Bliss Broyard's One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets (Little, Brown) is actually two books in one. Subject matter and context overlap extensively between the two books, but their centers of attention are as distinct as two hard nuts lying side by side in a bowl. One book is about a young American woman's exploration of her suddenly-discovered black background. In it, she traces her family history back to Eighteenth-Century New Orleans, through the ante-bellum years in which one of her ancestors found it more convenient to pass as black, and on through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and her paternal grandparents' deracinated life in Brooklyn. She meets cousins close and distant, with the interesting effect that the more distant the cousins are, the more tolerant they are of the author's inquiries. In every visible or manifest way, she is a white woman, raised among affluent whites in country-club Connecticut. What does it mean for such a person to carry "black blood"? Initially palpitating with the anticipation of a new feeling that will suddenly overcome her, the author gradually realizes that she will never know what it means to be black. She simply isn't black in any meaningful way.
(And it irritates her no end - although she never quite confesses to this - that her brother, who is even lighter-skinned than she is, and who has no interest at all in exploring his black heritage, actually shares more personality traits with his black cousins, whom he hasn't met, than she does. This is, in its way, a second betrayal.)
The other book is about a young man's decision to repudiate his black heritage. Discovering that he can pass for white, he gradually cuts the ties to his family. Until he becomes a father himself in his forties, he never claims to be white, or not to be black, but behaves in a way that leads people to draw the desired conclusion. Although he is a very suave dancer, and quite the ladies' man (other men follow him around Greenwich Village, ready to pick up his rejects), and even though he is "hip" and knowledgeable about jazz and Harlem, the young man is accepted as white. This is very important to him, because he does not want his mind to be discounted by general assumptions about race. He wants to be a writer. He does not want to be a black writer.
(All through his successful New York career, the writer's secret is widely known. He is "part black" at a time when that is tantamount to being "black," period. It's interesting to see that this information is rarely used against him. Those in the know do not pass on the secret in order to block his career. They will shrug, years later, and tell the man's daughter that they thought that everybody knew. But when the writer becomes a father, he begins to care very much about how his makeup might hurt his children. The few remaining ties with his black background are ruthlessly cut, and, at the end of his life, his children are among the few people close and important to him who do not know that he is at least a quarter black.)
The author and heroine of the first book, Bliss Broyard, is the daughter of the hero, or villain, of the second, Anatole Broyard, for many years a leading book critic at the New York Times. That One Drop should consist indissolubly of two books is the inescapable consequence of enormous shifts in the American understanding of race during the second half of the Twentieth Century, at least among Northeastern elites. The conditions that inspire the young Anatole to shrug off his blackness gradually dissipate, changing, as they fade, the complexion of his decision. What seems pragmatic and level-headed in 1940 becomes heartless forty years later, when, in the ordinary course of events, his children would be only too interested to hang out with the darker-skinned cousins whom, in fact, they would not meet while their father was alive.
Two books, as I say; and yet there is something like a solvent at the end, in the form of an Afterword devoted to DNA testing. This compulsively readable material almost skates right over a fact that is both wretchedly tragic and devilishly comic:
According to the findings of the genome researchers, all these external differences only account for somewhere in the range of 0.1 percent of our genetic makeup, which is insignificant compared with the thousands of genes that determine who we "really" are - our intelligence, our emotional sensitivity, our artistic talents - none of which can be sorted according to specific racial groups.
Not only are the visible "racial characteristics" - such as facial features and skin color - the result of an insignificantly small quantum of genetic information, but there is no link whatsoever - contrary to nearly two hundred years of tendentious and meretricious theorizing - between them and such more important characteristics as intelligence. If black students don't test as well as kids from affluent white suburbs, "race," as genetically determined, is the one thing that can be ruled out as a factor in the difference.
