One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets
by Bliss Broyard
Was this your most emotionally tied book to date that you have wrote?
Writing ONE DROP has been the biggest emotional challenge of my life. I had to grapple with the question of what the revelation of my father's secret--that he was part black and hid it from his children--said about him. Not only did I love my father very much, but I admired him, and cutting yourself off from your family and your history to avoid being labeled as black didn't seem like a very admirable thing to do. I had to sort through my own feelings of anger about what I'd lost--the chance to know my grandmother and my aunts and our family's history--before I could begin to understand the circumstances that drove my father to make the choice that he did.
What was the biggest revelation you came across while studying the effect of race in American Society after being informed that you were black?
I had expected when researching my father's family that their story would resemble the stories of many African Americans--middle passage, slavery, emancipation, share cropping, Great Migration. But my father's ancestors mostly descended from a group of free people of color in New Orleans. This community were usually mixed race and had strong ties to the French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana. They spoke French, were Catholic, and ate foods like Gumbo. So they had quite a different culture than the American black one that I (vaguely) knew. Still I expected to find at least one ancestor on my father's side who had been a slave in the United States. And I became convinced that his paternal grandmother was either born into slavery shortly before the Civil War or was born to a recently emancipated slave woman. On the same day that I thought I'd finally found my conclusive evidence, I discovered that my father's grandmother was in fact born into a family a free people of color who owned slaves. I was shocked. That wasn't the African American history that I'd been expecting to uncover.
While researching your ancestry, did you run into any animosity from other blacks?
Upon first meeting someone, there was sometimes a little bit of suspicion. I remember a woman in New Orleans who ultimately become a good friend initially sneering about my interest in this branch of my family tree. But when she saw that I was sincere and that I was prepared to grapple seriously with all aspects of my African ancestry--including the difficult parts--she applauded me and even took me under her wing.
You stated a long kind of disbelief that you were black even after you had done some extensive research. Was there any specific moment when the reality of it finally set in?
I didn't feel disbelief as much as confusion over the logic of how people have been and still are sorted into racial categories in the United States. It became very clear to me over the course of working on ONE DROP that any perceived differences between black and white are mostly the result of social and historical forces such as slavery and segregation. I no longer believe in the idea of race being a biological category--we are all human. At the same time, my father didn't live his life in a vacuum, insulated from the social meanings of race. Whether he liked it or not, he and his family were regarded as black in the world at large. As for myself, I don't actually think of myself as black. Since I wasn't raised that way and it's not what the world sees when it looks at me, I don't really feel that I've earned the right to that label. Rather, I think of myself as someone of mixed race ancestry.
How disheartening was it to find out that your father had intentionally forbade family members, distant and close, from contacting you and your immediate family?
After my father died, I found among his letters one from his mother who wrote that she would be turning seventy-six soon and she wanted to meet her grandchildren for once in her life. A week later, she and my father's sister Lorraine (both of whom could also "pass" for white) came out to visit my family in Connecticut. My dad took everyone to dinner at the local country club and then they went back to New York. I was seven years old and I never saw my grandmother again before her death five years later. The next time I saw my aunt was at my father's funeral. That I missed getting to know them makes me incredibly sad.
In your opinion, why would your father keep the secret from his family, yet give small hints into his personal ethnicity through his writings? I.E, his takes on American jazz during the 1940's and other social pastimes?
I think my father tried as best he could to live outside or above racial labels. He didn't believe that person's race had anything to do with his "authentic self." Therefore he could reveal aspects of the Creole and African American cultures of his childhood without having to suffer the consequences during the 1940s and 50s of being seen as African American himself. Also, throughout many periods in American history, white people have openly expressed a fascination for black culture, often appropriated it. During my own childhood in the 1970s, my white friends and I would mimick J.J. Walker in "Good Times" calling out "Dyn-o-mite" and try to imitate Michael Jackson's "Moonwalk" without anyone questioning our racial identities. So the fact that my father had this intimate knowledge of black culture just made him seem "in-the-know" or cool.
Do you believe your father's insistence on alienating himself from his family and marrying a woman with "Nordic blood" was all a part of his plan to keep his true heritage from you and your siblings?
I think my father felt estranged from his family for a number of reasons, with their racial identity being just a part of it. My father's parents weren't educated, they had rather old-fashioned conventional opinions about the world. They couldn't begin to understand my father's interests as he matured into a young man: avant-garde literature, Freudian analysis, Modern Art. So he wanted to get away from their provincialism as much as their color. It wasn't until my brother and I were entering into our teenage years, when we were developing interests that were different from his own, that my father began to express some regret about distancing himself from his family. In a column that he used to write for the New York Times, he observed shortly after his mother's death "that his family had to die before he realized how much he missed them and what they meant to him."
I was quite surprised to learn that I had so many family members that I'd never known about and that so many of them knew about my family. In many Creole and African American families where someone is passing, the family members who stay on the black side tend to keep distant tabs on the "white" relatives. They wanted to know if the bargain was worth it: was life on the other side easier, better? From what I've seen in my own family, life on the white side has not necessarily been easier or better. Even if being white allowed someone to get a job that would have been otherwise unavailable (such as my father's position at the New York Times), the person seems to have suffered from losing ties to his or her family.
Has the revelation of being a different race changed your perspective on life?
As I said, I don't think my race changed overnight. It's not like learning about my father's African ancestry or receiving the results of my DNA test--which I performed in the course of researching ONE DROP--and seeing that I am 13% sub-Saharan African suddenly made me a different person. What did change me was the last seventeen years during which I met and developed relationships with my father's family and learned our history and traditions. My own daughter will grow up knowing all her cousins--some who are African American, some who think of themselves as Creole, some who are Norwegian (my mother's ancestry) and some who are Sephardic Jews (my husband's background). I'm glad that for her this United Nations of a family, who more and more resemble so many American families, will just be what she has always known.
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