Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
October 1, 2007
Personal Observations on Bliss Broyard’s
One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets
(New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2007)
et me say right off that we at Backintyme Publishing enjoyed the book and recommend it without reservation. But do not be fooled by the misleading marketing blurb (more about this later); One Drop is not a book about a White woman who suddenly discovers that she is “really” Black. It is not about Bliss Broyard’s father. It is not even about her search for her father’s roots among the Louisiana Creoles. The book introspects Ms. Broyard’s feelings about what she found while searching for those roots.
Anatole Broyard died in 1990 after an illustrious career as literary critic for the New York Times. He was one of the intellectual beacons of the U.S. twentieth century. Six years after his death, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of Black Studies at Harvard, published an essay “outing” the late Broyard as a Black man who had lived a lie by pretending to be White all his professional life. According to Bliss, she and her older brother Todd only learned about their father’s Colored Creole ancestry shortly before his death when she was twenty-four. Apparently, it then took her over a decade to assemble the facts to refute Gates’s racialist ignorance.
I lay my cards on the table. I am not objective about U.S. racialism. I am of a culture that is as proud of its African ancestry as of its European and Native American roots. (By coincidence, I happen to have the same fraction of sub-Saharan genetic admixture as Bliss.) I feel as at home among Creoles, Melungeons, Redbones, and Seminoles as I do among my own Puerto Rican people. I love seeing siblings accepted as routine, whom the newspapers would breathlessly report as “one chance in a million.” But, like Anatole Broyard, I am not African-American, and I will dispute anyone who ignores my culture and accuses me of betraying my “race” merely because my genome is typical of New World inhabitants, as Gates did to Broyard after his death.
The overt villain of this book is Gates and he is essential to its existence. Had Gates never accused Broyard’s corpse of being a race traitor, this book about Bliss’s genealogical quest could not have been published. Had Gates never advised Bliss’s mother that “the best thing she could do was to help [Bliss] accept her blackness,” Bliss might not have resolved to learn the truth. Had Gates not suggested that they petition Connecticut to alter Bliss’s birth certificate to show “black” ancestry, he might have seemed rational. As it is, you conclude that Gates is delusional—an honest believer in the false dichotomy of the U.S. color line: if you are not White, then you must be Black, like it or not. He apparently wants to infect others with his foolishness that any African ancestry makes you involuntarily Black.* In short, we should all be grateful to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Without him, this excellent book would probably not exist.
The book answers two questions but leaves two others unanswered. First and most-often asked, did Anatole Broyard hide his Colored Creole ancestry? He did not. Did he cut off his children from their Creole roots? He did. Why? We shall never know. Did he deny being Black? That is a non-question with a false assumption.
The book also has a covert villain—Anatole Broyard himself. Although Bliss clearly loved her father and admires him, he comes across in this book as self-centered and demanding. Most of all, it is hard to forgive his cutting off his children from their Creole culture. Why would anyone deprive his own children of such a proud and colorful family?
The canonical answer is that he feared that they would be seen as Black and suffer prejudice. But that answer simply does not hold water. It is belied by Bliss’s book. Anatole’s wife, his friends, his business associates at work, his neighbors, some of Bliss’s and Todd’s little childhood friends, even the handymen who worked on his house, all knew of Broyard’s ancestry. Judging by the book, the only two people on the planet who did not know that Anatole Broyard was of Colored Creole heritage were Bliss and Todd, and I have my doubts about Todd.
Obviously, there was a falling out with his relatives. Anatole never let his children meet their Creole relatives and, in turn, he was vindictively and explicitly excluded from his sister Lorraine’s will. We shall probably never know what caused the rift. Nevertheless in the end, for whatever reason, he deprived his children of their rich cultural heritage.
The fourth question, whether he denied being African-American, is a non-question with a built-in false assumption. Why would anyone expect him to claim to be Black? He was not of the African-American ethnic community any more than are millions of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and tens of thousands of other Creoles, Lumbees, Melungeons, Redbones, etc. The world is far richer than those who preach White “racial” purity would have you believe. I would love to know how Anatole Broyard filled out census forms in 1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990. (According to Bliss in an NPR interview, she checked three “race” boxes in census 2000.)
Despite all this, the book is not about her father. It is about Ms. Broyard’s own feelings towards what she learned while searching for her father’s roots.
