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BY THE NEW YORK TIMES
|Anatole Broyard, 1971
|Illustrated. 514pp. Little
IN 1855, Henry Broyard, a
young white New Orleans carpenter, decided to pass as black in order to be legally
entitled to marry Marie Pauline Bonée, the well-educated daughter of colored refugees
from Haiti, who was about to have his child; their marriage license describes them both as
free people of color. A century and a half later, their
great-great-granddaughter, Bliss Broyard, who had been raised as white, abruptly found
herself confronting the implications of her newly discovered black identity.
The daughter of the writer and New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, she had
grown up with a feeling that there was something about my family, or even many
things, that I didnt know. What was lacking was any real sense of the history
of the father she adored or any contact with his relatives, apart from one dimly
remembered day in the past when her paternal grandmother had once visited them in their
18th-century house in the white enclave of Southport, Conn. Even in the last weeks of his
life, the secret Anatole Broyard had kept from Bliss and her brother, Todd, was one he
could not bear to reveal himself; it was their mother who finally told them, Your
fathers part black, not long before Broyard died of prostate cancer.
Their reaction would have stunned their father. Thats all? Todd said.
For 24-year-old Bliss, the news was thrilling, as though Id been reading a
fascinating history book and then discovered my own name in the index. I felt like I
mattered in a way that I hadnt before.
The year was 1990. Profound changes in attitudes about race in America had occurred
since 1947, when Anatole Broyard, who during the war had been the white officer in charge
of a regiment of black stevedores, left his parents and sisters behind him in
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, having made up his mind to continue to pass as white in the
bohemian milieu of Greenwich Village. Because of his charm, carefully honed conversational
brilliance and success in seducing one impressionable young woman after another, the
circles of hipster intellectuals he moved in would have accepted him whatever he called
himself and did whenever he selectively revealed the truth. But Broyard, less
hipster and existentialist than an innately conservative young man ambitious to become
part of the literary establishment (then exemplified by The Partisan Review), justified
the choice hed made by refusing to have any limits put on his freedom or to be
tagged as a black writer like James Baldwin.
In one way, he wasnt wrong at all. My father truly believed, Bliss
Broyard writes in One Drop: My Fathers Hidden Life a Story of Race and
Family Secrets, that there wasnt any essential difference between blacks
and whites and that the only person responsible for determining who he was supposed to be
was himself. But for Broyard to construct a white identity required the ruthless and
cowardly jettisoning of his black family. He would later lamely tell his children that
their grandmother and their two aunts, one of them with tell-tale dark skin, simply
didnt interest him. During the 1960s, he expressed no sympathy for the civil rights
movement, opposed, his daughter writes, to a movement that required adherence to a
group platform rather than to ones essential spirit. His
posthumously published memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, revealed only that his
people were from New Orleans.
Broyard first made the pages of The Partisan Review with a much-discussed 1948 essay on
the black roots of hipsterism. Two short stories, one about a fathers death, won him
a contract for a much anticipated autobiographical novel he was never able to complete.
Paradoxically, his unintended legacy to his daughter would be the huge story he could
never have dealt with: the 250-year history of the New Orleans Broyards culminating in the
riddle of his own life. In the process of piecing it together, Bliss Broyard would have to
cleanse herself of the assumptions about racial inferiority that had been ingrained in
her. Without losing her deep love for her father, she would have to scrutinize his life
with a historians objectivity. Contacting lost relatives scattered from New Orleans
to Los Angeles, she would gradually fit herself back into the enormous extended family
whose very existence had been concealed from her and meet distant cousins who
matter-of-factly considered themselves white without losing touch with the Broyards of
What am I? was the initial question she began asking herself as she started
looking up the many definitions of creole. Until she found that her black
ancestors were free people of color, she was convinced that she must be the direct
descendant of slaves. Her own black genetic inheritance went only as far back as the birth
of Henry Broyards son Paul in 1856. Black by choice, Henry Broyard joined a militia
unit of colored men to defend New Orleans against the Yankee invasion in 1861; the
following year, after New Orleans fell to the Union troops, he entered the first black
regiment in the history of the United States Army. He endured the humiliating treatment of
black soldiers and fought in the Battle of Port Hudson. He died as a white man in 1873,
during a brief period when a reformed Southern society seemed
tantalizingly within reach, but was buried in a colored section of St. Louis
Cemetery. His son Paul, a leading member of the Creole community in New Orleans, would
prosper as a carpenter and builder and serve as the Republican president of the Fifth Ward
during the 1890s. He played an active role in the fight against the resurgence of white
supremacy until he lost heart as Jim Crow legislation stripped away the gains blacks had
won during Reconstruction. Bliss Broyards grandfather, Nat, would give up on his
segregated birthplace in 1927 and move his family north to New York, where he at times had
to pass as white in order to get work and always felt like an embittered exile. His son,
Anatole, the most prominent of the Broyards, was perhaps the one most warped by racism.
For Henry Broyard, race was nothing measurable in drops of blood it was composed
of a name and the restrictive laws and attitudes of society. I may never be able to
answer the question What am I? his great-great-granddaughter writes, yet the
fault lies not in me but with the question itself. Her brave, uncompromising and
powerful book is an important contribution toward the negation of that question.
Joyce Johnson is the author of the memoirs Minor Characters and
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Book
Review, of Sunday, October 21, 2007.
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