Music in Caucasia In Caucasia, Danzy Senna tells the tale of two young girls, Cole and Birdie. The products of a biracial couple, they struggle with the growing racial tensions in 1970’s America. The sisters share an inseparable bond, always speaking to each other in their own language, Elemeno. “What was the point of surviving if you had to disappear? [Birdie] said it aloud” (8). She soon learns, much like the Elemenos, that she would have to learn to change form in order to survive. Music is a reoccurring element that Senna weaves into her writing.
As we follow Birdie throughout her story, not only will we see her change, but the music around her changes as well. Her story begins in the 1970’s, the era of funk music, a style of music where African American musicians blended elements of jazz, soul and R&B. Cole and Birdie struggle with their identities after enrolling at the Nkrumah School, an African-American pride focused institution. Soon, they learn to embrace their black culture, picking up Ebonics, and changing their appearance to match their African American peers.
Here is where the reader will notice the music Senna subtly incorporates into her novel. Earth, Wind, & Fire, Al Green, James Brown, all famous African American musicians during that time period. These musicians were iconic figures in the African American community, influencing many other funk and R&B artists at the time. From her mother’s need to go underground, Birdie finds herself in New Hampshire. A new name, a new story, a new life, she is forced to change herself into a white, Jewish girl in order to live in this all-white town.
Alongside her transformation, she is exposed to a different type of music that she compares to “trashcans rolling down a hill. ” (170) Birdie explains that disco was not the type of music that people in this town listen to. Although she was not used to it, she took up classic rock bands, such as the Rolling Stones and Hall and Oates, in order to fit in. Birdie’s journey to find her roots and her identity forces her to change several times throughout this story.
Her ability to pass at being black and being white is solely based on the different cultures that she embraces. Music plays a quintessential role in this identity. When she was Birdie, she listened to funk and disco. When she was Jesse, she listened to rock. Her brief encounter with the kids in New York serves as a reminder of these dualities. The music that she heard sparked her memories of what she listened to when she was Birdie, ultimately bringing back what she had forgotten.
Music served as her link to her past life, one where she identified herself as black. While Senna may not have intentionally stressed this connection, music is an integral part of identity. From this novel, the reader is lead to believe that black people listen to one genre and white people listen to another. The derogatory statements her white peers make in reference to disco support this assumption. The reader learns that music is not just music. Music is an identifier.