Wow, what a story. What a discovery.
I can't imagine the feeling of finding out one isn't what they
thought they were, or that a parent was somewhat of a stranger.
I had relatives who were very light skinned and could have
"passed" for White, but they never did, do whatever reason.
Somewhat related, when I was in college, I was
in a Spanish-language class with a variety of
students of different races, cultures and ages.
When one young man with tan-skin and a closely-shaved
head joked with a close friend of his who was apparently
White, the black students around me told me
the tan-skinned student was a "passer."
Funny enough, since he seemed bulky in weight at the time,
I thought at the time that "passer" was a football term.
I couldn't believe that people still acknowledged or spoke
of people "passing" as 1 race instead of embracing 2 races or
whatever the truth was...whether "passing" had happened or not.
It kinda makes me wonder if it still happens today.
multiracialbookclub <soaptalk@...> wrote:
The Unmasked Ball Author, BLISS BROYARD, grapples
a Family Reunion
(An Essay / Article written by Bliss Broyard)
with shades-of-color, choice,
denial, and forgiveness.
ASSEMBLED FOR DINNER IN A HISTORIC
HOTEL IN New Orleans on
night of the Broyard family reunion
were more than 100 of my relatives.
I looked around the room:
How many we were and
how varied some raised as
`African-American', others as `White'.
Some with pale skin, blond hair,
and blue eyes; others dark with
brown eyes and black hair,
and then every shade in between.
Most of them I'd never
met before this weekend.
Until the discovery of a secret
shortly before my father's death
11 years earlier, I hadn't
known they existed
On a Sunday afternoon in September
1990, my mother, my brother, Todd,
and I sat on a stone wall outside the
Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston .
My father, Anatole Broyard,
the writer and book critic
for the New York Times,
had been hospitalized with
prostate cancer for almost
two weeks, and we'd just
spent the last hour watching
him suffer through bouts of
pain so terrible that he'd
cried out, "Help, help me!"
as if he were drowning.
After he finally fell asleep,
my mother took Todd and me
outside, saying we needed to talk.
A few weeks ago we'd learned
was something about our father's
childhood that had been kept from
us; we'd been waiting for him to get
out of the hospital to explain it.
Now my mother said,
"I think I better tell
you what the secret is.
Your father's part-Black."
I let out a startled laugh.
"That's the secret?"
"That's it?" Todd asked.
"That's all," my mother said.
(Literary Crtitic -- Anatole Broyard --
the father of author, Bliss Broyard
and a man few people knew was
actually of Mixed-Race Lineage.)
This revelation was nothing compared
with the scenarios we'd been imagining:
abuse or some other horrible crime.
And after the soul-wringing
exhaustion of watching a
dignified man -- my father whom
I loved -- yelling in agony, "the
News" didn't seem like `a big deal'.
In fact I felt exhilarated to learn my
history and identity were richer and
more interesting than my "white-bread"
upbringing had led me to believe.
We asked my mother how "black" is he.
With his blue eyes and pale
skin, he didn't look 'Black'.
She said that both his parents
were `Creoles' from New Orleans
a term with many definitions which
in my father's case meant that he was
of Mixed French and 'Black' ancestry.
She said that his decision to
"pass" as `White' was part of his bid
to become a writer; he feared being
marginalized as a "black" writer, limited
to addressing only "black" experiences.
Also, `White' and "black" kids
alike had bullied my father as
a child because he didn't fit
comfortably into either group.
He wanted to spare his own
children the same fate.
My mother said that the reason
we had no contact with my father's
family was that they lived as "black".
Two days later my father
underwent emergency surgery.
He survived another month,
but the crisis caused
something to slip in his brain.
He never regained his lucidity,
so there was no chance for
him to explain why he'd
made the choice he did.
One day he fell into a coma, and
very early one morning he died.
It wasn't until my father's memorial
service that I grasped the fact that
his being "black" was more than
an interesting footnote to his life;
--- it was a truth that had shaped
his and my `identity' and destiny
in ways I had only begun to imagine.
