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[119] One Drop: A Memoir – Bliss Broyard


It’s an irrefutable fact (vague) that Anatole Broyard, who for over a decade had served as a daily book critic for the New York Times and as a columnist and editor at the New York Times Book Review after that, is partially black. His colleagues, the senior editor and managing editor at the time knew about his racial identity and yet maintained that they had always known and they both adopted the position that it didn’t much matter to them. The even felt sympathetic to his situation because it was then generally acknowledged that blacks were “not capable of the kind of objective analysis” that was necessary to be a critic. But to Bliss Broyard, that her father had passed as a white man in order to obtain work and that he continued to maintain the facade were only the beginning of her surprises.

Unfolding of the family secret sends her off to seek out unknown relatives in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, to the deeply rooted history of her family and African American heritage in America. In this beautifully crafted memoir she examines her father’s choices and their impact on the family, and most important of all the revelation that her privileged, sheltered middle-class childhood in New England has come at a heavy price.

Why did Broyard reject his racial identity (as a Creole) and go as far as to break tie with his family? It began with Etienne Broyard of France, Bliss’ great-great-great grandfather who came to New Orleans from France in the 1700s. Succeeding generations included mixed-race women of African heritage or mixed-race and Free People of Color also known as Gens de Libre Coleur. The majority of the family had a “white looking appearance” and at different times, passed for white, most often for economic reasons. American history tells us that ethnic equality should never been taken for granted. Given the pervasiveness of racism in history, it’s impossible for a person of color to escape its effect. Ruling of the landmark Dred Scott case concluded that “blacks, free and enslaved, were so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In the wake of Civil War, blacks felt hopeful of their future and asserted their patriotic spirits by enlisting in army. Yet a century after slavery ended in the U.S., association of bondage with blackness remained potent enough to implant into people’s mind that to be black in America necessarily meant to have been enslaved, and that they were of second-class, incapable of success. They were stripped of an equal chance in the race of life; an equal opportunity of supporting their families and educating their children; an equal opportunity of becoming worthy citizens.

Broyard (b. 1920) grew up under this shadow of prejudice and de facto discrimination even though he was only part black. The segregated car during the train ride to the north at the age of six dawned him on the cruel truth. His parents had to pass as whites to find jobs in New York City. The conviction to live differently formulated most likely in his pre-teen years. it’s hard to say whether Broyard’s choice rooted in self-preservation or self-hatred, but toward the end of his life he did blame the way blacks behaved invited prejudice. Judging from his predilection in books and literature, which provided a refuge from his life troubles, he simply wished to assert his individuality, breaking away from labels and stereotypes of being black. But this choice must have been very difficult, cornering him for life, for it forced him to choose between the world of his family and his own history, with all the contradictions that implied. Since his childhood connoted to him all the misery of his racial identity, when becoming a parent he erected between his children’s lives and the colored world of his childhood a barrier in order to protect them from the stigma. This was banishing because Broyard no longer had anything–family and home–to fall back on. The facade had to go on because the possibility that Bliss and her brother embrace the part black ancestry would mean all the advantages he had worked so hard to provide them and everything he sacrificed along the way could prove for nothing.

It occurred to Bliss that her grandmother, Edna Broyard, could be unconsciously keeping the distance from her father throughout the years to protect him from her anger and frustration. She connived to her son’s wishes. Her passing might be the reason for Broyard’s unfinished novel, in which a son was musing on his mother’s mortality. Edna was far from being mortal when he began the story. For years after Edna died he could not bring a conclusion to the story that he started over two decades ago, because he wasn’t resolved with Edna’s death. His only consolation is Edna’s understanding that “history, law, and public opinion made the fact of one’s black blood matter.”

17 Responses

  1. This sounds like an interesting biography. That would be a dilemma to know you are one race, but know you can live an easier existence passing for another. You might be interested in the novel, Passing, by Nella Larson, which is about this very subject–a black woman who can pass for white and does so and the problems she encounters. I have not yet read it, but it is on my TBR pile. It also looks interesting!

  2. I liked your review.

    A little known fact:
    among the carpenters and painters of mixed (black and white) heritage, there was the paper bag test.

