Skip to main content

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life --- A Story of Race and Family Secrets

Review

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life --- A Story of Race and Family Secrets

In
late 1990, as famed literary critic Anatole Broyard lay dying of
prostate cancer, he longed to unburden himself to his two children,
Todd and Bliss. As he slipped into a coma, his wife Sandy
ultimately had to tell her children the long-hidden truth that
their father was black. Anatole was the respected literary critic
for The New York Times and The New York Times Book
Review
after that. His exploits during his bohemian bachelor
days in Greenwich Village were the subject of his posthumously
published memoir, KAFKA WAS THE RAGE.

After her father’s death, Bliss reflected back on her life
with her family. She was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, and then
the family moved to Southport, a ritzy enclave in Fairfield County,
the richest part of the richest state in the country. The local
yacht club turned down recent applicants Phil Donahue and Marlo
Thomas, but Bliss and her family were quickly admitted. The
Broyards, especially with Anatole’s literary pedigree, were
exactly the kind of family they desired to represent the
longstanding history of WASP affluence and style. But despite
their privileged existence, Bliss always sensed something of a
void. She often felt this palpable separateness in relation to her
family, as if it were her, her father, her mother and her brother
Todd all alone in the world. Why did her father never talk about
his upbringing? She knew there were relatives nearby. Why had they
never had a relationship with them?  

When questioned, Anatole told his children that he came from
“nothing,” which they thought was more of a statement
on the lack of family, not their means. He was born in New
Orleans, the son of two light-skinned Creoles who later came north
in search of work, ultimately settling in Brooklyn. Both were light
enough to pass for white, which they did, feeling that this opened
up more opportunities to them. As a child, Anatole was the object
of ridicule from both white and black children. The blacks rejected
him because he looked white, and the whites did the same because
they knew he was really black. He didn’t tell his children
about his racial background because “he wanted to spare his
own children from going through what he did.” 

Anatole’s life was his immediate family and his books. He
often referenced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of
American reinvention, THE GREAT GATSBY: “It’s tempting
to think of my dad standing on the porch while reflecting to
himself how far he, like Gatsby, had traveled in his life --- from
a young colored boy in New Orleans to this!” Ironically,
Broyard’s secret life went on to inspire another novel of
reinvention: Philip Roth’s THE HUMAN STAIN.

Far from being shocked by the revelation, Bliss was thrilled:
“I had always bought into the idea of the American
‘melting pot’ and now I was an example of it. The idea
thrilled me, as though I’d been reading a fascinating history
book and then discovered my own name in the index.” She jumps
at the opportunity to learn more about her background and embraces
the family that she never got to know as she begins an exhaustive
search through 250 years of her family’s
history.  

ONE DROP is not only a compassionate family memoir but it also
opens the discussion of race in the U.S. What does it mean to be
black in this country? What does it mean to be white? Does your
race define the person you are? Broyard, also the author of
the collection of stories MY FATHER, DANCING, deftly blends
personal memoir with a thoughtful reflection of racial identity in
America.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 13, 2011

One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life --- A Story of Race and Family Secrets
by Bliss Broyard

  • Publication Date: September 27, 2007
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316163503
  • ISBN-13: 9780316163507