Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The One Drop Review

There are many reasons to read Bliss Broyard’s well-written book, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets. Discovering why famed New York Times book critic and writer, Anatole Broyard chose to reject his Black/Creole heritage and live his life as a White man should not be one of them.

As his daughter, Bliss Broyard takes up the almost impossible task of trying to get into her father’s heart and mind to discover why he crossed the color line. The fact that the man was already dead when she began her inquiry makes the job even more difficult.

Knowing that the likelihood of ever discovering her father’s real motivations for passing were slim, Bliss Broyard instead reconstructs his family history going back several generations to find the first Broyard in 1750s New Orleans. She tells the history of her family and that of the growing territory of New Orleans in fascinating detail, bringing history to life. I for one learned so much about the social and racial politics of one of America’s most culturally diverse cities. Between the French, Spanish, African, Native American and European cultures, New Orleans was probably the spiciest section of America’s original Meltingpot.

Deftly woven between the historical recap, Broyard recounts her own personal journey of getting to know the family she never knew thanks to her father’s decision to distance himself completely from his Black relatives. Not everyone is willing to embrace this long-lost cousin and Broyard doesn’t gloss over the sometimes uncomfortable family reunions.

Perhaps Bliss did not intend to malign her own father, but because he has already passed away he could not speak for himself. As a result, by the end of the book, not only did I not feel I understood Anatole Broyard’s reasons for living the life he did – including his own racist attitudes towards Black people – I didn’t like him very much. His one decision to “walk on the other side,” negatively influenced his family, his children and even his own career as a writer and yet he never mastered the courage to be honest about who he really was.

In some ways, this book reminds me of Rebecca Walker’s memoir, Black, White Jewish. In reading about her harrowing childhood, the reader can’t help but feel disdain for her mother, Alice Walker, no matter how much one respects her as a writer. The same can be said for One Drop and Anatole Broyard. After reading his daughter’s book, the sins of the father are too much to ignore.

As a memoir, I was left wanting more personal revelations about Anatole Broyard. But overall, an excellent, historical retrospective of race and culture in America.



Anonymous said...

I wonder why it isn't obvious to Bliss why her father rejected his black heritage. Living in a time when blacks faced unbelievable obstacles, I'm not surprised that he did this. Of course, I'm not saying it was the right decision. I am saying that desperate times call for desperate measures. People reacted differently to the racism of the time.


Liz said...

I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago and can't quit thinking about the way she was questioned by reporters. Really interesting reflection on our society.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

There plenty of people in Broyard's own family who were just as light if not lighter and they didn't pass.

To completely reject your heritage and cut off your family is deep and I can understand why his daughter is trying to understand his decision. Remember she is only 40. Broyard was passing at time when many were not.

LorMarie said...

There probably were folks in her family that were much lighter than her father (although they didn't pass). Still, we don't really know how many people (in the general population) actually passed for white. The numbers could be much higher than we realize. I personally feel it's a mistake to brand them all as rejecting their heritage. Some passed in order to survive or even take care of their darker relatives. In other words, passing was quite painful for some. We can't fathom passing because of the day we live in. But can we really say what we would do if we were alive during that time (or during slavery)?