Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who Are We?

One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life, a Story of Race and Family Secrets
by Bliss Broyard

The author of this book was interviewed on NPR a couple of years ago, and I was immediately interested in her story. Bliss Broyard's father was a nationally known literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Shortly before he died in the early 1990s, Bliss and her brother learned that her father was not of Italian descent, as he had always claimed. It turned out that he was part black, that his family was descended from New Orleans Creoles. His heritage was mixed, and her extended family turned out to be a diverse bunch with skin tones as varied as the proverbial rainbow. Bliss Broyard was not upset about her father's race, but she was bothered that he had hidden this truth from his children. One Drop is the story of her tracing her family history, meeting many of her father's relatives, and discovering more of her own identity in the process.

The most interesting parts of One Drop to me were the explorations of the Broyard family's past - she had to do a lot of detective work to figure out the complicated history of the family and how her father got the coloration that was ambiguous enough to allow him to "pass." Broyard also effectively explores the phenomenon of passing - when a "black" person slips unnoticed into the "white" world, usually leaving behind friends and family. Anatole Broyard effectively cut himself off from his entire extended family and had only sporadic, clandestine contact with his family of origin. In making the decision to cross over, he effectively deprived his children of the gift of family. Bliss Broyard's examinations of race relations in America, especially before the Civil Rights movement, cover ground that has been covered many times before. The information is no less wrenching, but it was not new to me. The book's great strength is its exploration of how much race plays into a person's identity. Broyard also effectively raises the question of how much we can ever really know about another person, if that person chooses to hide major pieces of who they are, be it race, sexual orientation, or any other piece of our makeup as a human being.

Her scrutiny of her father's public and private lives in many ways left his daughter with more questions. If he was Creole, didn't that make her part Creole as well? Was it too late to embrace that part of her heritage? How could she do so without seeming like a poser? She also learned that a number of her father's close friends and colleagues had known about his racial identity, and it troubled her that he had felt freer to share that part of himself with them but not his children. Some of One Drop got a little tedious, but overall I thought it was a thoughtful, touching, honest look at the question "Who are we?"

Clearly, Anatole Broyard was a complicated person, and his struggles with racial identity were likely all the more stressful because during his lifetime he was a well known public persona. But anyone could face these questions - how much of who we are is our ethnic background? What exactly IS race when the lines are so blurry that some people cross them several times during their lifetime? Will we reach a time when race is not even a factor in someone's identity because we are all so mixed? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing for us all to be so racially intertwined that we do not have a sense of distinct groups anymore? I do not have answers to these questions, but I am grateful to Bliss Broyard for raising them.

One of Bliss's aunts, when Bliss was struggling with the question of who she was, responded "You're Bliss. That's it. That's all." I would disagree - that is not all there is to it. In the midst of all these ambiguities and questions about who we are, we can all take comfort in WHOSE we are. We all belong to God, and I pray the day will come when we treat each other as such, so people like Anatole Broyard do not feel they have to hide.

Reverent Reader


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