Sort of black like me

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion page.

Let’s start with the obvious: The titillating title of Bliss Broyard’s long-awaited book could have been the title of any number of Southern-bred stories popular at the turn of the 20th century featuring a protagonist called “the tragic mulatto.” These presented the American version of a Greek tragedy, a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of knowing thyself too much, at least racially. The story went this way: A young white person (usually a woman) is the toast of the town. She sometimes has uneasy feelings about her station, either because she’s harboring a secret or she senses something amiss in her life that she can’t quite name. About halfway through, it is revealed that the fair maiden has black ancestry, a grandparent or great-grandparent -- “one drop,” in Southern parlance. This drop is entirely ruinous, like a dash of arsenic in a pool of water. The heroine’s charmed life comes apart -- friends abandon her, fortunes fall away. She is left to wander in the desert of her new identity with all the other Negroes who have been there for generations. The moral of the story is nothing as profound as that of “Oedipus Rex,” but it’s as harsh and unforgiving: Don’t be black if you can help it.

Such was the unmitigated tragedy of American blackness as told by pulp fiction -- exaggerated and racist, sure, but it had a hard social truth that everyone lived by, and no one lived it harder than black folks. To ease things, some occasionally passed as white; some made the more radical move of crossing over, divorcing themselves entirely from their black families and living among white people as white people. Broyard’s “One Drop” is an examination of one of the most dramatic crossovers of the last 50 years, her father, New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard. His daughter is determined to know more than just the facts of his life (she didn’t learn of his secret until after his death in 1990): She wants to know the particulars of racial oppression, how it fueled the whole phenomenon of crossing over, and how that affected her own family. Why and when did Anatole Broyard do it? How tragic -- or successful -- a mulatto was he? Why did he keep up the whiteface as times changed? And, most critically, what effect does this knowledge of his identity have on her, a white, WASPy girl from Connecticut who, prior to embarking on this project 16 years ago, had almost no experience with black people of any complexion? I shuddered to think.

Fortunately, Bliss Broyard walks through this house of mirrors and keeps her gaze admirably steady. With a reporter-like mix of new-subject naiveté and doggedness, she moves from her beginnings in upper-crust Connecticut and New York to Creole society in New Orleans -- about as big a cultural leap in the continental U.S. as you can get. New Orleans is a city that has dabbled in every kind of racial paradigm and has produced Creoles, people whose mixed background included French, Spanish, Native American and black. Blackness was always a social taint, but it loomed larger in the post-Reconstruction years as legal segregation replaced slavery. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that Anatole Broyard decided as a young man living in the mid-20th century that being white was better than being black, especially given his ambition of joining the East Coast literati, who, by definition, were white. Not all Creoles had that option, however, either because they were too dark or otherwise “too black” to pass. Anatole could play the part.

Role-playing is the central theme of “One Drop,” and whether Anatole was faking it or rightfully claiming his place in a world of artificial boundaries that left him no choice but to fake it is a central question. His daughter’s answer is most compelling when she recounts New Orleans’ Creole history and her own family’s place in it, the exploits of her great-great-grandfather Henry Broyard, a soldier in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard Infantry, the first black regiment in the U.S. Army (Henry, ironically, was a white Broyard with “colored” relatives who “passed” as black). She tracks in heartbreaking detail the post-Civil War fight that Creoles and blacks waged -- and lost -- for political participation in exchange for their military service to the country. These are uncomfortable places to go, but Bliss Broyard insists we go there with her. Just as uncomfortable is her realization that she is on this path alone, that there will be no real rapprochement between black and white, black and Creole, father and daughter, even brother and sister -- her mother, Alexandra (who is white), and her brother, Todd, consider the revelation an interesting family quirk, but nothing life-altering.


Does the revelation alter Bliss’ life? Ultimately, it’s hard to tell because her own presence, while assured, is fuzzy. Part of the fuzziness is due to the ambiguous nature of the story -- she alternates between being a clueless white girl, which she is, and a black woman coming into fundamental self-knowledge, which she is also. Her exposition is sometimes awkward, which often feels right. But the awkwardness points to something else -- the lack of Bliss as a character in her own right. I know that she has much to prove, or correct. She doesn’t want to be like her father, a gifted but unrealized writer who fell short of genius because he committed the cardinal artistic sin of dishonesty. She’s not going to be a writer blessed, then burdened, to produce a work that can’t be completed because of that dishonesty. She’s going to be as public and exhaustive about her blackness as he was private and reticent about his.

But that doesn’t even things out. Her dad put his passion and personality on the page obsessively, staking out that authentic self he placed above color with each turn of phrase. For all his hypocrisy, his style was unimpeachable. Bliss is an honest broker, but she is not the personality I’d hoped for. It’s as if she decided that blackness, not Bliss, is the story here. But those are exactly the divisions of consciousness that should not be, which Anatole feared would swallow his ambitions whole. It’s a tall order, but Bliss needs to show that a writer can be simultaneously black, literate, a devotee of Baudelaire and whatever else; she needs to prove her father wrong in the strongest terms. She does not--not because she lacks courage, conviction or even insight. What she lacks is an identity.

There are flashes of it. In deconstructing some of her own mainstream black stereotypes, she comes up with this jolting observation: “Sometimes I got a thrill from thinking something that was ugly and extreme, the way that smelling a terrible smell can be perversely exhilarating.” As a young woman, she remarks to her dad over breakfast one morning that an admiring black man at a dance club had asked her if she were black. She laughs, although Anatole raises his brow. “What could he have been thinking in those moments?” Bliss writes with more than a little bitterness. “Did he worry that someday one of us might be found out?”

I wish there were more visceral moments like this, but Broyard defers to the ponderous politesse that tends to wrap most discussions of race in a kind of cocoon. But even within that, she sometimes gets at critical ironies. Of her father’s nearly nonexistent politics during the 1960s, she says “he was opposed to turning race into a movement that collapsed affiliation and identity, requiring adherence to a group platform rather than to an ‘essential spirit.’ While many African Americans would argue that the civil rights movement was a bid for the recognition of the Negro’s humanity. . . my dad only saw the ways that such collective action could become an avenue of flight, distorting a person’s sense of self.”

Speaking of flight, Broyard ultimately cops out on the racial question by declining to state. In the end, she retreats into the neo-liberal view that color doesn’t matter, that it’s a social and scientific fiction. But that is, of course, the ultimate white privilege -- the freedom to decide, after careful consideration, that color doesn’t matter to you. Blacks have no such freedom to choose. Even Creoles like Anatole knew they had to purge themselves of their blackness to some degree to even aspire to such consideration. The tragedy of Anatole was that he was never the same as his white peers, not because he was less able, but because he paid too heavy a price for his neutrality, a neutrality they got every day for free. Bliss Broyard has expanded the “tragic mulatto” story, but the moral is still the same.