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For Broyard, who was "raised as white in Connecticut," the discovery that her father, the writer and critic Anatole Broyard, "wasn't exactly white" raised the question of "how black I was"-a question that set her in search of the history of "the most well-known defector from the black race in the latter half of the twentieth century." In the first section, Broyard weaves her privileged childhood together with later travels to New Orleans (her father's birthplace) and Los Angeles (where there is a determinedly white set of Broyards as well as a determinedly black set). Part two extends from the first Broyard, a Frenchman arriving in mid-18th century Louisiana territory, to six-year-old Anatole's 1927 arrival in Brooklyn. The last section is devoted to Anatole's life. Broyard's "identity quest" takes her on an odyssey through social, military, legal, Louisiana and general American history, as well as U.S. race relations and her family DNA, introducing innumerable relatives, classmates, friends and employers, and making for a rather overstuffed account. Fortunately, she's got an ear for dialogue, an eye for place and a storyteller's pacing. But the most compelling element is her ambivalent tenor: "Was my father's choice rooted in self-preservation or in self-hatred?... Was he a hero or a cad?" Part eulogy, part apologia, the answer is indirect: "But he was my dad and we loved each other." (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Broyard first learned that her father, noted New York Timesliterary critic Anatole Broyard, was black a few weeks before his death. This book outlines her exploration of her father's past, which delves into Creole history, slavery in the United States, and Anatole's quiet "passing" in an era where "one drop" of black blood could determine almost everything. Broyard remains a mystery to his daughter as well as the reader, even after his story is fleshed out. While the mid-20th century wasn't welcoming for a black man of his obvious intellect, style, and creativity, even in later years Broyard limited contact with his still living family and denied contact to his two children. His daughter asks all the questions a reader would ask: Why did he deny his children an extended family? Why was this an "open secret" among friends and coworkers but a complete secret to others? Who was Anatole Broyard? Why does the definition of race still hold such power? While the author is never able to adequately answer these questions, she presents a fascinating narrative. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Jan Brue Enright
Of what? I couldn't exactly say.
My mother kept files on each of us, and I rifled through their contents: my father's passport, a small cellophane envelope containing a lock of hair, a doctor's report about my brother's childhood dyslexia. In my own file, I ran my finger across the raised seal on my birth certificate, read again the story about an escaped tiger that I once recited to a babysitter and a comment I made about a dance performance that my mother jotted down, examined my report cards and class photos. While these artifacts made me understand that, as young as I was, I already had my own history and in some way that I couldn't articulate was always looking for myself too, they weren't the evidence I sought.
In my father's study, I shuffled through the items in the wooden box on his desk: a small red vinyl address book, bills to be paid, scraps of papers and old envelopes with scrawled phone numbers and phrases: "Their joy is a kind of genius."
I stood on a chair and peered at a cardboard box on the back of a shelf in his closet. The box was square, a little smaller than a cake box, and unadorned. Sometimes I took it into my arms and felt its surprising heft. The mailing label listed a return address for the United States Crematorium, a Prince Street address in Greenwich Village for Anatole Broyard, my father, and a 1950 postmark. Sometime during the year I was twelve, a second cardboard box appeared. This one was a little lighter. Here were my grandparents, whom I never knew.
Neither box had ever been opened. At each seam the original packing tape remained intact. But I knew better than to think I'd find anything useful inside. These boxes held only ashes of answers, and all their presence meant was more mysteries, and a worry that someday something else might explode.
At times I knew what my father was going to say before he said it. I could tell you whether a movie, song, or woman was likely to suit his tastes. When I'd see him crouch for a low forehand playing paddleball on the beach, I could feel in my own body what the movement felt like to him - the crunch- clamp of his stomach, the scoop- snap of his arm. I knew my father like you know a room that you've lived in for a long time - his frequencies, scent, and atmosphere were all familiar to me - but I didn't know anything about him, his history or how he came to be.