    If your skin was darker that the bag, you could not be admitted to the union for carpenters or painters and thus denied the better jobs.

    So, even among black people, there is still discrimination.

    Some ladies with darker complexions refuse to date the black men with lighter complexions because those men can be snobby about melanin.

  3. Danielle:
    I’ve got memoir of Rosemary Bray, a Times book critic, and also the Nella Larson lined up for February. 🙂

    The mixed seem to have got the brunt from both sides, being ostracized by whites and blacks.

  4. Interesting combination of readings: Broyard & Sartre. Authenticity and identity–these are certainly two very trendy buzzwords in use in our current pop culture–some would probably say overuse. If I hear one more armchair psychologist/sociologist on TV telling us how to we need to find our “authentic selves”–I think I am going to puke. And, identity politics has been a very popular topic here in the Bay Area for many years–and now the rest of the country seems to discussing identity quite a bit these days. I think what I most admire about Bliss Broyard is the amount of work she put in on this personal trek to learn about her father and his family. It is the work that seems to confirm her own authenticity, and the resulting identity she affirms. Definitly not a quick fix–or judgement. Kudos to her.

  5. Rick:
    Issues on identity politics play too loud in this country. People are too caught up with conforming to categories without knowing that the very act of making a social category at the same time risks losing their true self altogether.

    I used to think how I can fit into being gay, how to fit into the Castro. Then it dawned on me that nothing really matters so long as I live my life, do the things that are enriching and meaningful to me. All a sudden life becomes simple and easier.

  6. What a load of hogwash. Anatole Broyard was Creole. He was not White, he was not Black. That he hid his ancestry is true. He was never raised identified as Black though. Learn the facts before you write a review.

  7. Salsassin:
    Thanks for pointing that out. He was a Creole, so I should have omitted the term “irrefutable.”

  8. For those interested, Bliss Broyard will be part of Henry Louis Gates series, African American Lives 2, on PBS Feb. 6 & 13.

  9. At the beginning of the book her mother did identify Broyard as black.

  10. Rick:
    Thanks foe the heads up.

    I did make a mistake calling him irrefutably black, but he was really Creole, and of French ancestry.

  11. John,

    Sandy Broyard told her children that Anatole was “part black” not “black.” There is a BIG difference. What are your standards for separating black from white anyway?

  12. A.D. Powell:
    Thanks for the clarification.

  13. A.D. Powell:
    Correct me if I’m wrong. Historically the United States used a colloquial term, the one drop rule, to designate a black as any person with any known African ancestry. The one drop rule was virtually unique to the United States and was applied almost exclusively to blacks. Outside of the US, definitions of who is black vary from country to country but generally, multiracial people are not required by society to identify themselves as black (cf. mulatto and related terms). The most significant consequence of the one drop rule was that many African Americans who had significant European ancestry, whose appearance was very European, would identify themselves as black.

    The one drop rule may have originated as a means of increasing the number of black slaves and been maintained as an attempt to keep the white race pure, but one of its unintended consequences was uniting the African American community and preserving an African identity. Some of the most prominent civil rights activists were multiracial but yet stood up for equality for all. It is said that W.E.B. Du Bois could have easily passed for white yet he became the preeminent scholar in Afro-American studies.] He chose to spend his final years in Africa and immigrated to Ghana where he died I believe. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass both had white fathers, and Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan both had at least one white grandparent. That said, colorism, or intraracial discrimination based on skin tone, does affect the black community. It is a sensitive issue or a taboo subject.

  14. Also remember that it is wrong to put the “African American” label on everyone with “black blood.” Not everyone identifies with that race or ethnicity. Note that the black or African ancestry in Hispanics and Arabs is politely ignored (a definite contradiction of the “one drop” myth).


  15. A.D. Powell:
    I really appreciate the information, I’ll read them carefully.

  16. I was truly intrigued by the program and thus sadden by what Mr. Broyard did. He did deny his children of their heritage but also he could’ve chosen to speak the truth after (majority) of racism and freedom was given to blacks.

    I also go through the same. My brother is White and he has always denied us because we are Black. But like I say what does it matter. When you pass away GOD does not look at the color he analyzes what you have done.

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