Broyard returns to Southport from her literary journey
By Rita Papazian
Bliss Broyard stood at the podium in the community room of the Pequot Library and noted to her audience that it was in this room when she was in the sixth grade at Greens Farms Academy that put on her first pair of white gloves to wear to Miss Sadler's ballroom dancing class.
The ambiance in the room, filled with many longtime Southport residents, may have been a little less formal Sunday afternoon, but the attentiveness of the audience was a tribute to its respect for the 43-year-old author and the literary reputation of her late father, Anatole Broyard, who died of prostrate cancer in 1990 shortly after he and his wife, Sandy, moved to Cambridge, Mass., from Fairfield and Southport where they had lived from 1966 until 1989.
"It is with great fondness that I return," said Broyard, a full-time writer and mother of a-two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She and her husband, Nico Israel, a professor of comparative literature at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, are expecting their second child the end of June.
In her book One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life, a story of Race and Family Secrets, Broyard writes that the family had moved six times during that period of time and never had to change their telephone number. The journey among houses may have been short distances, but the real journey was the one her took from his native New Orleans to Brooklyn, Greenwich Village and finally Southport which stretched not only across state lines but also racial ones. Anatole Broyard was black, a secret kept from his children until shortly before his death. The family secret, once revealed, became the impetus for Bliss Broyard to embark on her own literary journey, researching and writing a memoir that traces her father's family history back generations to the mid-1700s.
Born in the French Quarter in 1920, Anatole began to conceal his racial identity after the family moved from New Orleans to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and his parents resorted to "passing" in order to get work. Anatole made a similar decision. He wanted to be known as a writer, not a black writer. He achieved prominence first as a daily book critic for The New York Times for more than a decade, and as a columnist and editor at the Times' Book Review for many years. As his daughter described in her book, she and her brother, Todd, two years her senior, enjoyed a childhood surrounded by artists, intellectuals and professionals.
As Bliss Broyard began her talk describing her father's last months and a personality that was "erudite and very controlled," the microphone went dead. "I guess he doesn't want me to tell that story," she quipped.
Continuing on with a steady strong voice, she described an attempt her father made to reveal the family secret in the summer of 1990. Just when he had decided to tell his children he was black, he changed his mind: "I will tell you, but I'm not going to talk about it today. I need to think about how to present things. I want to order my vulnerabilities so they don't get magnified during the discussion."
When the children finally learned of their lineage, there was no discussion. They had learned it from their mother at a time when their father was writhing in pain and nausea, too sick to have a conversation. He died days later on Oct. 11, 1990, at age 70.
When they learned the family secret Bliss and her brother said, "That's it?" They had envisioned the worst since throughout their childhood, they never saw their father's side of the family. A family murder maybe?
Anatole Broyard's two sisters lived their lives as blacks, one in California and the other in New York City; he chose to live white and raise his family in Connecticut. Despite the close proximity to Manhattan, the family lived their separate lives, until his death and Sandra and the children welcomed the sisters and their families to Broyard's memorial service at the Southport Congregational Church. When a family friend noticed the sisters and other black relatives sitting with Sandy, Bliss and Todd he remarked that he didn't realize the Broyards had so much "help."
Bliss Broyard told her audience she decided to write the book because she wanted to find out why her father had made the choice to live his life white and what it meant to her. She learned that his family members were Creoles, mostly "free people of color Some even owned slaves," she said. As an adult, her father chose to live in Greenwich Village where people were judged by the books they read, their psychoanalyst and "not what your ancestry was.
"Living out here represented the best chances he could give his kids, said Broyard, noting her father didn't want his children to go through the pain of childhood caught between two worlds as he had experienced. Yet, her mother urged her husband to tell the children the truth of their ancestry, but he never.
In doing research, she learned her father had French and African roots, traced back to his great-grandfather, Henry Antonie Broyard, a white man who was born in 1829 and married Pauline Bonee, a first-generation American. She was "a free woman of color, whose parents fled St. Domingue (Haiti).
In a telephone interview Monday, Broyard said she pursued the book project about her father because she needed to understand why he had made the choices he did and what his family history would mean to her. She came away not only learning the Broyard family history, but also, on a grander scale, she had come to realize that "race is more complicated and complex" than she thought. And personally, as a writer she realized the value "of my own personal story," within the context of American history: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, among other events.
Broyard, who graduated from the University of Vermont and earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Virginia, said her research revealed how events in this country had affected her father's own life and she came away with an appreciation for the personal narrative. Also, her research introduced her to how history can fabricate differences among people and lead to real consequences in people's lives.
Through her decade-long experience researching and writing her father's story, Broyard, whose first book was a collection of short stories titled Dancing on My Father, discovered she has fallen in love with the idea of taking moments in history and presenting them in narrative form through the personal stories of individuals. Currently, she is writing a novel set in the 1930s during the Depression when a group of artists and intellectuals question what roles they will take in their lives set against backdrops of capitalism and socialism.
How would her father feel about President Barack Obama? Broyard said he would have admired his style, his intellect, his charm and his wit. She sees similarities in her own research with how Obama in his memoir Dreams of My Father describes the process in his decision to think of himself as black.
Taking questions following her talk at the Pequot Library, Broyard was asked now that she had written her book, if she presented herself as white or black.
Broyard said, "I say, 'I have mixed-race ancestry.' You don't change overnight Your identity is your experience I'm very proud of my father's family. I didn't know about race relations growing up in Connecticut. There is still race disparity As a writer, I am more and more drawn to these big events that affect people.
She admits that she had felt defensive and angry about her father's secret. "I felt that I had been robbed of having a relationship with my father's family."
She said her father's story represents a fine line between self-preservation and selfishness. He benefited himself, but his family as well.
Many in the audience, which also included BSandy Broyard, a dancer and psychotherapist who lives full-time on Martha's Vineyard where the family had a summer home for many years, praised the book. She pointed to her daughter's accomplishments and said her husband would have been very proud. She said her daughter had taken an unresolved issue in her father's life and honored him through an understanding that has helped the conversation on race.
"Bliss has made a choice to define her own path in life," said Sandy. She praised Anatole for his influence in teaching his daughter to think critically and to be observant.
Broyard's book is a testament to her father's success in his daughter's achieving such skills judging by the comments of many in attendance, including members of the Westport League of Women Voters' book club. Jane Fraser praised Broyard for being "so eloquent in her search of herself." Elaine Weinstein said she was "astounded" by Broyard's need to know her family.
Southport resident Pat Matteson, who viewed Broyard's book as "a kind of American story," noted that her mother has done a lot of research of her own family history. Although she considers home the Midwest, Matteson's mother traced family roots to Maryland and Virginia where family members had owned slaves. "That had been a shock," Matteson said.
In 2001, Bliss Broyard helped organized a family reunion in New Orleans that brought together almost 100 Broyards from the black and white sides of the family for the first time. They had another reunion last summer.
In the book, Broyard talks about her father's desire to renovate their house so that his children could live in their own apartments in the house while they carved out careers and lives of their own. Broyard writes: "My father couldn't argue with a desire to make one's own way in the world. But to his mind, the life that he'd provided for us hadn't contained any disadvantages. He didn't recognize how his very overprotectiveness might give us a reason to want to get away Of course his parents had also been trying to do their best for their children, and that they 'failed' by being identified as Negroes hadn't exactly been their fault."