stupid. They're dirty. They're perpetually horny. The men have huge dicks, the mere contemplation of which gives the girls, with their Farrah Fawcett feather cuts and glittery nails, a delicious frisson. "My grandmother in Boston used to say that 'the Negroes should stop obsessing about race. Then maybe everyone else would,'" Jesse observes. "But I was finding that in New Hampshire, the white folks needed no prompting. It came up all the time, like a fixation, and there was nothing I could do to avoid it."

In the end, that "twoness" that DuBois talked about so famously becomes too much to bear, both for the fictional Birdie and the real Derricotte. No longer willing to live in peace as a white girl, Birdie flees New Hampshire and her racial camouflage, determined to return to Boston to find, somehow, the lost, overtly black half of her family. Derricotte, after decades of serving as an unwilling spy in the war between the races, decides to declare herself and be damned. "I think that most people protect themselves, their relationships, their friends, by not quite facing the worst. On the contrary, I go searching for it. Especially in myself. I keep telling the truth even when it is abhorrent."

By Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a news correspondent for the West Coast Bureau of People Magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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