There, in the rectory of the church,
I met his younger sister, Shirley,
and her son Frank, and for the
first time in 17 years I saw my
father's older sister, Lorraine .
Of the more than 300 people who
showed up at the church that day,
my father's family were the only
"black" people present except for
one colleague from his office.
I had always known about
these relatives in New York City ,
only an hour away from
Connecticut , where I was raised, but
I had no idea why we didn't see them.
Lorraine would occasionally
Call the house, or my dad would
remark that he'd had lunch with her.
We didn't see Shirley, he explained,
because her husband was a politician
--and my father "didn't like politics".
But, in fact, Shirley's husband
was a Civil Rights lawyer, which I
suspect made my father uncomfortable.
service I stood with my
aunts and cousin on the church lawn.
I was so excited and flustered that
I couldn't think of anything to say.
I kept stopping friends who
passed by to introduce them.
"These are my aunts and my cousin,"
I repeated again and again, as if in
explaining how we were related they
would come to feel less like strangers.
As I struggled to accept the loss of
my father, I couldn't stop thinking
about these other losses:
--- the family I wasn't allowed to know,
--- the history I never learned,
--- the culture I had no part of.
My father wanted his kids to be `White'
-- to protect them, but my `identity'
was staked on false-information.
The wealthy world I grew
up in was
`White', with country clubs, polo
matches, and debutante balls.
I had no `African-American' schoolmates
until high school, and then only three,
with none in my immediate class.
I didn't know anyone "black"
well enough to call a friend.
I wondered now who and
what I was supposed to be.
I started to
question things about my
father I hadn't ever thought to doubt:
Had I known him as well
as I thought I did?
Had he led a successful life?
Was he a fraud?
I had just lost him and now
I was losing him all over again.
Ironically, the only way I could
think to get him back was
to try to understand the
world he had left behind.
But given my upbringing, could I ever
be anything but an outsider there?
to the library, where
I read book after book about
`racial identity', the history
of race-mixing and "passing".
I traveled down to New Orleans and
traced the genealogy of the family
to the first settler, Etienne Broyard,
a `White' man who arrived
from France in the 175os.
I chronicled the unions across
`color lines' that produced my
father and his Creole cousins.
I began to visit with
my newfound aunts.
Sadly, Lorraine passed away
not long after my father.
Whenever I was in New York ,
I would see Shirley who was
always warm and welcoming.
But reversing a painful separation
and a lifetime of no contact
can be a slow process.
I began to seek out
other Broyards as well.
I found some relatives through a
message board at a genealogy Web site.
Others got in touch with me after
reading a long, involved New Yorker
article by Henry Louis Gates Jr.,
head of `African-American' studies
at Harvard, revealing the story
of my father's `racial identity'.
The piece made me feel even
more pressed to absorb
what the news meant to me.
I went out to Los Angeles, where I met
a dozen relatives and learned about
other branches of the family tree in
which decades earlier a parent or
grandparent had crossed into the
world and disappeared.
During the years of Jim Crow, many
of my relatives who could "pass"
for `White' did so--to get a
better job, to send their kids
to a better school, to go to
the nicer, "Whites Only" beaches.
Most of them came home at night
and became "black" again, but some,
like my dad, moved permanently
to the other side of `the color line'.
One of the Broyard descendants,
Gloria, a lively woman in her
early forties who grew up in
Long Beach, California, had
also recently discovered her
African ancestry and I offered
to help her organize a reunion
that would try to assemble these
broken branches of the family.
After two years of planning
and hundreds of letters, phone
calls, and e-mails, members of
the `White' and "black" sides
finally assembled this Past June.
As soon as I arrived at the hotel
in New Orleans , I tried to spot
Broyards by their characteristic
Creole looks of light skin and
wavy hair, and some quality that
seemed particularly Broyard:
a playfulness, a bounce to
their walk, round hooded
eyes, or a sly, wide smile.
I was looking for people
who reminded me of my father.
