New People, by Danzy Senna, is brutally honest and at times quite funny, and speaks about race in a way that’s new, in the form of a half-crazed, biracial runaway bride story. We meet the young couple, Maria and Khalil, as undergrads at Stanford. “We’re like a Woody Allen movie, with melanin,” Khalil says. Each of them could pass for white or Hispanic. Maria carries with her a certain angst because, “the face doesn’t match the race,” and she’s not alone. There is a struggle in many of the characters in this book to be black enough. When we meet Kahlil, he’s the cool black guy in an all white fraternity, the Hootie in the Blowfish. But Maria helps wake him up politically, takes him to his first step show, teaches him when to chant, The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. Khalil ends up getting so in touch with his blackness that it nauseates Maria, so she prank calls him, trying to sound like the KKK: “We’re gonna string you up and light you on fire.” But he doesn’t recognize her voice, and her plan backfires when he takes the threat so seriously that he becomes an ardent, tiresome political activist.
Years pass. They move to Brooklyn. For the rest of their lives together, she can’t bring herself to admit that it was her on the phone, pretending to be some kind of maniac.
And the fact is, they are beautiful together. And so what if the sex feels wooden, if she feels toward Khalil the way she might feel toward a brother? They’re so admired for their beauty that a filmmaker asks them to participate in a documentary about race. All the while, Maria tries like hell to make sense of herself. As the date of their wedding approaches, she struggles to understand the impact she has on the world around her. In one hilarious scene, she’s mistaken for a nanny, as some privileged white mother simply hands her a strange baby to take care of, and disappears for hours.
Should Maria go through with the wedding? She is plagued with doubt. This book asks, “What if you’re not happy even though you found the ‘perfect’ person? What if, instead of going through with it, you run away?”
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