The Unmasked Ball
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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