Daughter Discovers Father's Black Lineage

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Famed literary critic Anatole Broyard carried a big secret most of his life. He was a black man passing as white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, writes about how she learned of her father's hidden life and explored her black ancestry in the memoir One Drop.


Anatole Broyard was one of the most respected literary critics. The late editor and columnist for the New York Times book review provided a lavish life for his family in New England, but he carried a secret so deep that he couldn't tell his own children.

Now, his daughter Bliss Broyard has written the memoir "One Drop" about his life and her search for her family.

Bliss, welcome to the show.

Ms. BLISS BROYARD (Daughter of Anatole Broyard; Author, "One Drop"): Thanks, Farai, for having me.

CHIDEYA: So when your father was dying, you find out the big family secret: That your father is part-black. Your brother says, that's all? What was your reaction?

Ms. BROYARD: Pretty much along the same lines. The afternoon that we found out, we had just witnessed my father suffering terrible pain. He was in the last stages of prostate cancer. So my mom took it upon herself to tell us because it seemed clear that my father wasn't going to live very much longer.

So it seems, frankly, like not a big deal. And we had known about a secret for a couple of months, and I imagined that it was, you know, my dad had witnessed some horrible crime or incest or something. So the fact that it was just that he was part-black and we didn't even realize or understand exactly why had it been a secret at all.

CHIDEYA: Now, how did you feel about meeting these aunts of yours who had been living as black? Did you feel cheated in any way that they had not been a part of your life, and how do you think they felt about you?

Ms. BROYARD: Absolutely, I felt cheated. I mean, it started to dawn on me when I met them at the memorial service. I had met one of my aunts once when I was 7. And she, like my father, looks, you know, typically black. She could also -she passed when she was younger for work in the 1930s.

But I did feel incredibly cheated, and as much as we've, you know, tried to have a relationship now, you just can't. It's hard to start when you're 24 years old. We're never going to have the kind of relationship that we'd had if we'd all grown up together.

And I think from, you know, they've been warm - one of my father's sisters, unfortunately, passed away shortly after he did. But the rest of the family has been quite warm, but there's a legacy of pain and rejection there that's really difficult to get over.

CHIDEYA: In your journey after your father's death, you went to Louisiana. You did an extensive amount of research tracing your family. Among other things, you found that some of your black relatives actually own slaves. How did that strike you? What did that make you think about all of the different things that had happened in and to your family?

Ms. BROYARD: Well, it really threw me for a loop. I mean, the woman that you're talking about was my father's grandmother. And I had become convinced in doing my genealogical research that she actually was the daughter of an emancipated slave. And finding a slave connection was important to me because I associated slavery with African-American identity so strongly.

And I came to find out one afternoon that, no, she wasn't the daughter of an emancipated slave. She actually was the daughter of a black slave-owning family.

Now, the Creoles of New Orleans, you know, have a quite a different story than the African-American history that I was familiar with. They were historically descended from free people. They had strong ties to their French and Spanish colonial - the colonists settled in Louisiana. And so they kind of followed sort of white social mores. And then, when they were prosperous enough, they also owned slaves, but it really challenged my notion of what kind of, you know, African-American identity I had.

CHIDEYA: Now, you point out that your grandfather joined the Carpenters Union in New York by passing as white. Now, that hints at passing as a form of economic survival. But what about your father? Why did he pass, if you consider it passing?

Ms. BROYARD: Yeah, well, I think, you know, the passing is such a complicated term. I mean, it suggests that there's these, you know, a very specific line between the categories of black and white. And if you, you know, just look through the legal history of the South, you'll see that the color line has changed, you know, many times and from state-to-state.

So - I - but I think in my father's case, he - I mean, like it or not, there it's a legal and social custom. And when he was growing up in Louisiana and in New York, was that if you had even a small fraction of black ancestry, you were considered black. And that certainly is the way that both of his sisters lived, and many people, his childhood friends.

I think for him, he - it was very confusing in growing up because his parents both passed for work. He certainly learned the lesson that it was easier to be white. There was a lot more opportunity.

And so when he got to college, he went to Brooklyn College, which was predominantly Jewish in the 1930s. He found a kind of affinity among the other students there, and just sort of blended in with them, and stopped, you know, if he ever had been announcing his racial identity, no longer did that.

CHIDEYA: Now, during this book, you talk somewhat about your own feelings. And you don't always paint yourself in a flattering light. You say - and this is about you as you were younger - I'd never had a conversation about race. In the world I was raised - and it was considered an impolite subject - the people I knew lower their voices when referring to a black person.

Now, you're a mother. When you talk about race to your daughter as she grows, what tone of voice will you use, and what will you tell her?

Ms. BROYARD: Well, I think I'll use a proud tone of voice to tell her about our African-American history, her family's African-American history. I mean, I grew up in a world that was quite sheltered. And, you know, I really wanted to paint in "One Drop" my evolution from being a sheltered, privileged white girl to, you know, someone I hope of a more sophisticated understanding about the role that racists played in our country.

So ask Mayweather(ph) if she likes it or not - that's my 15-month-old daughter -she'll know all aspects of her history. And also, the reason why the question, what are you, has mattered.

CHIDEYA: What about your family? Your brother, your mother, your other white relatives, how have they reacted to the memoir?

Ms. BROYARD: They've been really supportive and positive. I think they recognized that it's a, you know, there's a legacy that my father left behind that was difficult and confusing. And I think they're glad that I've taken it upon myself to tell the complete story in which it's a story of the history of racial categories in our country and also the story of father's personal choice and how he dealt with that. And I think from my African-American relatives, I hope that there is, you know, some kind of healing that I've chosen to embrace this.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bliss, thank you so much.

Ms. BROYARD: I appreciate it, Farai. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Bliss Broyard's memoir is called "One Drop."

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