Distinguished critic, editor and writer Anatole Broyard spent 18 years penning literary criticism for the New York Times, while cultivating a reputation as a highly sophisticated, elegant artisan and scholar. But he was also living a lie that dated back to the '20s, when his family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn from New Orleans. Broyard's parents were light-skinned blacks, something he concealed from even his closest friends as well as his children until his death from prostate cancer in 1990 (even his death certificate identified him as white).
His daughter Bliss Broyard's stunning new book One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life A True Story of Race and Family Secrets illuminates the Broyard story, though it's as much a chronicle of her struggle as her father's. Both she and her brother Todd grew up as whites, facing none of the problems associated with skin color routinely addressed by individuals of other races on a daily basis. Broyard researched her family's history in hopes of better understanding not only her father's reasons for the deception, but its long-term impact.
The results are alternately fascinating, sad and revealing. Crossing the nation from New York to Los Angeles to New Orleans, Broyard discovered many of the things her father loved (dancing, Afro-Cuban sounds, jazz) were cultural retentions from his youth that he didn't want to abandon. But he incorporated these passions, plus his interest in famous writers and personalities like Kafka and Philip Roth, into a personality that never discussed or acknowledged the subject of race or origin.
Broyard's book is also an ongoing dialogue on race: its murky nature, and the fact that so much of what people call themselves is determined by environment, parental influence and societal attitudes. For many years Bliss Broyard never knew or considered what it meant to be black in America, and she's still grappling with it after completing this book. But she understands that her father made a choice he deemed would give him maximum freedom and social mobility. She's still dealing with the fallout from discovering, then examining, his decision. Ron Wynn writes for Nashville City Paper and other publications.