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One Drop My Father's Hidden Life -- A Story of Race and Family Secrets; Bliss Broyard; Little, Brown: 516 pp., $24.99

September 30, 2007|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion page.

Let's start with the obvious: The titillating title of Bliss Broyard's long-awaited book could have been the title of any number of Southern-bred stories popular at the turn of the 20th century featuring a protagonist called "the tragic mulatto." These presented the American version of a Greek tragedy, a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of knowing thyself too much, at least racially. The story went this way: A young white person (usually a woman) is the toast of the town. She sometimes has uneasy feelings about her station, either because she's harboring a secret or she senses something amiss in her life that she can't quite name. About halfway through, it is revealed that the fair maiden has black ancestry, a grandparent or great-grandparent -- "one drop," in Southern parlance. This drop is entirely ruinous, like a dash of arsenic in a pool of water. The heroine's charmed life comes apart -- friends abandon her, fortunes fall away. She is left to wander in the desert of her new identity with all the other Negroes who have been there for generations. The moral of the story is nothing as profound as that of "Oedipus Rex," but it's as harsh and unforgiving: Don't be black if you can help it.

Such was the unmitigated tragedy of American blackness as told by pulp fiction -- exaggerated and racist, sure, but it had a hard social truth that everyone lived by, and no one lived it harder than black folks. To ease things, some occasionally passed as white; some made the more radical move of crossing over, divorcing themselves entirely from their black families and living among white people as white people. Broyard's "One Drop" is an examination of one of the most dramatic crossovers of the last 50 years, her father, New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard. His daughter is determined to know more than just the facts of his life (she didn't learn of his secret until after his death in 1990): She wants to know the particulars of racial oppression, how it fueled the whole phenomenon of crossing over, and how that affected her own family. Why and when did Anatole Broyard do it? How tragic -- or successful -- a mulatto was he? Why did he keep up the whiteface as times changed? And, most critically, what effect does this knowledge of his identity have on her, a white, WASPy girl from Connecticut who, prior to embarking on this project 16 years ago, had almost no experience with black people of any complexion? I shuddered to think.

Fortunately, Bliss Broyard walks through this house of mirrors and keeps her gaze admirably steady. With a reporter-like mix of new-subject naiveté and doggedness, she moves from her beginnings in upper-crust Connecticut and New York to Creole society in New Orleans -- about as big a cultural leap in the continental U.S. as you can get. New Orleans is a city that has dabbled in every kind of racial paradigm and has produced Creoles, people whose mixed background included French, Spanish, Native American and black. Blackness was always a social taint, but it loomed larger in the post-Reconstruction years as legal segregation replaced slavery. In this context, it's hardly surprising that Anatole Broyard decided as a young man living in the mid-20th century that being white was better than being black, especially given his ambition of joining the East Coast literati, who, by definition, were white. Not all Creoles had that option, however, either because they were too dark or otherwise "too black" to pass. Anatole could play the part.

Role-playing is the central theme of "One Drop," and whether Anatole was faking it or rightfully claiming his place in a world of artificial boundaries that left him no choice but to fake it is a central question. His daughter's answer is most compelling when she recounts New Orleans' Creole history and her own family's place in it, the exploits of her great-great-grandfather Henry Broyard, a soldier in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard Infantry, the first black regiment in the U.S. Army (Henry, ironically, was a white Broyard with "colored" relatives who "passed" as black). She tracks in heartbreaking detail the post-Civil War fight that Creoles and blacks waged -- and lost -- for political participation in exchange for their military service to the country. These are uncomfortable places to go, but Bliss Broyard insists we go there with her. Just as uncomfortable is her realization that she is on this path alone, that there will be no real rapprochement between black and white, black and Creole, father and daughter, even brother and sister -- her mother, Alexandra (who is white), and her brother, Todd, consider the revelation an interesting family quirk, but nothing life-altering.

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