Her father's hidden past

A color line obscured Bliss Broyard's heritage

Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / November 6, 2007

PROVIDENCE - Americans have usually admired those who reinvent themselves, flouting limits and crossing borders. But crossing the color line, it seems, was always different.

That was the line New York Times critic and essayist Anatole Broyard crossed in his teens. While his wife and a few others knew that he came from an African-American family, many close friends did not know he was "passing" - that is, passing for white. Not until just before his death of cancer, in 1990, did his widow, Sandy Broyard, reveal the facts to their adult children, Todd and Bliss.

Now Bliss Broyard, 41, after years of research and personal exploration, has told the story from the family perspective in "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets." While the book is "about" Anatole Broyard, his family's history, and the cultural and racial history of south Louisiana, its main subject is the emotional landscape around the color line, which Bliss Broyard never expected to explore.

"I really felt like I had to write it," she said in an interview before a reading in Rhode Island, "partly because I had a lot of questions after learning about my dad's identity. How did this revelation change the way that I thought of him? Did it make him a hero that he was rejecting this antiquated racist one-drop notion [i.e., that 'one drop' of African blood makes a person black]? Or did it make him a fraud, hiding his origins and his true self? Also, I didn't know now what to call myself."

Anatole Broyard, born in 1920, came from a New Orleans family which his daughter traced back to a French immigrant in 1753. A white ancestor married a free woman of color, from a Haitian background, in 1855, which made their children Creole, a historic culture with French, sometimes Spanish, and Caribbean elements. In 1927, Paul and Edna Broyard, both of mixed lineage, abandoned New Orleans for Brooklyn, N.Y., bringing Anatole and his two sisters with them.

In Brooklyn, both light-skinned parents "passed" in order to get work ordinarily closed to black people. They didn't renounce friends or family, but Anatole, who was rejected and beaten for his ambiguous identity by white and black kids, apparently decided to live as white when he went to Brooklyn College in 1937. After serving in the Pacific in World War II, he moved into the literary world of Greenwich Village, leaving his past behind, and became a well-known literary tastemaker. Married in 1961, he and his wife eventually moved to affluent (and almost totally white) Fairfield, Conn. So completely did Anatole shun his origins that Bliss only found out that her paternal grandmother, whom she had met only once, had died several months after the event.

As the kids grew up, Sandy Broyard urged Anatole to tell them about his family background. "I felt they needed to know," she said by telephone from her home on Martha's Vineyard. "As they got older and were in college, I brought it up again. But he would just shut down and get angry. He would tell them in his own time." Nearing death from cancer in 1990, he finally agreed that he would rest easier if he were to reveal his secret. With Todd and Bliss at his bedside, his wife urged him to speak.

"He just couldn't find the words," Bliss said. "He had a lot of fear about that conversation. He said he needed to think about how to present things, to 'order his vulnerabilities,' which was so quintessentially him, and so sad. I wish he could have told us. For us, it was, 'We're your children - do you need to prepare a text so you can speak to us?' "

"In Greenwich Village," said Bliss, "everybody was shedding their past and their old-world origins, so why should there be this special exception if you were black? I think he felt that way. But by playing by his own rules, he cut himself off from his family history - and cut us off."

After the truth became public in 1996, in stories in The Boston Globe and The New Yorker, Bliss Broyard felt some sense of relief. Still, the publicity was an odd experience. "Now suddenly, people would say, 'What are you?' " she said. "I didn't have a good answer. I didn't feel that I could say I was black. I wasn't raised that way. I don't look black. I haven't really earned it."

She sought out her aunts and her cousins, who had known about her and her brother all along, and they treated her generously. While researching her family's documented roots, she found other related Broyards in Los Angeles and explored the New Orleans Creole world her father had come from, going to Mardi Gras parties and dances with a new local friend.

"My friend would say, 'This is Bliss. She found out she's Creole. She's a Broyard.' They would say, 'Oh, Broyard!' Everyone knew Broyards, when we were the only ones I ever knew. It was very exciting to be given this warm reception. Immediately my story made sense to them - I didn't need to explain. They would say, 'Oh, your daddy was passeblanc' - a very familiar story, a Creole thing."

However, there was also, she said, "a lot of anger from people I have met about what my father did, which I understand." She learned that the message of passing, that dark skin is something to be shunned and hidden, has a special sting for those directly, or implicitly, discarded and abandoned.

"When I was growing up, people who passed for white were reviled by the rest of us," said historian Roger Wilkins of George Mason University, who is African-American and author of "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." "When I became more mature, I concluded that they were more to be pitied than scorned, because they were usually tied in emotional knots about what they had done. It must be an awful way to live."

That's apparently a good description of Anatole Broyard, who tried for decades to write an autobiographical novel but couldn't find the words. "He was one of the most brilliant writers I've ever known," said psychotherapist Michael Vincent Miller, who was Broyard's closest friend for decades yet never knew his secret. "But I think this bit of denial, or repressed conflict, blocking the freedom of his full realization of his identity, also blocked him as a writer."

In the end, Bliss Broyard did not judge her father as either hero or traitor but as one who had made a choice and paid a price for it. She no longer feels that her own identity needs to be resolved. She's married to a Sephardic Jew with Spanish, Turkish, and Greek roots, and they have a 16-month-old daughter whom she laughingly calls "a mutt." She is pleased at the richness she's helping to pass on. They live in Brooklyn, where kids on either side of the color line once cruelly taunted the child Anatole.

"It does make me feel very much more rooted to know my history," she said. "It makes me feel like I am a part of the texture of the country. Our story is an American story."

David Mehegan can be reached at

(Correction: Because of an editing error, a story about author Bliss Broyard in yesterday's Living/Arts section incorrectly indicated where Broyard was raised. She grew up in Fairfield, Conn. Also, the story said she never met her paternal grandmother, Edna Broyard. They met once.)

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