Exile II Passing

Bliss Broyard's One Drop

Many people today try to deny that race has continues to play an important and central role in American society. They like to suggest that Americans have moved beyond race, and that it is important only because of the physical differences it dictates. Even those who recognize that race continues to play a dramatic role in the political and social landscapes of this country, like to pretend that some groups have moved beyond racial issues. These groups generally include those that are considered "intellectuals," as if academic pursuits place one beyond the taint of racism and prejudice, as if the basic human drive towards stereotype can be entirely eliminated by education. However, most people know this to be false; America continues to be plagued by racial strife and racial injustice. Being black in America is still considered a badge of inferiority by a sufficient enough number of people, both black and white, that being black can have a very real impact on quality of life, even once one has considered all other variables.

Interestingly enough, Bliss Broyard, the author of One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - a Story of Race and Family Secrets, addresses the notion that a society can ever be "color-blind," and acknowledges the role that racial prejudice played in her own life:

grew up believing, without exactly realizing I believed it or knowing where this belief had come from, that blacks were different from whites, probably inferior, and possibly had even brought on some of their own ill treatment. If you asked me if I thought this way, I would have objected vigorously. As a well-off white kid with artsy parents growing up in the 1970s and 1980s just outside New York City, I gave lip service to principles like justice and equal rights and considered myself immune to racial prejudice. (Broyard, p.42).

However, these were thoughts that were not discussed in Broyard's home during her childhood.

At the time, she did not notice the lapse, though she certainly would have if she had known of her father's mixed background. Instead, looking back, she realized that the subject of race was not really discussed in her home during her childhood, not overtly or covertly. Her parents did not endorse racial equality, but they also did not make overtly racist beliefs. However, towards the end of his life, Broyard's father made remarks about black people being lazy and dependent, and even made disparaging remarks about black children on his street. Only the deathbed acknowledgment that her father was an African-American demonstrated to Bliss the reality of her father's hypocrisy.

One Drop is partially Broyard's description of her journey from self-perceived WASP to a person of mixed ancestry, in the racially-charged United States. It is also the story of Broyard's father, Anatole Broyard, a man of mixed race, who chose to pass for white rather than acknowledge his black heritage and accept its perceived disadvantages. Broyard's reaction to the fact that her father had passed was initially one of open-minded acceptance and a melting-pot mentality that made the notion of mixed ancestry seem appealing. However, that reaction may have been due to the fact that Broyard found out this information while her father was dying of cancer, which made it highly unlikely, if not impossible, that could ask him serious questions about his decision, or make any real effort to ask him about it. The attitude was also discouraged by Broyard's mother, who discouraged them from feeling enthusiastic about their African-American heritage, and told them that they were white. (Broyard, p.17).

The problem with One Drop is that it is not only the story of Broyard's discovery that she has some African-American ancestry and what that means for her opinion on race. It is also the story of her father, Anatole Broyard, her immediate family, her father's family, and the history of race relations in the United States. She does not have the same success with telling all of these stories, which may not be surprising given that they are very different stories. She succeeds the most in telling her father's story. She obviously cares about him and has made an effort to portray his life as realistically as possible, without denying that she has a daughter's bias. She also does a good job of portraying her family life. However, she is less successful at relaying information that was obviously gleaned from research; both tales about her father's family and the history of race relations in the United States. Therefore, to truly understand this book, it is essential to review the various different stories.

The first problem with Broyard's tale of her father is that she appears to be very dishonest about his abilities as a father. Early in the story, she indicates that her father had two children before beginning his relationship with her mother: one from a previous marriage and another by a girlfriend. However, when at his funeral, she states that her father's survivors included only six people, conveniently omitting any reference to those children. She also talks about people who eulogized Anatole as a wonderful father, but they do not appear to have referenced those children, either. In a story about the discovery of roots and family history, the omission of an investigation of her father's children seems glaring, as if Broyard is only interested about the people who contributed to creating her father, and not interested in exposing herself to people who could contradict her opinion of Anatole as a father.

Broyard's story of her father and his decision to pass reveals a level of dishonesty by the man that was so dramatic that it actually evokes a feeling of pity for him. The decision to pass as white, whether it was initially intentional, or a just the side effect of not being rejected as a black man when people mistakenly believed he was white, was clearly something that impacted Anatole's life in a dramatic manner. He distanced himself from his family, and his children had no real relationship with either of his sisters or his parents, though their grandmother was alive for much of their childhood. When Broyard saw her father's older sister and her son at her father's funeral, she could see features that were clearly identifiable as black. Moreover, Broyard had never even met her father's younger sister before his death. He gave up his association with his extended family, and he seemingly did so in order to preserve the idea that he could be perceived as "white." Broyard does not shy away from making this inference. When asked about why the family had no relationship with his sister Shirley, Anatole responded that he disagreed with her husband's politics and later suggested that it was because Shirley had a schizophrenic son. However, Shirley was very obviously black. Furthermore, her husband was political:

In fact her husband, Franklin Williams, who died a few months before [Anatole], was a civil rights lawyer who worked under Thurgood Marshall in the NAACP in the 1940s. He started the Constitutional Rights Division in California in the early sixties and had served as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana in the seventies. The speakers at his funeral included New York City mayor David Dinkins and the South African independence leader Bishop Desmond Tutu. (Broyard, p.36).

Broyard's most honest and most revealing writing is when she is discussing her own personal feelings about race. She cannot know why her father chose to pass. Not only died he die soon after she learned about his race, which meant that she could not ask him about his decision to pass, but she also simply could not truly understand what it meant to be a black person growing up in the Jim Crow South. Therefore, her conjecture about her father's feelings and motivations leaves the reader unsatisfied; the vast majority of her audience cannot really claim to understand Anatole's reasoning any more than Broyard can. However, her musings about race tend to hit home. She talks about her desire to talk to her family about race. However, she acknowledges why that is a problem:

The problem was, I'd never had a conversation about race. In the world I was raised in, it was considered an impolite subject. The people I knew lowered their voices when referring to a black person. I didn't know anything about African-American history, nor had I ever known anyone black well enough to call them a friend. I don't remember issues such as affirmative action or busing, which dominated racial politics in the 1970s and 1980s, ever coming up for discussion in my house. Although I grew up within an hour's drive of three of the poorest black communities in the United States- Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford- those neighborhoods seemed as distant as a foreign country. I'd make jokes with my brother about getting lost in "Father Panic Village," infamous as the worst section of neighboring Bridgeport, but I never gave any…