Bliss Broyard's candid memoir of her family, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, was published to enthusiastic reviews in 2007. Broyard's father, Anatole Broyard, was an erudite, well-known literary critic long associated with the pages of the New York Times. When he became ill with cancer in the late 1980s, Bliss Broyard's mother revealed to her two children that their father was actually black and had been "passing" as a white person for nearly all of his adult life. "My father truly believed that there wasn't any essential difference between blacks and whites," she writes in One Drop, "and that the only person responsible for determining who he was supposed to be was himself."
Bliss Broyard grew up in a privileged, almost entirely Caucasian world. She was born in 1966, two years after the arrival of her brother, Todd, and was raised in a series of eighteenth-century farmhouses in Connecticut. Her father was in his mid-forties by the time she was born and had spent much of his adult years living an exciting, bohemian life of a writer and literary critic in Greenwich Village in New York City. Her mother was Alexandra Nelson, a dancer, and the marriage of the legendarily rakish Anatole to Sandy, as she was called, surprised many of their friends, as did their move out of the city.
Broyard recalled that her father was most often the parent who was home after school, because her mother was busy with various activities and, later, a return to college. By the time Bliss was in second grade, Anatole was the daily reviewer for the New York Times. "On most days, when I came home from school I would stop in the doorway of his study on my way to my room to change out of my uniform," Broyard recalled in an article she wrote for Victoria in 2001. "Usually I found him reclined in his Naugahyde chair, book in one hand, a pencil in the other, with his reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. He would look up and raise his eyebrows. There was a pause before he spoke, while he made the transition from the world of literature to the one that I inhabited."
Broyard knew that her father was born in New Orleans, and that he had two sisters, only one of whom she had actually met. Only years later did the distance maintained by her father from the rest of his family begin to make sense, she wrote. She and her brother were told the truth as their father lay ill from prostate cancer in a Boston hospital when they were both in their twenties. Their mother had taken them aside and said she had a secret to divulge, and Broyard recalled being immensely relieved at hearing the news that she was part African American. "This revelation was nothing compared with the scenarios we'd been imagining: abuse or some other horrible crime," she wrote in O, the Oprah Magazine. "In fact I felt exhilarated to learn my history and identity were richer and more interesting than my white-bread upbringing had led me to believe."
In the years following her father's death, Broyard turned to writing to help her resolve some of the lingering questions about her family. She initially found her voice through short stories, her first collection of which was titled My Father, Dancing, published in 1999. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found some fault with the stories' conclusions, but judged Broyard to have "an assured style that usually carries her over the rougher spots." Critiquing it for the Houston Chronicle, Harvey Grossinger asserted that "the most compelling stories in this well-crafted debut collection … are tautly paced and memoirlike evocations of the uneasy and often ambivalent intimacy between wary young women and their blustery, charismatic fathers."
Later in 1999, Broyard won a contract from publishers Little, Brown & Company to write a book about her family and her father's unusual deception. One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets was published in 2007 to laudatory reviews, with critics commending Broyard for her honesty and genealogical detective work. She had begun her quest by contacting the family whose existence she was only vaguely aware of—the large, extended clan in New Orleans—and was stunned to realized that they, by contrast, knew a great deal about her and her late father's career. Newspaper clippings that bore his byline would sometimes be passed around among themselves, and the younger family members who asked about him were told that they should never contact him.
Broyard was also surprised to learn that her father's ruse was so commonplace among Creoles that it actually had its own word: passablanc. Some in the family had moved to California, she wrote in O, the Oprah Magazine, "where I met a dozen relatives and learned about other branches of the family tree in which decades earlier a parent or grandparent had crossed into the white world and disappeared." She also learned that crossing the racial line went both ways: The original Broyards were French immigrants, and Broyard's research uncovered a white ancestor who, wishing to marry a black woman, registered with authorities as a free person of color.
While Broyard's book focuses on the discovery of the truth about her father and his family and the impact it had on her, meeting all of her relatives was heart wrenching in an unexpected way. She helped organize a family reunion, and as she described the event in O, the Oprah Magazine, "I was beginning to recognize how much it must have meant to my father to live as white, because over the last two days, I had seen how much he'd given up," she wrote. "He would have loved the cousins gathered here, who shared his playful spirit, his physical beauty, his sensitivity and intelligence. They were his family after all. Sitting among them in the city that he left behind, I felt unspeakably sad."
Broyard's family memoir garnered favorable reviews. Joyce Johnson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it "brave, uncompromising and powerful," while Janet Maslin, critiquing it for the New York Times, called it a "fascinating, insightful book…. Broyard shares her father's bracingly unsentimental spirit, to the point where she knows that he had none of Jay Gatsby's self-congratulatory outlook or sense of American tragedy."
Broyard was pleased that her book earned such positive reviews and stirred debate on the topic of race in America. "People are picking up on things I really hoped would come through," she told New Orleans Times-Picayune book critic Susan Larson. "The definition of blackness has been imposed by social and political forces, and the reality it played in people's lives, the real consequential nature of the color line, can be a subtle, difficult point."
At a Glance …
Born in 1966; daughter of Anatole (a writer) and Alexandra Nelson (a dancer) Broyard; married; children: Esme. Education: University of Vermont, BA, English, 1988.
Career: Writer; works published, beginning in 1999.
Addresses: Office—c/o Author Mail, Little, Brown and Company, 237 Park Ave., New York, NY 10017. Web—http://www.blissbroyard.com.
My Father, Dancing (stories), Knopf, 1999.
One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, Little, Brown, 2007.
"My Father, Writing," Victoria, June 2001, p. 108.
"The Unmasked Ball," O, The Oprah Magazine, December 2001, p. 176.
Houston Chronicle, October 24, 1999, p.14.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 22, 2007.
New York Times, September 27, 2007.
New York Times Book Review, October 21, 2007.
Publishers Weekly, June 7, 1999, p. 70.
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