Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History

Danzy Senna




Trade Paperback

208 Pages


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In 1968, Danzy Senna's parents were at the forefront of racial issues in America: two young American writers from divergent backgrounds—a white woman with a blue-blood Bostonian lineage and a black man, the son of a struggling single mother and an unknown father. When their marriage disintegrated eight years later, the violent, traumatic split felt all the more tragic because it had once seemed like the couple would overcome the social constructs of the era. Senna reflects not only on her parents’ divorce but on the histories that they had tried so hard to overcome. In the tradition of James McBride's The Color of Water, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is "a stunningly rendered personal heritage that mirrors the complexities of race, class, and ethnicity in the United States" (Booklist).


Praise for Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

"Senna is masterly at relaying—and, more important, withholding—information . . . every lead, every twist, begs for a page-flip."—David Matthews, The New York Times Book Review

"'I am the product of a profound failure, a marriage so disastrous it looks in retrospect like a war,' Danzy Senna proclaims, and by the end of this brave, rueful memoir, her words are as much an understatement as an indictment. As with Caucasia, her award-winning 1998 debut novel, Senna considers the weight of race, family dysfunction, and identity in Where Did You Sleep Last Night? Here, Senna casts a lacerating eye on her own family—especially her father—as well as her parents' rancorous eight-year marriage, and the social and familial forces that likely doomed their union from the start. To accomplish this, Senna dives into the fractured lives of her father and his kin. Part personal history, part detective yarn, this is a melancholy story of unlocking the present with the hidden keys of the past, and of a daughter trying to find resolution with the father she both reveres and fears . . . Anyone who has ever excavated their family's history—or even asked a few too many questions about a particular event or relative, only to be met with hostile silence—will recognize the calamitous journey Senna has set for herself in this book. Family secrets are like lethal mines buried deep within a clan's marrow, and woe to anyone foolhardy enough to tread upon them. Senna learns this quickly. One of her father's sisters declined to be mentioned by name in the book; another refused to be mentioned at all. Of course, they already know what Senna gradually discovers—that their family tree is twisted with forbidden love affairs, invented parentage, and other unforeseen complexities. By the end of this arduous journey, Senna may not fully understand her father, but she comes away with a deeper knowledge of the struggles, both internal and external, that short-circuited his life. And for Senna, that may bring a measure of peace, one as fragile as it is bittersweet."—Renée Graham, The Boston Globe

"Senna devotes much of the memoir to her journey into the unknowns of her father's life and the complicated racial history that he blames for his shortcomings. Unlike her mother, who can trace her lineage to the Quincys, the Adamses, scholars and slave-runners, her father has an identity 'as murky as the Louisiana swamp where he'd been born.' Senna retraces her father's childhood, passing through an orphanage and the homes of the unrelated people who served as his family. Her father joins her for part of the trip, but only because she pays his way; when she takes him to the airport, he hits her up for another $40. Senna rightly calls this book a 'personal history.' She may analyze every line of her father's birth certificate and reveal the results of his DNA test, but it is her story that we end up understanding best."—Emily Langer, The Washington Post

"When she got married in 1968, Fanny Howe, a poet and novelist descended from a long line of prominent white Americans, wore a gold lamé minidress. Her husband-to-be was Carl Senna, a handsome black writer born of poverty and uncertain parentage. Taking place just one year after the Supreme Court overturned the country's last anti-miscegenation laws, their union was about much more than two people—it was celebrated as a kind of community achievement. In her stirring new memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, their daughter, Danzy Senna (author of the novels Caucasia and Symptomatic), sorts through the wreckage of that marriage, which collapsed into disappointment and violence when she was a child. In coming together, she reflects, her parents 'tried to shed their respective origins,' raising their children 'in a state of willful amnesia.' But those origins refused to be so blithely cast off. A fine storyteller, Senna scrutinizes old photographs, tracks down distant family members and initiates an awkward road trip with her charismatic, volatile father, in which they drive through the South in search of the truth about his tattered past. Her clear-eyed pursuit of her father's story is driven by a sense of responsibility as much as by curiosity, complicated by that fact that their relationship is excruciatingly strained. Caught between her parents' divergent histories, Senna finds her own identity at odds with itself, despite having been cultivated in a sort of bohemian "new world order." Senna relates these winding, uncertain stories with a sense of quiet devastation. She's as fiercely driven to unearth her parents' pasts as they were eager to rise above them."—Eryn Loeb, Time Out New York

