Friday, September 25, 2009

Carl Senna

It was only when I read a Los Angeles Times review of Danzy Senna's recent memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night? that I realized Senna is the daughter of one of my favorite writers, Fanny Howe. It was only as I was reading the memoir that I realized Senna's father was someone I had known of much longer.

In my early twenties I got hold of a then new book from Joseph Okpaku Press titled The Fallacy of I.Q. It was addressed to a subject in which I had been keenly interested for years. While still in high school I'd read a little book titled The Tyranny of Testing. That volume, originally published in 1962, had been one of the first to eviscerate the claims widely made for standardized testing and to call into question the growing power of such entities as the Educational Testing Service, widely known among students as the child of the infamous College Board. In the years following my high school graduation, many of the criticisms made in The Tyranny of Testing found support in the scientific community, and eventually the ETS itself had to acknowledge that this thing they were administering was not actually a test of aptitude at all.

The attraction of The Fallacy of I.Q. was that it offered a collection of essays in response to then circulating theories about race and intelligence promulgated by Arthur Jensen. Then as now, such already long-discredited speculations were given tremendous play in the press (Jensen credited with bravely raising questions "liberals" were supposedly loath to engage) and the White House even convened a cabinet level meeting on the subject. As if to show just how little we learned from the criticisms of Jensen contained in such books as The Fallacy of I.Q., decades later the whole charade was played out again around a book by Herrnstein and Murray and their "bell curve" theories, the authors once more prominently featured in such places as the NY TIMES magazine and credited with bravely confronting the minions of political correctness. Those of us who had been following the debates in my youth, of course, immediately recognized Herrnstein as the same idiot who had filled the pages of Atlantic Monthly with this racist pseudo science back during the Jensen age.

Well, the editor of The Fallacy of I.Q., which I read a good eight years before ever hearing of Fanny Howe, was that same Carl Senna who is the father recollected in Danzy Senna's new book.

But the name of Carl Senna had a way of reappearing unexpectedly. Years later I was listening to a radio call-in program featuring an interview with Edward Said. One of the people who called in with questions for Edward was none other than Carl Senna. You can find a transcript of that interview in the volume Conversations with Edward Said.

Senna's foreword to The Fallacy of I.Q. shows occasional glimmers of his poetic interests: "our world is our way of expressing it," he writes at one point.

1 comment:

jpc said...

I worked in a bookstore in Memphis, Tennessee, when The Bell Curve was squatting on the NYT bestseller list like some hooded toad. The people purchasing it were not interested in objective science or the fact that the book's ideas had previously been bebunked. They were just pleased to have confirmation of their own beliefs. And they were all, to my best ability to recall, from the wealthier white-flight communities of east Memphis and Germantown.