A GeneaBlogie Book Review
Bliss Broyard grew up in the wealthiest part of Fairfield, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. She lived a life of privilege as one of two children of New York Times book critic and essayist Anatole Broyard. Her handsome, witty father was well-known in literary and social circles. But Bliss would find out that he was really unknown to her.
She always thought there were hidden things in her house and family, Bliss did. As a youngster, Bliss would search the house for evidence of secrets she had a feeling were there. And then there were the questions. Why did she seem to have so few relatives on her father’s side? Why did she never see those few relatives, though they lived not far away? Why did she not know about her grandmother’s death until nearly nine months after it happened? And just whose ashes were in those cardboard boxes in her father’s closet?
As Anatole Broyard lay dying of cancer in 1990, his wife urged him to reveal his secret to his children. Anatole demurred and deferred despite his family’s entreaties. Finally, two days before her husband passed away, Sandy Broyard told daughter Bliss and son Todd the secret: “Your father is part black.”
This stunning revelation sent Bliss Broyard on a genealogical and historical journey of personal self-discovery and quest to find her father’s true ancestry. She chronicles that journey in One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets (Little, Brown & Company, 2007; 514 pp.; available at Amazon.)
This crisply written book is deep in history and genealogy as Bliss travels to New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York City to find her relatives. She uncovers the unique social history of French and Spanish Louisiana where, at least early on, planters walked about openly with their slave mistresses and children. She finds the descendants of French soldier Etienne Broyard, people united in family but divided by race. She worries first how her black relatives will accept her, and then what her white relatives will think of her.
She comes to understand the pressures that led her father’s parents and other relatives to “disappear” by “passing for white.”
The book’s rich historical narrative goes to prove my favorite aphorism that all history is personal. Bliss discovers, among other things, that her family played a role in one of the most significantly notorious decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Her ancestor Paul Broyard, a “colored Creole,” was one of the Louisianans who set up the test case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1898). In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the segregationist principle of “separate but equal.” This case validated the Jim Crow laws of many states. That had not been the desired outcome for Paul Broyard and his comrades. The Court would overrule Plessy half a century later in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Bliss Broyard sets out the social and legal background that gave rise to Plessy and shows us the inside details of the case.
As she discovers historical and genealogical facts, Bliss wrestles with the question, “Who am I?” Both her white relatives and her black relatives tell her, “You’re Bliss.” But this is not an easy adjustment. She remembers having told racist jokes about black people. Some of her black relatives question her motives and remind her of her wealthy, privileged life. Some of her white relatives deny that there are any black members of the family.
Key to Bliss Broyard’s journey is an understanding of the multiracial Creole culture of Louisiana. That culture as it historically had existed, came crashing down by the 1920’s, in large part due to Jim Crow.
Ultimately, Bliss brings her family together and learns lessons about race and family that few of us will ever learn. She comes to appreciate “the complexity and responsibility of legacy,” as she and her husband, a Sephardic Jew with roots in Spain, Greece and Turkey, contemplate parenthood. All of her explorations bring her closer to her Norwegian-American mother.
One Drop is everything a genealogical narrative ought to be–historical, cultural and personal. It traces the history of Louisiana from pre-European times to post-Hurricane Katrina days. There is an afterword that discusses Bliss’s DNA explorations. In short, every genealogist will find something of interest here.
Bliss Broyard is one of twelve individuals whose ancestry is examined in the second series of Henry Louis Gates’ acclaimed program, African American Lives. The new series comes to PBS starting Wednesday, February 6, 2008. Check local listings for exact times.
January 27, 2008 Sunday at 2:29 am