One Drop: A Daughter's Story of Race and Family Secrets
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Two months before he died of cancer, renowned literary critic Anatole Broyard called his grown son and daughter to his side, intending to reveal a secret he had kept all their lives and most of his own: he was black. But even as he lay dying, the truth was too difficult for him to share, and it was his wife who told Bliss that her WASPy, privileged Connecticut childhood had come at a price. Ever since his own parents, New Orleans Creoles, had moved to Brooklyn and began to "pass" in order to get work, Anatole had learned to conceal his racial identity. 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 and the impact of this revelation on her own life. She searches out the family she never knew in New York and New Orleans, and considers the profound consequences of racial identity. With unsparing candor and nuanced insight, Broyard chronicles her evolution from sheltered WASP to a woman of mixed race ancestry.
earlier. I remember you, he told her. And then my mom asked something that she had always wondered: Had Leroy known about her husband’s background? “Sure. I knew,” he said. I asked my mother to describe his response. Had he seemed tickled, resentful, enraged, admiring, about the fact that the guy in the big house on the hill in the Waspiest part of Fairfield with the white wife and the white kids was really a brother? But her memory refused to supply any inflection. “They used to do this thing
“You’re not going to be able to understand what it means to you until you understand what it meant to your father. That’s the question you should be trying to answer.” -7- In December of 1993, six months after my dinner with Shirley, I went looking for my father’s birthplace in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Although he was only six when his family left for Brooklyn, in his stories and writings my dad was always offering the French Quarter as a way to explain his upbringing and the
large oak tables. After a couple of hours comparing notes, Sheila set down her best guess of the line of our male ancestors from Paul Broyard back through four generations to the first settler, the white Frenchman Etienne. Sheila’s records were organized into separate binders for each branch of the family. She knew all the names, dates, and places off the top of her head. I tried to follow along with her reasoning, but I kept confusing this person with that person as I shuffled through my own
distance between the two buildings, my mother did her best to answer his questions about what was happening. But she didn’t know much beyond what the surgeon told her when they were deciding whether to operate: Your husband’s chances of surviving a lengthy surgery are slim. Just as he was going into the operating room, my father called out, “What’s happened to my voice? Listen. It’s lost its timbre. What’s happened to my voice?” Then the doors swung closed behind him. My father did survive to
like himself—they often snubbed their recently emancipated neighbors in practice. The Tribune had no former slaves on its editorial board, not even in the English section that had been added specifically to address them. One editorial went so far as publicly scolding the ex-slaves for their lack of “discipline” and habit of “boasting.” The so-called carpetbaggers—white Northerners who’d come South as Union soldiers and stayed to make their fortunes—were happy to exploit these rifts in the black