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One Drop -- A Story of one Family Journey through its American Racial History

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This is a review of Bliss Broyard's book "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life -- A Story of Race and Family Secrets."

As the subtitle suggests, the bulk of the book, and its most interesting parts, deal with the author's certifiably brilliant father, Anatole, a college poetry Professor, New York Times Critic, and a black man who spent the bulk of his life "passing for white."

In fact, it was suspicions that surfaced surrounding his death from prostrate cancer -- that there might have been Negro blood in the family tree -- that triggered the opening of the family's closet of racial secrets. This inquiry inevitably led to the eventual writing of this book by his daughter, a project that also allowed the author to come to terms with her complicated racial pedigree; and at the same time, allowed her to complete her own journey into self-discovery.

Through very high quality research, painstakingly carried out, she not only gives us the highlights, but also deep insight into the context and history of the family's secrets -- occasionally even touching on the subtext of highly charged racial meanings that have framed both her family's sometimes embarrassing history as well as America's own very scarred and scary racial history.

What this book reveals more than anything else is the long-standing fallout of the sensitivities and treachery of whites on the issue of race that began with the fear brought on by the slave revolts that bracketed the French-Indian War, taking place in the mid 18th Century. Their epicenter was St. Domingues (present day Haiti).

In the face of the slave revolts, that lit up the Caribbean like a Roman candle, France could no longer carry the heavy financial burden of maintaining and defending its colonial Empire in the New World. As a result, it punted to get itself out of debt by first giving Louisiana over to Spain -- before eventually having to take it back and then sell it to colonial America as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

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It was during this hectic period of racial sensitivities and triangular treachery that began the complex tableau of race in America, a tableau that would extend in time from New Orleans forward to the American Revolution and beyond, on to the Civil War.

Being an armchair scholar on this period myself, for my money, this was far and away the most interesting part of the book. Nothing I have read about this period compares in quality to Bliss Broyard's superb research here. It is simply first-class. The book get ten stars just for the research on this period alone.

The Broyard clan's genealogy enters the book in earnest with Henry Broyard: a white man, whose heroic marriage to Pauline Bonee, a free woman of color, set him aside as an individual of very high quality, courage and humanity. Since Henry (the author's great grandfather), legally changed his race from "white to black" in 1850, when arguably, "being white" meant more than at any other time in American history, and did so simply to marry the woman he loved despite her skin color, in my eyes makes Henry the only certifiable racial hero in a family otherwise rich with racial cowards. It was Henry's sperms that seeded the Broyard's family tree.

As soon as the author's father, Anatole, was old enough to understand the full meaning and importance of race in America, he bolted his black family and the black race for good. Much later, he would decide that since flaws were built into both whiteness and blackness, it was better to live outside a world where roles were predicated on race alone.

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In fact, Anatole proceeded to achieve this goal in his own confusing slow motion way: He hedged his bets and straddled the fence learning as he went along: one day he was black, the next day he was white. He was the fast-moving Cajun gigolo by night, white Greenwich Village poet and writer by day. Or, alternatively, he was the black hipster and dancer at night, and the faux white lieutenant commanding a black regiment in the segregated army that defeated Hitler, by day. Even though he was like a chameleon dancing on a hot tin roof, who jumped the racial tracks as often as circumstances required, Anatole still had the best of both racial worlds.

The unalloyed truth is that for most of his life, Anatole Broyard succeeded in dancing between the racial raindrops, living off the fat of a profoundly racist land. And so, the time came, when, without missing a beat, he would find himself a job as a respected New York Times critic, and a College Professor. And to go with his new professional white persona, he also found himself a cute rich Norwegian dancer.

Content in his new self-willed but imagined "race-less" reality he had created for himself, Anatole pitched his tent at a safe standoff distance from the problems of New York City's black ghettos, including away from the rest of his "black family," and settled down in "tony" Southport Connecticut.

And who could blame him? For who, better than "a black man passing for white," (who had a grandfather, who a century earlier had passed for black), could know that "remaining a black man" was going to be a life-long, painful, losing proposition? Who could know better, that due to the design flaws that society had built into blackness, "remaining black" was never going to be a completely respectable way to live? And although living as white was at least as "inauthentic" as living as black, if one had to choose his own racial poison, Anatole had concluded that it was better to end up on the white side of the racial divide than on the black side. With a Norwegian wife and two beautiful kids, Anatole had successfully jettisoned his blackness. However, sooner rather than later, he was to discover that living fully within his "faux whiteness" would not always be the "easy streets" he imagined they would be?

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)

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