The insignificance of so-called "race," as seen by purely scientific, measurable standards, can only take our breath away, as we survey the centuries of damage that resulted from the oppression of dark-skinned Africans by light-skinned Europeans. This damage consists of much more than generations of oppression, for it was never enough simply to oppress. The oppression must be justified, and "justified" it was, by rotten armchair pseudoscience, by theories that suited white sensibilities. Dark-skinned men and women were inferior. It was an easy theory to prove, because if you treat a group of people as inferior, over time they will become inferior. We can be grateful that this inferiority will not enter their germ stream, so that the descendant of degraded slaves can thrive both at Ivy League schools and in the careers that the best educations open up. The damage can be undone - prospectively. If nothing else, One Drop is a powerful exhortation to all Americans to undo the damage. Basically, whites must vanquish their disdain (and disdain's companion, the dread of being the object of disdain). Blacks must abandon a baseless pride in what, as we have seen, is an insignificant genetic heritage. Blacks may be proud of their spirit, and whites ashamed of their injustice, but each must readily imagine that the shoe might have been on the other foot. At the root of slavery, blacks sold other blacks into captivity. And it was whites who obliged the United States to go to war to put an end to "the special institution."
The worst of the damage, today, is that a man or a woman will look in the mirror and draw conclusion from what he or she sees - essentialist conclusions that are in truth no more than reversible cultural conditioning. To clear the damage away, we must all learn to look in the mirror and see the sheer meaninglessness of our features. Such significance and meaning as we invest in those features - we must learn this, too - are completely environmental, responses to the world that we have learned from our more or less limited circumstances. From parents and local authorities, mostly. Everything that they have to teach, good or bad, can be, if not unlearned, then spared the coming generations. In our severely damaged American culture, too many of us believe that what we call "race" is significant. But it is significant only because we think that it is. We circle the maelstrom in helpless loops, unaware that we can make it subside simply by changing our minds.
Her "black blood" notwithstanding, Bliss Broyard was not the descendant of slaves. Her black ancestors may have been, at one fairly distant time, but the ones whom she was able to trace were free persons of color, part of the Creole community that ringed the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico until the Civil War. Initially, "Creole" simply meant "native to the New World," and implied little about skin color - because, until the Nineteenth Century, skin color per se was not all that important. That would change, tragically, in the run-up to the Civil War; In the aftermath, the color of skin would acquire the power of a fetish.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the blunt force of Jim Crow cut through New Orleans's colored Creole community, scattering people on opposite sides of the color line, threatening their livelihoods, insulting their manhood, and toppling the institutions that had always sustained them. Every trip to the movie theatre, beach or opera house; every ride on the streetcar or visit to a hotel or restaurant; every stop in a public bathroom and drink from a water fountain posed the question: Was a person "colored" or "white"?
For those Creoles whose appearance made clear their black ancestry, there was no decision to make. They headed to the back of the streetcar or the balcony of the movie theatre, where they sat alongside the American Negroes, who made up the majority of the city's black population. Other Creoles who could have passed for white joined them there - people who didn't want to abandon their friends and families or to deal with the trouble that could come from bucking the city's color line. Over time some of those Creoles not only resigned themselves to the label of Negro, but they began taking on aspects of the lifestyle that went with it. They stopped teaching their children how to speak French. Because the public schools offered instruction exclusively in English, a new generation of Creoles grew up unable to understand what their elders were saying. On the political front, they joined forces with the American Negroes in the local chapter of the NAACP, after its opening in 1915, where they worked together to fight discrimination.
Many other colored Creoles, however, saw the bifurcation of the racial order in the city - and its elevation of a person's blood over his culture and accomplishments - as a crude American invention. Obeying it meant conceding to the gradual effacement of their Creole identity. Already their claim to the term was threatened by the white Creole population, who since Reconstruction had been trying to redefine "Creole" as strictly Caucasian, lest the northern newcomers suspect them of being "tainted by the tarbrush." And so many colored Creoles - rather than relinquish the sense of themselves that had fueled their self-worth over the last century - put off choosing between "white" and "colored" for as long as they could. They turned inward, to their church and clubs, to their Creole neighborhoods, and most of all to their families. In this way Jim Crow at once crystallized the colored Creole identity while also fracturing it. It encouraged Creoles to set themselves apart, where they stood proud, protected, and finally sidelined by history. The trajectory of my great-grandfather's life - from a proud Creole businessman to a man who, in his grandson's words, "was as shabby as shabby can be" - echoed the colored Creoles' demise.
