Among the many T-shirt wisdoms that have proliferated since Hurricane Katrina is one that explains in a few succinct words why we're all still here: 'New Orleans: It sticks to you." We are meant to think of humidity, of course, but so much more as well. The physical experience of the place leads to an emotional attachment that leaves us totally fixed to this place without a clear sense of why and often against our better judgment.
The physical stickiness of our attachments is one of the underlying themes of Bliss Broyard's book, One Drop, My Father's Hidden Life " A Story of Race and Family Secrets (Little, Brown and Company). Seven years ago, Broyard set out to write her way toward understanding her father, Anatole Broyard, who was born into an old New Orleans Creole family. He later became an essayist, literary critic and daily book reviewer for The New York Times.
Bliss learned a secret about her father as he was dying in a hospital room in 1990. She was 24 years old at the time that her mother told her and her brother Todd that their father, whom they had always assumed was white like them, actually was part black. That meant that his daughter was also part black. Or part white. Or something else altogether. One Drop is her exhaustively researched and heartfelt examination of this indistinct boundary between the races and the placement of family bonds.
Broyard's ancestors moved from New Orleans to Brooklyn in 1927, seeking a life not so constrained by Jim Crow. In New York, 6-year-old Anatole's parents, who were light-skinned enough that they could be taken as white, allowed that misunderstanding in order to work. Bliss Broyard's grandfather had been a master carpenter in New Orleans, but would not have been able to join the carpenter's union up North if he were strictly truthful about the letters on his birth certificate that identified him as 'colored." Her grandmother worked in a laundry whose white owners made it clear they were only interested in hiring white employees. If they could earn a better salary by passing as white, the choice was easy.
When Anatole Broyard grew up and out of Brooklyn, he cut himself off from his parents and two sisters, Lorraine and Shirley. He joined the bohemian world of artists, writers and intellectuals in the Greenwich Village of the 1940s and '50s. There he found communion with other children of European immigrants who had broken from their Old World families to define and invent themselves in the United States. If Anatole did not explicitly lie about his racial identity, he didn't explain it either. Perhaps it was a lie of omission, but another possibility is that he considered his racial ancestry no one's business but his own " a classic Creole attitude.
Broyard's approach to the question of her father's honesty is unsentimental but still compassionate. In the America in which he found himself as a young man, there was an expectation that people must be on one side or the other of the color line, either white or descendants of slaves. That color line has never been so clear or strict in New Orleans. Before Jim Crow, the racially mixed Creole society had existed as a parallel to white society, enjoying similar privileges and entitlements.
'My father's sense of black was Creole," says Broyard. 'That culture is so different from the New York sense of black. This was not a story that people were ready to hear. So he did carry on the tradition of his family, whose roots are not in black identity. His roots are in an indeterminate, ambivalent racial identity. I don't think that in private my dad thought of himself as black. He thought of himself as outside those categories."
She ran into an even more complex challenge when she learned that one branch of the family were Creoles of color who had owned African slaves. This unexpected revelation confounded Broyard's sense of how the typical African-American story should unfold. As she found more layers to peel away from her family story, the mystery of how her father fit in deepened.
Anatole Broyard's motives and reasoning are the mystery that his daughter explores in her book, which is a balanced marriage of research and imagination. Over the course of several years, Bliss Broyard came to New Orleans to prowl through dusty library files and municipal records, often reduced to such low-tech methods as flipping index cards and Xeroxing pages from the phone book in order to piece together the trail of Broyards that led to her father. Her desire to understand Anatole is very much an embodied experience. In the chapter where she walks down St. Ann Street to the house where her father was born, the heat, the dust and the smells all become a part of how she knows her father.
The book's best moments occur when the narrative takes flight from the research, and the author tells us what she imagines her father must have thought and felt as he made his way in the New World. The image she gives us is that of a vigorous, talented young man fully in possession of his own life who existed in a perpetual state of tension. That tension centers on the question of how much of what we are is the result of conscious choice or self-invention, and how much lies beyond our control because it comes to us through the fact of our birth.
As a young man, Anatole seemed to believe he was entirely his own creation. After the death of his mother, there are suggestions that he may have begun to temper that belief. His daughter now says, 'I don't agree that we can invent ourselves totally. For my dad it was the force of his personality that made him successful at self-invention. People saw him in the way he wanted to be seen. The cost of that was the isolation. He lost his family and his history."
Toward that point, Bliss Broyard made an intriguing observation about her brother Todd, who like her had been raised without any knowledge of their Creole ancestry and without any religion either. As an adult Todd chose to become a Catholic and worked as a carpenter. Broyard males had worked in the carpentry trade in New Orleans for generations until Anatole broke that chain.
In writing her book, Broyard not only reconstructed her father's story, but also went looking for the extended family that he had deprived her of when he chose to pass as white. One day she had thought her 'family" consisted of only her parents and her brother, and the next she found that a whole village of cousins awaited her in New Orleans. In a number of bracing exchanges with her newfound cousins, Broyard reveals the anger that many harbor over those who 'passed." In their view, by passing as white, Anatole had rejected them. It's to her credit that Broyard does not flinch from these charged conversations. She sticks with her new family because they are family and because she wants to heal the damage Anatole has done.
'I admire my dad for his distinct sense of self and that he brushed aside the tags that go with his history," Broyard says. 'At the same time, it's exhausting to do that. It takes an awful lot of effort to totally divorce yourself from those people that mark you as a certain racial identity. I don't have that energy. Plus, you lose so much. The people I have gotten to know feel like family to me now. There is a benefit of the doubt that is given to each other. So much is accepted."
In addition to the loss of his ancestral family, another sorrow of Anatole's life was that he did not write his novel, the unrealized great work that his publisher and peers expected from him. This expectation sprang from a highly praised short story he had written about his dying father. It seemed clear that the way into his novel would be to excavate the material concerning his family of origin. Perhaps he couldn't write the novel because he couldn't be totally honest about what his family was.
'He felt compelled to write about his family," Broyard says. 'The pain of his childhood had its roots in the race question. Yet he was resistant to write about that. He was opaque to himself that way. Even in his private journals, you'd think he'd reflect on it, but he didn't. Even in his most private moments he would not reveal these difficulties to himself."
More likely, his writer's block came from his crippling perfectionism, she says. 'He had a fine and great appreciation for wonderful literature. When you appreciate it so keenly, it's hard to produce anything that is less subtle. That stopped his work more than anything else."
One Drop is undeniably Bliss Broyard's story. She inhabits the narrative completely and guides it with her vision. Yet, Anatole Broyard's life story ended with so many more questions than answers that it appears the book needed to be written for his sake as much as for his daughter's.
'I do feel it was my journey to understand my dad," she says. 'I think he'd be proud that I told the story, but he'd tell it in a different way. Or not at all. There was an unfinished business that he left, whether he thought of it or not. He wrote an essay after his mom died saying that his family had to die before he realized that he missed them. This was his way of saying that he wanted to come home to his roots. So I finished that for him."
Bliss Broyard will read from One Drop, My Father's Hidden Life " A Story of Race and Family Secrets at Garden District Book Shop at 5 p.m. on Oct. 24 and at Borders Books on Oct. 25.