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Under her skin

In her memoir, critic Anatole Broyard's daughter grapples with hidden race.

September 19, 2007|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

For 23 years, without second thought, Bliss Broyard checked off boxes that would best describe her to herself as well as to the world: Upper middle class. Connecticut born. Prep school educated. White.

She was part of a handsome, well-respected WASP family: sister to a towheaded blue-eyed brother, Todd; the daughter of a dancer mother, Sandy, with "Nordic good looks"; and her father was the famously prickly, politically conservative book critic for the New York Times, Anatole Broyard, of French extraction, the family thought.

But that changed at 24.

Not all of it. Just one check mark in one box, a single modification. But for Bliss Broyard it altered everything. That year she learned a secret whose revelation would become legend in literary circles, then gradually radiate outward, finally inspiring her to write a just-published memoir, "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life -- A Story of Race and Family Secrets." In 1990, just weeks before his death from cancer, Broyard's mother (after long prodding her husband to do so himself) gathered her children to tell them that their father -- despite what boxes he checked, despite how he had presented himself to the world -- was of "mixed blood," of Louisiana Creole descent, "part black" -- passing for white.

The idea that she and her brother were, by extension, "part black too" was exciting, Broyard recalls thinking. It made her feel like she "mattered in a way I hadn't before." But there was something unseemly hovering behind the necessity of the secret -- the scope, depth and weight of it. Ultimately her father slipped out of the world stamped and registered as a "white" man, and without discussing the details of his passing with his children. For Bliss Broyard, it was a curious question to consider: Late in the 20th century, what did it mean for her father to have "crossed over" and to have remained there? To have hidden it from his own children, to have cut himself off from extended family scattered throughout the country, as far as Los Angeles -- and in essence from himself?

In "One Drop," Broyard, now 41, grapples frankly with the pact her father made with himself. She doesn't seek to "unmask" him but to expose the circumstances that led to such a drastic choice, one with indelibly painful reverberations.

It took more than a decade for Broyard to try to make her way to the root of the impulse, to the why of the lie, and to sort out what it meant to inherit such a legacy of deception: "Overnight my father's secret turned my normal young adult existential musing of Who am I into a concrete question, What am I?" Broyard writes early on in "One Drop." "My mother had said that his secret caused him more pain than the cancer in his bones. I didn't want any shame clouding up my life. When people asked me what I was, I would tell them. But the question was, What exactly would I say?"

To understand why a man would have stepped out of not only his family but also his ancestry is to confront the United States' history of slavery, Jim Crow discrimination and the deeply rooted caste system built around the color of one's skin and the assumptions constructed around it. The "one drop" of the title refers to a regulation dating back to slavery that classified any American with the smallest trace of "black blood" as black and relegated anyone of mixed race/mixed parentage to the lower-status race.

"It's hard to visit this kind of history," Broyard says, "to meet family that your father rejected. A lot of it is incredibly painful." And yet, Broyard says, "these are the agents that shaped my father's life and mind."

There were a flood of questions to grapple with, the question of shame to address. And "I really did want to know beyond writing a book, 'What did I think about what my father had done,' " she says. "He was still larger than life when he died. I really loved my father and I really identified with him. So I wanted to make sense of it." Her father had built a fence around his new family and new life; had carefully pruned and tended his new identity. He'd attempted to erase all of the footsteps it took to get to that place. Had for the most part cut himself off from the rest of the Broyard clan. "Throughout my father's writing ran the theme that a person's identity was an act of will and style," Broyard notes.

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