As we trickled into the cocktail party
the first night, Gloria, in a bright
floral sundress, greeted everyone
and handed out nametags, color-coded
according to our branch of the family.
We all descend from six brothers --
the oldest, my great grandfather
Paul, who was born in 1856 and
the youngest, Gloria's great-
grandfather Octave, born in 1872.
In the tight-knit Creole community,
little attention is paid to how
close or distant a relative is,
and all around me I heard
greetings of "Hi, Cuz."
Before approaching anyone I took
a long moment putting on my nametag
and shuffling through my family papers.
I felt suddenly nervous about meeting
my cousins, who had been abstract
names on a family tree up until now.
I worried about what they might
think of my father and his
choice to live as `White'.
Joyce, my father's second cousin,
and her daughter Dionne
"We have something to show you,
said Dionne, who is tall and
strikingly good-looking, with
the expressive Broyard eyes.
Joyce is of my father's generation
although her smooth skin and
thick brown hair make her look
much younger than her 70 years.
Dionne held out a photo
of my grandfather that
belonged to Joyce's mother.
In the picture he is young
and handsome, wearing a white
double-breasted suit that
hangs open unbuttoned, his
pants pulled up high on his waist.
I remembered my father saying that
his dad believed he had particularly
long legs and liked to show them off.
We laughed about this, and "the
Differences" between us -- in "race"
and `history' -- shrank a little.
Cousins who hadn't seen one another
in decades hugged while their
kids exchanged shy hellos.
Members from the "black" and `White'
sides met and searched in conversation
for people and places they all knew to
make real the fact that they were kin.
Everyone shared family photographs,
and flashbulbs popped every few
minutes, capturing new ones.
As my relatives and I built
connections, we leaned over
the family tree laid out on
tables around the room and
deciphered our relationships:
cousins once removed,
or second or third.
We told stories--about my
great-grandfather' s hard luck
with fast women and slow horses,
his trip to California in 1895, his
nickname of Belhomme, "beautiful man."
We rolled our eyes over the Broyard
men's legendary appeal to women.
We proudly listed all the buildings in
New Orleans still standing that our
ancestors, mostly bricklayers and
carpenters, had constructed.
Over and over again the shape of
someone's eyes or jaw, the way
someone smiled knowingly over a
familiar story or family trait
reminded me of how we were related.
Throughout the weekend, as we
shared meals, bumped into one
another in the lobby, and visited
family tombs at local cemeteries,
these cousins I'd never met told
me they had known about my father:
the writer Anatole Broyard,
who was living as `White' with
his family in Connecticut.
No one openly criticized his choice,
and many were quick to say that
they didn't judge him, citing
the lack of opportunities facing
"blacks" and "your father's
understandable desire to better
the lives of you and your family".
But I was still reserving
my judgment about him.
I listened during their stories
for the feelings underneath.
Over breakfast one morning my cousin
Janis, who was raised as "black",
told me that when she was growing
up, her uncle Emile once came over
to her house with clippings of my
father's writing from the Times.
Anatole Broyard was a relative,
he told her, Janis asked if
she could meet my dad.
No, she was told; she must never
contact my family because we were
living `on the other side' and
we didn't want to know her.
I could hear in her voice the
hurt her young self must have
"It made me think there was
something about me that I
should be ashamed of," she said.
I protested that I would have
know her except I
wasn't ever given the chance.
But nothing I could say would
undo this legacy of my father's.
I hoped, though, that my yearning
to be a part of this family
might make a small amends.
On the last night, Mark, another
cousin, described the challenges
his family faced by staying in the
"black" community, the bricks thrown
at his older brother on the way to
school as New Orleans struggled
toward integration, his parents'
success in the face of discrimination.
His father moved the family out to Los
Angeles in the 1960s, where he turned
the Broyard skill as builders into
a prosperous contracting business.
His mother chose to teach
in "black" schools though she
could have "passed" and worked in
`White' schools with more resources,
better pay, and smaller classes.
"They were proud to be `Colored',"