One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets

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9780316008068: One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets
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In this acclaimed memoir, Bliss Broyard, daughter of the literary critic Anatole Broyard, examines her father's choice to hide his racial identity, and the impact of this revelation on her own life.
Two months before he died, renowned literary critic Anatole Broyard called his grown son and daughter to his side to impart a secret he had kept all their lives and most of his own: he was black. Born in the French Quarter in 1920, Anatole had begun to conceal his racial identity after his family moved to Brooklyn and his parents resorted to "passing" in order to get work. As he grew older and entered the ranks of the New York literary elite, he maintained the façade.
Now his daughter Bliss tries to make sense of his choices. Seeking out unknown relatives in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, Bliss uncovers the 250-year history of her family in America and chronicles her own evolution from privilged WASP to a woman of mixed-race ancestry.

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About the Author:

Bliss Broyard is the author of the collection of stories, My Father, Dancing, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Her fiction and essays have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and The Art of the Essay, and have appeared in Grand Street, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Elle Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

For most of the 1970s and '80s, Anatole Broyard was a staff book critic for the New York Times, writing two or three reviews a week for its daily pages, as opposed to its Sunday book section. My own career in that same line of work was just getting under way, and I paid close attention to what he was doing. He obviously was intelligent and erudite, but I sometimes felt that he was more interested in showing his technical skills than in giving books deep, fair readings. Still, he enjoyed considerable influence and was widely known in literary circles.

Broyard died in October 1990 after a long, painful and debilitating struggle against cancer, but continuing interest in him was insured by the disclosure that he was, as his wife told their two adult children, "part black." According to Bliss Broyard, "My mother explained that my father had 'mixed blood,' and his parents were both light-skinned Creoles from New Orleans, where race-mixing had been common. She said that his parents had to pass for white in order to get work in 1930s New York, which confused my father about what their family was, or was supposed to be." Broyard's response to this, as he moved from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village and began to live a bohemian life in the postwar years, was to "pass for white." He did so for the rest of his life, though many who knew him were aware, or suspected, that his racial identity was not precisely as he presented it.

Six years after Broyard's death, the New Yorker published an article by Henry Louis Gates, the well-known professor of African American studies, called "The Passing of Anatole Broyard," which was, predictably, the cause of much heated gossip in literary, journalistic and publishing circles. Now Broyard is back in the news with the appearance of this family history and memoir by his daughter. One Drop, Bliss Broyard tells us, takes its title from "the 'one-drop rule,' which classified as black any Americans with the tiniest fraction -- just one drop -- of 'black blood.' It had grown out of a practice dating back to slavery known as hypodescent, which assigned someone of mixed parentage to the lower-status race, and had become the legal and social custom in the era of legalized 'Jim Crow' segregation." The book is an account of her effort to discover just "how black" her father was and thus, obviously, "how black" she is.

It's a peculiar book. The author's sincerity and honesty are evident and appealing, and her subject is of continuing interest and importance even now, when an appreciable amount of heat has been drained from our old obsessions and fears about race. The problem is that One Drop is actually at least five books -- her father's story, her own story, her family's story, the story of "passing" and the story of racial identity in the United States -- and its author doesn't do a very good job of weaving them together into a seamless, coherent narrative. For well over 100 pages, she wanders this way and that, telling this story and that, interviewing this person and that, circling around the one story of greatest interest -- her father's -- but never really pouncing on it. Then she takes a detour of nearly 200 pages to explore the Broyard family's history in New Orleans. Not until she gets past page 300 does she finally focus fully on her father, and one can't help wondering how many readers she will have lost by then.

"My father had left behind so much unfinished business," she writes, and her hope is to wrap it up. This would be a difficult task in any circumstances, but it is all the more so in this case because of the exceedingly complex life, character and legacy of Anatole Broyard. He was by most accounts immensely charming and energetic, positively catnip to women (and quick to take advantage of it). But he was also boastful and vain, as well as an operator who, as one friend told Gates, was "exorbitantly in control" and "fastidious about managing things." Thus it is extremely difficult, for example, to figure out why he chose to pass for white, or to get much sense of how this choice weighed on him, as anecdotal evidence suggests it did.

He was born in New Orleans in 1920, into a family that had been there since the early 1750s when Etienne Broyard, "a white man from France . . . landed in the Louisiana Territory." Within a century "the Broyards had begun to be identified in public records as mulatto or free people of color." Bliss Broyard's research has convinced her that "the moment of mixing in the Broyard family" occurred in 1855, when her great-great-grandfather married a free woman of color. Her account of how subsequent generations of the family dealt with (or ignored) this legacy is interesting, but she insists on larding it up with a boilerplate history of American laws, controversies and customs regarding race. By her own honest admission she knew almost nothing about race in America until her father's secret was revealed, and to her credit she studied it closely; it really was not necessary, though, to regurgitate so much of what she learned -- most of which will be familiar to many readers -- in this book, which is too long by about 150 pages.

It's also unfortunate that she spends so much time fretting about her racial identity. The notion of crossing "from white to the other side" clearly has some appeal for her, and when her New Orleans relatives call her "pure white," she is uncomfortable, yet she just can't let go: "It had been nearly a decade since my father had died, since I'd learned of his -- and my -- African ancestry, since I'd begun reading and learning and talking about race. And despite my glimmerings of double consciousness, I didn't yet feel black. I was still waiting for an 'Aha!' moment, an affirmation of this identity down deep in my bones." Fortunately, within just a few pages of this unbearably PC declaration, Broyard admits that "the thought of how blinded I'd been in my obsession to find a slave ancestor made me feel sick with shame," which redeems her, as does this: "I hated the image of myself in [a black acquaintance's] eyes -- a silly white girl making a big fuss over nothing. I hated how uncertain I became when trying to locate myself on this racial landscape or even recognize its terrain. Torn between trying to pinpoint the boundaries between black and white and an urge to deny their existence at all, I was caught in a dialectical tug-of-war. The futility of my efforts reminded me of a skit I once saw in which a man kept moving a wooden chair around an empty white room, unable to find a spot that suited him, despite their being all the same."

As she seems finally to have understood, the whole notion of race is fraught with ambiguity. I won't reveal the results of the DNA tests she finally had done, but what they proved more than anything else is that racial identity is a complete mare's nest. In issues of race as in so many others, "Know thyself" is an injunction almost impossible to obey. Notions of racial purity are as false as notions of racial impurity; there's no such thing, though much of human history has been frittered away by people trying to legitimize race as the defining element in what passes for civilization.

Still, it's not really surprising that Anatole Broyard chose to live as he did. He didn't look in the least bit "black," and he wanted to enter the world of literature, which in the 1940s and '50s in this country was patently "white." He placed personal ambition ahead of racial identity or racial solidarity or whatever one cares to call it, and his daughter makes a pretty solid argument for him: "My father truly believed that there wasn't any essential difference between blacks and whites and that the only person responsible for who he was supposed to be was himself." To be sure, a black friend had a point when he "sniped that my dad was black when he entered the subway in Brooklyn and white when he got out at West Fourth Street in Manhattan," but that's the choice he made, and he managed to live with it.

His daughter asks: "Was my father's choice rooted in self-preservation or in self-hatred? Did it strike a blow for individualism or for discrimination? Was he a hero or a cad?" Those are good questions, and as Bliss Broyard well understands, they can never be definitively answered, though my own hunch is that "All of the above" gets somewhere close to the truth.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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