This is the ambiguous world that produced Anatole Broyard and, in turn, his daughter. He was familiar with it from the earliest moments of consciousness. For her, it came as an exotic surprise, in the middle of her twenties. For him, being black was a doom that he just might, if he behaved properly, escape. For her, being black could never be more than a superfluous adornment. He would have to pass; she - thanks to her Norwegian American mother (with plenty of Native American thrown in, by the way) - would never be given the option not to. Father and daughter would have found themselves on the opposite sides of a steep range, had they ever discussed any of this. But they didn't; he couldn't. His wife prodded him to tell their children, but he couldn't. Was he ashamed, or was he trying to protect them, or both? Was he valiantly sticking to his original, now rather anachronistic position, which was that it didn't make any difference? (As indeed it almost didn't, for him, because that 0.1 percent of his genetic makeup lined up "white.") Or was he more like Blanche Dubois, desperately holding on to the ghost of a long-gone eminence (in the Creole world of old New Orleans)? Did he think that he was too good, in short, to be black? Bliss Broyard refuses to resolve any of these questions. Writing about an early essay that Anatole published in Commentary, Bliss notes that few of his (surviving) Greenwich Village friends appeared to have read it, which at first struck her as odd.
Perhaps "Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro" wasn't memorable because it wasn't particularly good. Despite his supposed intimate knowledge, my father dismissed the everyday realities of black people's lives without a backward glance. It was easy for him to suggest that African Americans forget they are Negroes - the world didn't throw that identification in his face again and again. It was easy for him to recommend that blacks resist the distorting effects of white prejudice - he wasn't bombarded by it every day.
At a moment in American history when blacks were having trouble finding work and gaining admission to restaurants and clubs, where any good or bad thing they did was chalked up as a credit or embarrassment to their race, when the possibility of being seen with a white woman or getting lost in a white neighborhood could lead to spurious - and life-threatening - conclusions, my father's prescription of "stubborn adherence to one's essential self" was, at best, very weak medicine. Try telling that to his brother-in-law Frank, who the year before had been chased by the Ku Klux Klan after leaving a Florida courthouse...
No matter how many classes my father had taken with the Freudian revisionist Erich Fromm, whose focus was the role of society in shaping the individual, no matter how closely he studied Freud's thesis in Civilization and its Discontents about the tension between a man's freedom and the conformity imposed by civilization, my father still couldn't see how the hand of the world pushed upon the Negro's back and how that pressure might make a person want to push back. Yet when someone pinned my father's race on him - "Look, a Negro!" in the formulation of Martinican writer Frantz Fanon in his essay "The Fact of Blackness," published in 1952, also in response to Sartre's analysis of Jewish identity - my dad wasn't able to turn the other cheek either.
Most readers, I expect, will come away forgiving Anatole Broyard for his draconian severance. I'm not sure, though, that their forgiveness would be but ashes in his mouth were he alive to be forgiven. His heart would sink, as he grasped that, forgiven or not, he had become in the end the black writer that he had wanted so desperately not to be. You and I might not think that there's anything wrong with being a writer who is black, but that's not the same thing as the "black writer" that served as a template when Broyard was young. "Black" was a supersignificant modifier, affecting everything to which it applied; there were no writers who just happened to be black.
And yet that's exactly what Broyard became when he served as daily book critic at the Times. Not everybody knew it, which is why being black was a luxury (or a curse) that he could overlook. Opportunistic as it might sound, I think that the time is ripe for a Broyard reader. It would be a collection of essays and reviews, with perhaps the first two chapters of the autobiographical novel that he was never able to finish. What we might find is work neither white nor black, but revenant, bringing back to life the Creole complexity of an America in which, hard as it may be to believe now, skin color didn't really make much of a difference in everyday life. (November 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press