three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
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My Father's Hidden Life-A Story of Race and Family Secrets

A-One DropAlthough a prominent public figure, with a reputation as an insightful literary critic and editor for the New York Times in the 1970s and 1980s, Anatole Broyard kept one secret until the end of his life that stunned even his children: he had been "passing" as white even though he was born to Creole parents in New Orleans. (The book's title comes from the Jim Crow era's "one-drop rule," which classified as black any person with even one black ancestor). Nearly two decades after Broyard's death, his daughter Bliss writes of her response to this revelation and explores the origins of the Broyard clan, starting in mid-18th-century Louisiana and ending with the author's often confusing and disquieting quest to discover what race means to her and her family in the fabric of American society.
Little, Brown. 514 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 0316163503

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Unlike a large social history, Bliss Broyard's story of cousins and friends and generations and migrations, from South to North, from black to white and back again, plays out at a level of personal detail that defies stereotype in illuminating ways, and is occasionally wrenching." Art Winslow

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"This is not, thankfully, a book about a privileged white girl trying to decide if she should call herself black, although at first Bliss, who learns of her father's racial identity just before his death, struggles with this revelation. ... Most poignant, though, are her stories of the fallout of her father's choice on his immediate family." Margo Hammond

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As this fascinating, insightful book makes clear, Mr. Broyard left a legacy of racial confusion and great autobiographical material, not necessarily in that order. ... A half-hidden family history is no guarantee of an interesting one, however." Janet Maslin

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Fortunately, Bliss Broyard walks through this house of mirrors and keeps her gaze admirably steady. ... The tragedy of Anatole was that he was never the same as his white peers, not because he was less able, but because he paid too heavy a price for his neutrality, a neutrality they got every day for free." Erin Aubrey Kaplan

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"The author's sincerity and honesty are evident and appealing, and her subject is of continuing interest and importance even now, when an appreciable amount of heat has been drained from our old obsessions and fears about race. The problem is that One Drop is actually at least five books-her father's story, her own story, her family's story, the story of 'passing' and the story of racial identity in the United States-and its author doesn't do a very good job of weaving them together into a seamless, coherent narrative." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

A decade ago in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, noted black scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote an unflattering portrait of Anatole Broyard and his "passing." Critic Art Winslow suggests that Bliss Broyard's memoir may be "intended as a rejoinder to Gates." Author of the short story collection My Father, Dancing (2000; New York Times Notable Book), Broyard offers a passionate, lively narrative packed with hundreds of interviews with family members (both black and white), friends, lovers, and others who knew her father well. The result is not always seamless; the book's intent is not always clear; and Jonathan Yardley finds Broyard's "fretting about her racial identity" bothersome. Still, the author generally succeeds in offering an ambitious and personal perspective on issues relevant to her own family and anyone interested in race relations in America.