"Danzy Senna could compare notes on the failings of fathers with Barack Obama. Like the president, she is the offspring of an interracial marriage that mirrored the hopes and disappointments of the volatile '60s. In each case, the marriage collapsed because of an intelligent, talented black man's inability to rise above his personal weaknesses. Obama was lucky: his loser dad returned to Kenya a few years after he was born. Senna's father became a fixture in her life. And yet in her revealing new memoir, she acknowledges the unintended benefits of his poisonous influence . . . Senna's spare style allows her to maintain control of this emotionally painful material . . . Her descriptive skills are precise, with humor and humanity shining through at unexpected moments. An impressive feat, packing so much into a short book. Saul Bellow dubbed them 'reality instructors,' these con men who teach important life lessons while taking advantage of you. This is the two-edged role Senna's father has played. 'Because I am his black creation at the end of the day,' Senna admits. 'Without him I would be nothing—a WASP with a permanent tan; without him I would have no point of view, no fire.'"—Ariel Gonzalez, The Miami Herald

"A keen examination of a utopian-minded marriage scarred by America's racially divided past."—Megan O'Grady, Vogue

“Senna’s dynamic storytelling illuminates personal revelations that are anything but black and white.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Senna throws everything into her literary stew—ambition, love, obsession, jealousy, and race.”—Elle

“In her courageous portrait of the tumultuous union between her Boston Brahmin mother and her enigmatic black father, Danzy Senna offers a powerfully personal take on the progress of American race relations since the civil rights movement. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? reminds us of the consequences of our origins and our inescapable desire to make sense of them.”—Bliss Broyard, author of One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets

“There are stories we need to find, and stories that must be told. In this masterful work of seeking and telling, hoping and letting go, Danzy Senna stalks her ancestral past like an attorney assembling the case of a lifetime. Her closing remarks prove that as improbable as it sounds, the people of this great country we call America really are indivisible; we truly are one. This book is a great gift. Read it.”—Rebecca Walker, author of Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self

"This genealogical detective story takes readers on an intimate search for identity and personal history. The daughter of a now-divorced interracial couple, the author knew all about her Boston blue-blood mother's family history—her ancestors were writers, widely published, and their personal stories are interwoven with traditional American history. She hungered for information about her black father's background: all she had were ephemeral stories about her grandmother Anna and her alleged grandfather, a white Mexican boxer who disappeared after her father's birth. Unraveling the mystery of her father's family involved trips to the Deep South that offered confusing glimpses into the world of his impoverished childhood. As Senna met people from his past and tried to make sense of their relationships and their stories, she struggled to piece together the clues about his genealogy: What was the truth? What gifts had she gotten from her father? Could she forgive him his paternal shortcomings? Her memoir effectively draws in readers and her evocative descriptions of people, places, and actions provide immediacy and suspense. She explores themes of race, racism, genealogy, black families/kinship, adoption, secrets, class, education, and sibling and parent-child relationships. The story is not without humor, but more often readers encounter pathos, pain, and real people."—Sondra VanderPloeg, Colby-Sawyer College, New London, NH, School Library Journal

"In this wistful yet bitter-toned memoir, Senna (Symptomatic) relates her search for answers about her family and racial heritage, a complicated background that most surely informed first novel, Caucasia. In her 30s, despite having launched a successful writing career and built a life of her own, Senna was curious about her black father's family history (her mother descended from Boston Brahmins). Senna travels South to trace her father's roots, particularly the mystery of his paternity; along the way she meets potential relatives, searches through records and photos and soaks in the atmosphere he knew as a child. Most of her efforts bear little direct fruit (though in the end some answers turn up thanks to DNA testing), but gradually they do help her to better understand her father—a writer and professor, and later a drunk and deadbeat who left Senna's mother and their children. Senna switches narrative vantage points frequently, offering fragments of the past and glimpses of the present. The result is a haunting, introspective meditation on race and family ties that tackles the tricky questions involved in constructing identity."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

In 1975 my mother left my father for the last time. We fled to Guilford, Connecticut. It was a rich town, but we rented an apartment in a tenement that the town's residents referred to only as "the welfare house." The backyard was a heap of dead cars. We lived on the second floor. Below us lived the town's other nonwhite residents, a Korean war bride and her two half-Italian sons. Beside them lived an obese white woman and her teenage son.I don't know if we were officially hiding out from my father there--or if he knew where we were all that time. In my memory
Read the full excerpt


  • Danzy Senna

  • Danzy Senna is the author of the novels Caucasia and Symptomatic.
  • Danzy Senna © Anne Fishbein




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