And I felt that because I'd come from my mother and father - been made up by their parts - that I had a right to know everything about them. I was them. And they were mine, for better or worse. Not even death could part us.
In August of 1990, my parents, my brother, Todd, and I gathered on Martha's Vineyard, where my family had a summer home, for the annual Chilmark Road Race, which Todd ran in every year. We were also trying to spend time together, because the rate at which my father was deteriorating from his cancer had suddenly sped up. He'd been diagnosed a year earlier, just after my parents moved from Fairfield, Connecticut, where I was raised, to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The move was supposed to mark a new, carefree phase of their lives. They'd sold their house in Fairfield at a nice profit, so they had money in the bank for the first time. After eighteen years as a daily book critic and editor at the Sunday book review, my father had retired from the New York Times and was happily at work on a memoir about life in the Greenwich Village of the 1940s. My brother and I had just finished college and had jobs at which we were finally making our own livings.
My parents planned trips to Europe, longer stretches on Martha's Vineyard, leisurely days fixing up their cozy Victorian, which would eventually resemble, in my father's words, a "perfect doll's house." Above all, they would enjoy Cambridge, which, they imagined, offered a comparable atmosphere to the café life and highbrow conversation of Greenwich Village that my father was now recounting.
Twelve months later he was on the verge of becoming someone I didn't recognize. He weighed about 115 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than the trim figure I'd admired throughout my childhood, running for a Frisbee on a beach or strutting onto a dance floor. His face, which had always appeared youthful, looked even more so. With large staring eyes and a round greedy mouth, his countenance had lost the guise of adulthood, leaving the shocks to his flesh and spirit in plain view. In recent weeks I'd felt compelled to keep him in my sight, as if my constant vigilance and memory of the "old" him might prevent any further transformation.
The last time our family had been together on the Vineyard, two months before, although my dad had been very sick and all the treatment options available through Western medicine had been exhausted, we had felt that there were still things that could be done: a special vitamin cure to try, phone calls about other alternative treatments to make, marijuana to smoke to curb his constant queasiness, the beach to stroll on, friends to come over and distract us from thinking about what was next.
But since then he'd pushed off for more rocky shores. His prostate made him prostrate, a pun that he might have appreciated in better days. Months earlier the cancer had traveled up from that innocentseeming gland into his bones, where it bit down now with a death grip that knocked him off his feet. He lay on the couch upstairs in the living room and flipped through the television channels. He lay on the couch downstairs while nearby in the kitchen my mother cooked things that he might eat - rye toast, scrambled eggs, chicken broth. "No, no, no." He'd wave his hand in front of his face. "Even the smell makes me nauseous." He lay awake in bed, too uncomfortable to read or sleep.
On Sunday, though, the day of the Chilmark Road Race, he got up. Since my brother had begun running competitively, my father seemed to concentrate all his ambitions and concerns for his son on his races, as if life really were a footrace and Todd's standing in this 5K today could predict how he would fare after our father was gone. In my own life there was no equivalent focus of my father's attentions. He often said that he didn't worry about me, which I was meant to take as a compliment.
He insisted that we watch the race from our regular spot: about a third of a mile from the finish line. His theory was that the location was close enough to the end for us to feel the excitement of the finish but far enough away that our encouragement of Todd could still make some difference.
The walk there fatigued him, and while we waited for my brother to appear, he had to sit on a beach chair that I'd brought. The day was hot and still. Across the road, some cows stood motionless in a field. Beyond them, in the distance, the ocean was flat. A motorboat made slow progress across the horizon. I looked down at my father, who was wearing long sleeves and pants to cover his skinny limbs. Behind him, down the hill, some other spectators walked toward us, but the heat trapped any noise they made, and their feet fell silently on the pavement. My father's dying, I had an urge to yell to them. He's dying!
