Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Book Review: Genealogy shows race isn't a black-and-white issue

A half-hidden family history prompted Bliss Broyard to examine her father's mixed racial lineage, which left a legacy of confusion and an interesting story


One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets
By Bliss Broyard
514 pages
Little, Brown & Co

After the literary critic Anatole Broyard died in 1990, his family arranged a memorial reception at a suburban Connecticut yacht club. It was a club that claimed to have no black members until, after Broyard's death, his mixed racial lineage was made known. After that, the club cited him as evidence of integration.

What was it like for Broyard to keep his secret in such surroundings? For a self-made man who had come so far in life, reading so many books in the process, did the clubhouse's view of Long Island Sound bring to mind the grand illusions of "The Great Gatsby?"

Not likely, says his smart, tough-minded daughter, Bliss Broyard, in One Drop, an investigative memoir about her father's life. As this fascinating, insightful book makes clear, Broyard left a legacy of racial confusion and great autobiographical material, not necessarily in that order.

Broyard shares her father's bracingly unsentimental spirit, to the point where she knows that he had none of Jay Gatsby's self-congratulatory outlook or sense of American tragedy. More to the point, she says, "It never seemed to occur to him that someone might want to keep him out."

When a guest at the memorial service noticed three light-skinned black people sitting with the Broyards, he was surprised that the family had so much help. But those weren't the servants; they were black Broyards who had been kept at arm's length by Anatole, whose birth certificate listed him as white. By the time he got to Connecticut, after early years in New Orleans, a Brooklyn boyhood and time spent in the army and Greenwich Village, he no longer talked about his lineage. Black friends assumed he was black. White people didn't ask what they thought of as rude questions. It was a rare moment in the Broyard household - say, when dinner guests realized that Bliss and her brother, Todd, knew nothing about their black heritage - when race seemed to make any difference at all.

Only after her father died did Broyard begin to realize how little she understood. And so she began, in ways that elevate One Drop far above the usual family-revisionist memoir, to make up for lost time. She knew no Broyards in New York, but found plenty in Los Angeles, even bringing them together for a family reunion as an early step in her process of discovery. What made this gathering tricky is that some Broyards regarded themselves as white and others as black, drawing vehemently different conclusions from similar sets of facts.

Broyard knew that her father's heritage was an open secret when she found a close confidant in Henry Louis Gates Jr, the renowned scholar. She got to know Gates by his nickname, Skip; she marveled at how generous he was with his time and interest. Then she learned that he planned to write the Broyard story for The New Yorker, and she was infuriated at having been so manipulatively treated. "Years later," she writes astutely, "I'd realize that my biggest fear was that Gates, a stranger who had never even met my father, would understand him better than I could." But she sharply excoriates Gates for his tactics, his glibness and the harm that she feels his article inflicted on her family.

When she published her first book, a story collection called My Father, Dancing in 2000, Broyard had not written about race. Yet her book was included in the African-American Book Expo in Chicago and on the Black History Month agenda. An investigation into her own past and her family's was clearly something she could not avoid.

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