Friday, September 28, 2007

What Race Means in America

I heard Bliss Broyard on Fresh Air on Thursday, talking about her book, One Drop, which discusses her father’s decision to spend his life as a white man, rather than as the black man he was born.

Broyard’s father was no ordinary man, but was Anotole Broyard, the book critic for the New York Times and a writer of strength and wit in his own right. In his two memoirs, Kafka Was the Rage, detailing his days as a bachelor in Greenwich Village after World War II, and Intoxicated By My Illness, focusing on his upcoming death from prostate cancer, he never reveals that he has some black blood.

He never told his children, either. His wife revealed that salient fact to them as Broyard lay dying.

There were always rumors about Broyard’s identity, and he was ultimately “outed” by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard scholar, in a mesmerizing article in the New Yorker, which you can read here.

Bliss Broyard's book explores the legacy of her father's decision and how she adapted to a new sense of her own identity.

I am fascinated by books which explore how Americans are not what they think they are. Edward Ball’s book, Slaves in the Family, looks at his ancestors and their long legacy of owning slaves. In his upcoming book, The Genetic Strand, he dissects his family’s genetic code to see whether he has any African-American or Native American blood.

Another fabulous book on race in America is Neil Henry’s Pearl’s Secret. Henry is a descendant of a white plantation owner and a black slave, and his book traces two branches of the family, one white, one black. He finds that the black descendants of the original couple have done much better in America than their white counterparts. In the course of his research, which takes him to archives and dusty municipal buildings all over the South, Henry is confronted with race and what it means to be black in America.

I don’t have any indication that my ancestry is anything but Jewish, German, Irish, Scotch, etc. One daughter of mine has very dark skin, however, and people are endlessly asking her ancestry. Perhaps there is a drop of gypsy blood along the line. Who knows?

But the question of origin interests me, since racial identity plays such a critical role in American history.

1 comment:

Tracey said...

I too heard Broyard speaking on NPR and thought the book would be fascinating. We must compare notes if we both read it...