Some runners rounded the curve and began the ascent, and then there was Todd, pumping up the hill. His blond curls bounced on his sweaty forehead. I helped my dad to his feet. We cheered and yelled, my mother snapped pictures, and my brother flashed my father a huge grin. The thought passed through my mind that this race was probably the last one my father would see his son run, and I wondered if Todd was thinking the same thing.
My dad was holding on to my arm. The lightness of his weight on my elbow made me tremble.
He turned to me and said, "Did you see the way that Todd smiled at me? He's not using all of his energy if he has the reserve for that smile."
Todd ran well, placing ninth overall out of 1,500 runners, but my dad estimated that he had 10 percent of his energy left over and told him so when we met up at the finish.
I hated how my father was changing from the cancer, and at the same time, I wanted to shake him by his bony shoulders and say, Aren't you ever going to change, for God's sake? There isn't much time.
Most of Chilmark turned out for the race, and as we made our way to the car, we kept bumping into people we knew. While he chatted with someone, my father would have to sit down in the beach chair, which he would apologize for, and the friend would sit down too, right there in the dirt or on the roadside. Before my dad lost his strength, he would greet women friends with a bear hug that lifted them off their feet. With his male friends, he'd throw an arm around their shoulder and draw them away a few steps, asking, "How are you?" and "What's been on your mind?"
Recently he had published a number of articles in the Times on the experience of being ill that mentioned his own prognosis. Most of the people we encountered that day had an idea of how sick my father was, but I could tell from the way they would startle briefly that they were shocked by the sight of him.
If my dad noticed this response, he ignored it. In one of the essays, "Toward a Literature of Illness," he wrote that for those who are critically ill, "it may not be dying we fear so much, but the diminished self." He reasoned that by developing a style for their illness, a stance that incorporated it into the ongoing narrative of their lives, sick people could "go on being themselves, perhaps even more so than before." And then their friends and loved ones might put away their expressions of "grotesque lovingness" and other false behaviors and go back to being themselves too.
My father's energy for these summer friends surprised me. His conversation was witty, vibrant, enthusiastic. "It's still me," he seemed to be saying. That seated figure in the baggy clothes was the same Anatole they'd always known. And he was asking them, "Please, still be you."
When we got home, my mother called us into the family room. She said that we needed to talk. My father lay on his side on the couch. I sat down on one end and put his feet in my lap. My mother and my brother sat in two captain's chairs facing us. I rubbed my father's feet and calves, because physical contact helped him to focus on some other sensation than his pain and nausea.
His skin was shiny with illness, luminescent from it, reminding me of the veneer inside a clamshell that, if you touch it too roughly, can flake away in your hands. I'd never before been on such intimate terms with my father's body, and I was by turns moved and disgusted.
My mother is a psychiatric social worker by profession, and I could see that she was retreating into her therapist mode to get a conversation going. This kind of gathering was out of character for us. We were a family that did things together, played tennis, went dancing, took walks. We knew best how to relate to each other on the move.
She asked Todd what the experience of my father's illness was like for him.
"It's tough, of course. But I know you're tough, Dad." Todd wasn't looking at any of us when he answered. He was scratching our Labrador retriever's back.
"What about Daddy's pain? Does that scare you?"
"Well, sure. I don't want to see him in pain." Todd was still looking down at the dog. He cooed at her, "Good girl, Georgie. Who's a good dog?"
"What about you, Bliss?" My mother turned to me. "How does the pain make you feel?"
Georgie started her high- pitched whine in response to my brother's attentions. I can remember the rage boiling up inside me: at Todd for eliciting this noise, at my mother for her stilted effort to get us talking, and, most of all, at the foreignness of this shiny fragile limb, my father's foot, in my lap.
I mumbled that I was afraid of the pain.
"There are things they can do for the physical pain, but there's psychological pain too, and that's harder to deal with." My mother talked about a family therapist my parents began seeing when my father refused to go along with the vitamin cure. She mentioned the need for a dialogue and getting things out into the open.
