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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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. (Mr. Broyard was a longtime book critic and editor for The New York Times and an essayist for its Book Review.) As this fascinating, insightful book makes clear, Mr. Broyard left a legacy of racial confusion and great autobiographical material, not necessarily in that order.
Ms. 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. Whites 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 Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Ms. 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.
A half-hidden family history is no guarantee of an interesting one, however. And for all its prodigious research, “One Drop” deals more engrossingly with the stories of Ms. Broyard and her closest relatives than it does with the 18th-century origins of the Broyards in America.
Nonetheless, armed with the knowledge that genealogical Web sites are almost as popular as pornographic ones, Ms. Broyard zealously assembled an account of her roots. Among the first things she discovers about a large, Creole, New Orleans-based family like hers is that racial delineations and stereotypes make no sense at all.
And slavery, which she regards as a defining issue in matters of black identity, holds its own share of surprises. “In a few short hours, I’d gone from believing that my great-grandmother was born a slave to discovering that she’d grown up in a family of black slave owners,” she writes after one fact-finding trip. “These weren’t the noble tragic figures I’d been expecting to encounter.”
Though its scope is large, the heart of “One Drop” lies with the author’s father. She must try — as Philip Roth did in “The Human Stain,” a book that was seemingly prompted by the Broyard story but goes unmentioned here — to understand the choices that he made, whether by action or omission. In a speculative account of what happened when her father applied for a Social Security card, Ms. Broyard guesses at how he might have been flummoxed by the decision of what racial identity to choose yet unaware of how important this choice would be. “I doubt that my father walked away feeling that he’d redirected the course of his life,” she writes.
Drawing on both her father’s autobiographical account and some of what Mr. Gates had to say, “One Drop” culminates in a cultural and intellectual history of Mr. Broyard’s life and times. His Greenwich Village days (described in his book “Kafka Was the Rage”) were full of ambition and contention, not to mention consummate lady-killing. (Mr. Broyard was “New Orleans French, handsome, sensual, ironic,” according to the hotblooded diarist Anaïs Nin.) And some of his most assertive early essays about race and hipness made his bona fides clear.
Mr. Broyard proudly kept a 1950 issue of Commentary near the family’s dinner table. But the author’s identifying note had been neatly cut out of the contributor’s page. Now his daughter knows what it said: that Anatole Broyard was “an anatomist of the Negro personality in a white world.” And she wonders, with lucid and sharp introspection, how her own life would have changed if she had known that sooner.
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