Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History
by Danzy Senna


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. ISBN 978-0-374-28915-7.
Reviewed by Judy Miller
Posted on 10/01/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Danzy Senna's well crafted memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? chronicles her search for family history though the maze of race and divorce.

Senna, the daughter of a black man and a white woman, viewed herself as someone who didn't fit into the white or black world. As a child and young woman, she spent much of the time wondering about the union of her parents, two writers—Carl Senna and Fanny Howe—who had met and married while active in the Civil Rights Movement. People saw her parents as romantic, defying history. Her mother's pedigree could be traced back to the Mayflower. Her father's was sketchy, his origins suspected, but unconfirmed. Their marriage lasted only eight years.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night? is a discovery of Senna's paternal side. She examines race, but doesn't answer the questions, instead offering how she feels about her father. "He was, in other words, a Negro of exceptional promise. That dangerous phrase—'dangerous promise'—swirled around him as it has swirled around me, like a jinx or a dare." She questions her father's perspective, his habit of seeing people as "symbols rather than individuals."

With painful honesty and reflection, Senna strives to come to terms with the known and unknown, the privileged and underprivileged, and the illustrious and shameful pieces of her family history. Her memoir weaves details about the story of her absent father. In the second half of the book she provides detailed accounts of her travels with him through the South in an attempt to unlock mysteries of his past and hers, understand her father, her parents' marriage, and help them both answer her father's question: "Don't you know who I am?"


Born in Boston, Danzy Senna is the author of Caucasia (1998) and Symptomatic (2003). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, novelist Percival Everett.

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