My brother, having finally turned his attention away from the dog, was nodding along, but I was wary of this heart- to- heart business. My family made jokes. We suffered privately. We didn't go around the room and share our feelings. Why wasn't my father - who loathed the way illness could distort people's behavior - raising any objections?
"Is there anything you'd like to say to your children, Anatole?"
"Sandy." There was warning in his voice.
"Anatole," my mother persisted. "What would you want to say to your children if you were dying?"
My mother's tone seemed to suggest that my father had something to tell us. I already knew about his two other daughters - one from his first marriage, when he was nineteen, and the other from a shortlived relationship when he was a bachelor - but my dad hadn't seen either of them in years. I wondered what else it could be. My mother's elliptical phrasing seemed to catch my father off guard.
"I would say that I hope you'll be all right, that you will be happy." He raised himself up on his elbow. "My only regret is that we didn't confide in each other more." He looked at my brother. "Especially with you, Todd. I wish I knew better what makes Todd Broyard happy in his life, what gets him excited. My father and I never learned how to talk to each other as friends, and I always wanted that with my own son."
"I have simple tastes, Dad. You know what makes me happy. We talk."
It occurred to me that what my father wanted was for my brother to have different tastes, more like his own. Todd's passions were mostly solitary: running, karate, reading history, drawing, playing the harmonica. He was like my mother in this way, while my dad and I were extroverted. We became restless easily; we liked team sports and parties. We needed a lot of attention from people.
"Well, I wish we could have found an easier way to talk," my father said. "I suppose I could have shared more of myself too."
"What would you have wanted the kids to know?" my mother prodded. "You can tell them right now."
"I don't want to go into that today."
Todd and I looked at each other. "Go into what?" I asked.
"Your father has lived with a secret for a long time. Something from his childhood." My mother gripped the arms of the captain's chair.
"Goddamn it, Sandy."
"In some ways this secret is more painful than the cancer." She looked back and forth from my brother to me. "It will help to explain a lot about your father."
"I said I didn't want to talk about it today."
"When else are we going to talk about it? We're all together now. We're here now."
"I don't feel well. I've been horribly nauseous all day. A person can't concentrate when he's nauseous. It's like someone is constantly tugging at your sleeve."
"You don't need to concentrate, Dad." I rubbed his leg to reassure him. "Just tell us what you want to tell us."
"Yeah, Dad." Todd leaned forward in his chair. "We're your family."
"Anatole, talk to your children."
"We want to know you," I said. And I did, but of course at twentythree years old, I was also intensely curious to know myself - as a grown-up, not my parents' child. I thought, conveniently, of identity as a kind of board game, where solving the mystery of my father would allow me to move forward onto the next level of discovery. Years later I'd understand that a mark of adulthood is the ability to live with uncertainty. But back then I wanted to figure everything out, myself most of all. I hoped to discover that I was a complicated person, which I equated with being an interesting person, and since I was too young to feel I'd earned my own complications, I'd happily take some from my father.
At the moment he appeared all out of defenses. He'd removed his legs from my lap and curled them into his body. Half sitting up, propped on his elbow with a cushion wedged under his arm at the far end of the couch, he looked uncomfortable and cornered. If he were stronger, if he were as he used to be, he would have just gotten up and left the room, saying he wasn't going to talk about it, end of discussion.
He told us he didn't believe that we really wanted to know him. If we did, he wondered, why didn't we read more of his writing?
Todd laughed sourly. "I'm supposed to understand my father by knowing his opinion on the latest Philip Roth novel."
"I read your writing, Dad," I broke in. "And you wrote that the most important thing for a dying man is to be understood." He looked at me and nodded faintly. Yes, he did write that. I continued: "But how can I understand you without knowing where you came from? You've never talked about your parents or your sisters. We barely know anything about them."
Excerpted from One Drop by Bliss Broyard Copyright © 2007 by Bliss Broyard. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 6, 2009
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