|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 their daughter Bliss that her WASP, 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 facade. Now his daughter Bliss tries to make sense of his choices and the impact of this revelation on her own life in her memoir, “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets” ($24.99, Little, Brown).The book’s title stems from the uniquely American caste system that holds any person with any Black ancestry, no matter their appearance, is Black. The elder Broyard was Creole and his family ranged in every color from brown to white.Consequently, when 6-year-old Anatole’s family arrived in Brooklyn in 1927 his parents had to pass for white in order to get work in 1930s New York. The struggle for employment lead to Broyard’s eventual decision to cut his family ties to maintain his status in the white world.
Broyard was born into a post-Reconstruction America in which almost every state had a one-drop law on the books, or something equivalent by 1925.
The one-drop rule was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 when it overturned the Virginia Racial Integrity Act.
Non-Americans found those classifications outrageous. Simply put, America’s one-drop rule means if you are not quite white, then you are Black, whereas outside the U.S. culture if you are not quite Black, then you are white.
For most of the 1970s and ’80s, Anatole Broyard was a book critic for the New York Times who held considerable influence and was widely known in literary circles.
When Broyard died in October 1990 after a long, painful and debilitating struggle against cancer, continuing interest in him was insured by the disclosure that he was, as his wife told their two adult children, “part Black.”
According to Bliss Broyard, “My mother explained that my father had ‘mixed blood,’ and his parents were both light-skinned Creoles from New Orleans, where race-mixing had been common.” Broyard’s racial identity was an open secret to those who knew him and were aware — or suspected — he was not a white man.
Controversy erupted in many literary, journalistic and social circles when several years after Broyard’s death, Henry Louis Gates reported the mixed ancestry of the famed literary critic in an article for the New Yorker entitled, “The Passing of Anatole Broyard.”
“For many African Americans, it’s not an unfamiliar story that somebody passed,” said Bliss Broyard. “The people that I have met have appreciated the fact that I want to reclaim this history, because a lot of people feel like I didn’t have to explore this and make a part of who I am. There’s a respect for that, but at the same time my dad’s choice — and I can understand this, too — makes people angry.
You look at somebody like Walter White who passed to investigate lynchings, but then he was the first director of the NAACP, but he used it to benefit the race. I can understand the anger at my dad and I can also understand my dad’s desire outside of racial categories. He should not have had to do that. He isolated himself and paid a price.”
Eventually, the younger Broyard searches out the family she never knew in New York and New Orleans, and considers the profound consequences of racial identity while chronicling her evolution from sheltered WASP to a woman of mixed race ancestry.
“I think of racial identity as a product of your experience of how you’ve lived your life,” Broyard explained. “On any form I check all that apply: Black, white, Native American. I think of myself as someone with mixed race ancestry, or mixed.
“It’s interesting since the book has come out and has made me some sympathetic for my dad because there are some people out there that have really strong feelings about what I should call myself or what my dad really is. [They feel] either he wasn’t Black because he looked white or his ancestry was white and why should he have to call himself Black. People feel really strongly about that.
“Or some people say that there’s really no such thing as mixed and African Americans come in all shades and all African Americans are mixed. It’s interesting and people have really strong feelings about this still.”