Evidently, when she was under Gates’s influence Bliss believed his racialist silliness that if you have any African ancestry, you have no choice—you are Black. The first third of her book continually presents Black/White as an either/or choice with no other alternatives. Worse, she often repeats notorious racialist stereotypes. She attributes her skill at dancing and her father’s love of sensuality to her “Black” ancestry, as if such traits are carried in the mythical “one drop.” At one point she even expresses surprise that the dancers at a New Orleans Creole ball are no more graceful than any other random collection of middle-class Americans.
As she became exposed to the Creoles, Bliss Broyard began to learn of the existence of cultures of mixed Afro-Euro ancestry who are not ethnically Black. To my sensibilities, the funniest moment of the book is Bliss’s horror at discovering that her Colored ancestors, far from being tragic slaves kidnapped into the middle passage, were powerful slave owners who immigrated from Haiti. (Half of the Colored residents of 1839 New Orleans owned slaves.) By the end of her journey, she apparently began intellectually to grasp that the bizarre U.S. one-drop rule is, well, dumb. Unfortunately, she never seems to absorb this new knowledge at an emotional level, and continues to use “Black” and “African ancestry” as synonyms to the very end.
Any molecular anthropologist can explain that as many as 30 percent of White Americans have detectable sub-Saharan DNA markers from slave ancestors who crossed the color line. (See Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.) And it is easy enough to compute that about 35,000 European-looking Americans every year switch from calling themselves “Black” to “White” when they leave high school. (See The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing”.) The good news is that this book will educate readers at a personal family level just how this happens. The bad news is that its author inadvertently reifies Americans’ false dichotomy because she is apparently still struggling with the realization that mixed Afro-Euro-Native American ancestry is the norm in this hemisphere, and that the obviously counterfactual U.S. myth of White “racial” purity is the strange pathological exception.
The biggest flaw in the book is not in the author’s writing, which is entertaining and informative. Its problem is lack of truth in advertising. It is marketed as another one of those tedious books whose theme is: “Oh woe is me! I thought that I was a rich White but it turns out I am really Black. Taxis no longer stop for me! Cops have started harassing me! What will I do?” (All this written by someone who, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, is “white enough to suit Hitler and passing for colored.”) In reality, this book is the story of the Louisiana Creoles who are many things, but “Black” (in the Harlem Renaissance sense) is not one of them. Nevertheless, the book is marketed thus.
Most reviewers repeat the theme: “White woman discovers that she is really Black.” The NPR interviewer challenged, “so now you consider yourself ‘Black’?” (To which, Bliss replied, “Yes. I have mixed-race ancestry.”) The first paragraph of her book-jacket bluntly affirms about her father, “he was black.” Diane McWhorter’s endorsement praises Ms. Broyard’s “discovering that she is black.”
It is not that such books lack a market. Many have been published in the past decade by Matthews, Williams, Piper, Kroeger, and others. They must be selling well, because new ones keep coming out (pun intended). The notion that a European-looking person discovers that he is “really Black” and that this suddenly makes taxi drivers ignore him (a claim actually made by an author in the online discussion group that Backintyme sponsors) seems to attract a certain kind of reader.
The problem is that, despite the book’s own jacket, despite all the reviews, despite the interviews, this is not one of those books. It is not about a White woman who is “really” Black. Instead, it is a presentation of the history and culture of the Gulf Coast Creoles by someone who is one of them by ancestry, although cut off from them in childhood, and who is now desperate to learn about them and to share her discoveries with the rest of us.
And so, readers who are turned off by the false dichotomy of the color line will not even open this book. Those who consider the “I was a rich White but it turns out I am really Black” genre puerile will pass it by. Those who resent others shoehorning them involuntarily into an ethnic group will advise their friends to avoid it.
On the other hand, those who gloat over traditional passing-as-deception stories so loved by academia, and who smirk when the wicked passer gets her “just comeuppance” will read the blurb and buy the book but then be disappointed. They will claim false advertising and some will likely demand their money back.
In short, those who would enjoy this book (including millions of people of mixed ancestry) will be turned off by its marketing hype and not buy it. And those who believe its color-line-reifying blurb will buy it but be disappointed. This is a shame because it is an outstanding book and well worth the price. Perhaps these personal observations will help.
* * * * *
*Is it just me? Or does anyone else find it odd that the most highly respected and diligent protector of White “racial” purity today is a college Black Studies teacher?
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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.
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