Bliss Broyard grapples with shades of color, choice, denial, and forgiveness.
Assembled for dinner in a historic hotel in New Orleans on the final night of the Broyard family reunion were more than 100 of my relatives. I looked around the room: How many we were and how varied—some raised as African-American, others as white. Some with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes; others dark with brown eyes and black hair, and then every shade in between. Most of them I'd never met before this weekend. Until the discovery of a secret shortly before my father's death 11 years earlier, I hadn't known they existed at all.
On a Sunday afternoon in September 1990, my mother, my brother, Todd, and I sat on a stone wall outside the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. My father, Anatole Broyard, the writer and book critic for the New York Times, had been hospitalized with prostate cancer for almost two weeks, and we'd just spent the last hour watching him suffer through bouts of pain so terrible that he'd cried out, "Help, help me!" as if he were drowning. After he finally fell asleep, my mother took Todd and me outside, saying we needed to talk. A few weeks ago we'd learned there was something about our father's childhood that had been kept from us; we'd been waiting for him to get out of the hospital to explain it. Now my mother said, "I think I better tell you what the secret is. Your father's part black."
I let out a startled laugh. "That's the secret?"
"That's it?" Todd asked.
"That's all," my mother said.
This revelation was nothing compared with the scenarios we'd been imagining: abuse or some other horrible crime. And after the soul-wringing exhaustion of watching a dignified man—my father whom I loved—yelling in agony, the news didn't seem like a big deal. In fact I felt exhilarated to learn my history and identity were richer and more interesting than my white-bread upbringing had led me to believe.
We asked my mother how black is he. With his blue eyes and pale skin, he didn't look black. She said that both his parents were Creoles from New Orleans—a term with many definitions—which in my father's case meant that he was of mixed French and black ancestry. She said that his decision to pass as white was part of his bid to become a writer; he feared being marginalized as a black writer, limited to addressing only black experiences. Also, white and black kids alike had bullied my father as a child because he didn't fit comfortably into either group. He wanted to spare his own children the same fate. My mother said that the reason we had no contact with my father's family was that they lived as black.
Two days later my father underwent emergency surgery. He survived another month, but the crisis caused something to slip in his brain. He never regained his lucidity, so there was no chance for him to explain why he'd made the choice he did. One day he fell into a coma, and very early one morning he died.
It wasn't until my father's memorial service that I grasped the fact that his being black was more than an interesting footnote to his life; it was a truth that had shaped his and my identity and destiny in ways I had only begun to imagine. There, in the rectory of the church, I met his younger sister, Shirley, and her son Frank, and for the first time in 17 years I saw my father's older sister, Lorraine. Of the more than 300 people who showed up at the church that day, my father's family were the only black people present except for one colleague from his office.
"During 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"
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"
Joyce, my father's second cousin, and her daughter Dionne introduced themselves. "We have something to show you," said Dionne, who is tall and strikingly good-looking, with the expressive Broyard eyes. Joyce is of my father's generation although her smooth skin and thick brown hair make her look much younger than her 70 years. Dionne held out a photo of my grandfather that belonged to Joyce's mother. In the picture he is young and handsome, wearing a white double-breasted suit that hangs open unbuttoned, his pants pulled up high on his waist. I remembered my father saying that his dad believed he had particularly long legs and liked to show them off. We laughed about this, and the differences between us—in race and history—shrank a little.
Cousins who hadn't seen one another in decades hugged while their kids exchanged shy hellos. Members from the black and white sides met and searched in conversation for people and places they all knew to make real the fact that they were kin. Everyone shared family photographs, and flashbulbs popped every few minutes, capturing new ones.
As my relatives and I built connections, we leaned over the family tree laid out on tables around the room and deciphered our relationships: cousins once removed, or second or third. We told stories—about my great-grandfather's hard luck with fast women and slow horses, his trip to California in 1895, his nickname of Belhomme, "beautiful man." We rolled our eyes over the Broyard men's legendary appeal to women. We proudly listed all the buildings in New Orleans still standing that our ancestors, mostly bricklayers and carpenters, had constructed. Over and over again the shape of someone's eyes or jaw, the way someone smiled knowingly over a familiar story or family trait reminded me of how we were related. Throughout the weekend, as we shared meals, bumped into one another in the lobby, and visited family tombs at local cemeteries, these cousins I'd never met told me they had known about my father: the writer Anatole Broyard, who was living as white with his family in Connecticut. No one openly criticized his choice, and many were quick to say that they didn't judge him, citing the lack of opportunities facing blacks and "your father's understandable desire to better the lives of you and your family." But I was still reserving my judgment about him. I listened during their stories for the feelings underneath.
Over breakfast one morning my cousin Janis, who was raised as black, told me that when she was growing up, her uncle Emile once came over to her house with clippings of my father's writing from the Times. Anatole Broyard was a relative, he told her. Janis asked if she could meet my dad. No, she was told; she must never contact my family because we were living on the other side and we didn't want to know her. I could hear in her voice the hurt her young self must have felt. "It made me think there was something about me that I should be ashamed of," she said.
I protested that I would have loved to know her except I wasn't ever given the chance. But nothing I could say would undo this legacy of my father's. I hoped, though, that my yearning to be a part of this family might make a small amends.
On the last night, Mark, another cousin, described the challenges his family faced by staying in the black community, the bricks thrown at his older brother on the way to school as New Orleans struggled toward integration, his parents' success in the face of discrimination. His father moved the family out to Los Angeles in the 1960s, where he turned the Broyard skill as builders into a prosperous contracting business. His mother chose to teach in black schools though she could have passed and worked in white schools with more resources, better pay, and smaller classes. "They were proud to be colored," Mark said, "just as I am proud to be black and proud that my kids are African-American."
I couldn't help but hear Mark's comments as a rebuke of my father, although I knew that wasn't how he intended them. I regret that I won't ever know firsthand his intense pride in a culture and a family history that is as indisputably noble as his. Yet I was starting to realize that my father's story came with its own struggles and a nobility that was harder to find but existed nonetheless. I was beginning to recognize how much it must have meant to my father to live as white, because over the last two days I had seen how much he'd given up. He would have loved New Orleans, more original and full of spectacle than any other American city. He would have loved the cousins gathered here, who shared his playful spirit, his physical beauty, his sensitivity and intelligence. They were his family, after all. Sitting among them in the city that he left behind, I felt unspeakably sad.
My father once wrote of his own parents: "Like every great tradition, my family had to die before I could understand how much I missed them and what they meant to me." And considering whether his children, my brother and I, would leave him behind one day, he wrote: "Do they understand that, after all those years of running away from home, I am still trying to get back?" As I looked around the banquet hall filled with my Creole cousins, I thought that my father was never able to make it back, but I did.
As I write this in New York City three months later, reminders of the frailty of life and families surround me—candlelit vigils for loved ones lost in the World Trade Center tragedy, handbills posted of fathers, mothers, wives, uncles, cousins still missing—and I feel so grateful that my relatives were able to put aside their differences and come together.
Bliss Broyard lives in Brooklyn and is the author of One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race & Family Secrets (Little, Brown & Company).
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Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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