I had always known about these relatives in New York City, only an hour away from Fairfield, Connecticut, where I was raised, but I had no idea why we didn't see them. Lorraine would occasionally call the house, or my dad would remark that he'd had lunch with her. We didn't see Shirley, he explained, because her husband was a politician—and my father didn't like politics. But, in fact, Shirley's husband was a civil rights lawyer, which I suspect made my father uncomfortable.
After the service I stood with my aunts and cousin on the church lawn. I was so excited and flustered that I couldn't think of anything to say. I kept stopping friends who passed by to introduce them. "These are my aunts and my cousin," I repeated again and again, as if in explaining how we were related they would come to feel less like strangers.
As I struggled to accept the loss of my father, I couldn't stop thinking about these other losses: the family I wasn't allowed to know, the history I never learned, the culture I had no part of. My father wanted his kids to be white to protect them, but my identity was staked on false information. The wealthy world I grew up in was almost exclusively white, with country clubs, polo matches, and debutante balls. I had no African-American schoolmates until high school, and then only three, with none in my immediate class. I didn't know anyone black well enough to call a friend. I wondered now who and what I was supposed to be.
I started to question things about my father I hadn't ever thought to doubt: Had I known him as well as I thought I did? Had he led a successful life? Was he a fraud?
I had just lost him and now I was losing him all over again. Ironically, the only way I could think to get him back was to try to understand the world he had left behind. But given my upbringing, could I ever be anything but an outsider there?
I headed to the library, where I read book after book about racial identity, the history of race mixing and passing. I traveled down to New Orleans and traced the genealogy of the family to the first settler, Etienne Broyard, a white man who arrived from France in the 1750s. I chronicled the unions across color lines that produced my father and his Creole cousins. I began to visit with my newfound aunts. Sadly, Lorraine passed away not long after my father. Whenever I was in New York, I would see Shirley, who was always warm and welcoming. But reversing a painful separation and a lifetime of no contact can be a slow process. I began to seek out other Broyards as well.
I found some relatives through a message board at a genealogy Web site. Others got in touch with me after reading a long, involved New Yorker article by Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Afro-American studies at Harvard, revealing the story of my father's racial identity. The piece made me feel even more pressed to absorb what the news meant to me. I went out to Los Angeles, where I met a dozen relatives and learned about other branches of the family tree in which decades earlier a parent or grandparent had crossed into the white world and disappeared.
During the years of Jim Crow, many of my relatives who could pass for white did so—to get a better job, to send their kids to a better school, to go to the nicer, "whites only" beaches. Most of them came home at night and became black again, but some, like my dad, moved permanently to the other side of the color line. One of the Broyard descendants, Gloria, a lively woman in her early forties who grew up in Long Beach, California, had also recently discovered her African ancestry, and I offered to help her organize a reunion that would try to assemble these broken branches of the family. After two years of planning and hundreds of letters, phone calls, and e-mails, members of the white and black sides finally assembled this past June.
As soon as I arrived at the hotel in New Orleans, I tried to spot Broyards by their characteristic Creole looks of light skin and wavy hair, and some quality that seemed particularly Broyard: a playfulness, a bounce to their walk, round hooded eyes, or a sly, wide smile. I was looking for people who reminded me of my father.
As we trickled into the cocktail party the first night, Gloria, in a bright floral sundress, greeted everyone and handed out nametags, color-coded according to our branch of the family. We all descend from six brothers—the oldest, my great-grandfather Paul, who was born in 1856, and the youngest, Gloria's great-grandfather Octave, born in 1872. In the tight-knit Creole community, little attention is paid to how close or distant a relative is, and all around me I heard greetings of "Hi, Cuz."
Before approaching anyone I took a long moment putting on my nametag and shuffling through my family papers. I felt suddenly nervous about meeting my cousins, who had been abstract names on a family tree up until now. I worried about what they might think of my father and his choice to live as white.
"I had just lost him, and now I was losing him all over again"
We Hear You!