From the magazine
One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets
by Bliss Broyard
(Little, Brown, $24.99)
Anatole Broyard was nearing death at age 70 when his wife, Sandy, insisted that he finally reveal to their children the great secret of his life. “Your father’s part black,” Sandy told Bliss, 24, and Todd, 21. Their father was, in fact, the lightest-skinned of three siblings in a Creole family on which he had turned his back as he rose to prominence as a New York literary critic. Bliss found this revelation confusing. It felt like a scene that belonged in the Jim Crow South, not 1990 Connecticut. “Anyway, you kids aren’t black,” her mother added. “You’re white.”
Bliss Broyard’s 500-page new memoir takes the long route to concluding that every such statement about racial identity is meaningless, said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. Fortunately, Broyard is too self-aware to let her book become merely the struggle of a “silly white girl” to come to terms with the few drops of “blackness” in her bloodstream. She traces her French lineage back to 1750s New Orleans and introduces us to a great-great-great grandfather who “passed” as black a century later to legally marry a free woman of color. But “boilerplate” social history slows Broyard’s progress as she puts off “the story of greatest interest” for fully 300 pages. It’s her father’s secret-keeping that she needs to explore. “Was my father’s choice rooted in self-preservation of self-hatred?” she asks. “Was he a hero or a cad?” A bit of both would probably be the most honest answer.
Anatole Broyard’s own parents had decided to pass as white in order to secure work in 1930s New York, said Margo Hammond in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But the family lived as black in Brooklyn, and the “most poignant” moments in One Drop involve the author’s encounters with the sisters—her aunts—who were cut off by Anatole’s decision to obscure his roots. As she finishes her dogged investigation, Bliss Broyard tries in vain to brush past the tragedy embedded in that old phrase “the tragic mulatto,” said Erin Aubry Kaplan in the Los Angeles Times. Deciding that one’s race doesn’t matter is, after all, “the ultimate white privilege.” Her father didn’t have that privilege.