I couldn't have imagined their lives even if I had tried. (Broyard, p.42).
When she reveals this, Broyard demonstrates an attitude that is probably shared by many white people; a desire to talk about race, but the concern that even broaching the topic is impolite. Therefore, the gulf between the races gets wider and wider.
Broyard also acknowledges the problem with claiming her own African-American identify. Talking about her first post-funeral meeting with her father's family, Broyard discusses her thoughts about claiming to be black, when she had no real life experiences as a black woman. She asked herself:
Had I ever had trouble getting a cab or service in a store or the respect of my colleagues because of the color of my skin? Was I ever judged not as an individual but as a credit or an embarrassment to my race? Had anyone ever assumed I was stupid, lazy, or dishonest because of the way I looked? No to all of it, yet I remained caught in that loop of logic: This is my father's family, and they're black, therefore I must be black too. (Broyard, p.78)
One thing that Broyard's tale makes clear is that there is something terribly wrong with the American educational system, when someone with access to schools considered among the best in the nation has such a horribly limited knowledge of the history of slavery and race-relations in the United States. As a reader whose education included an early and thorough introduction to those topics, it is hard not to feel condescension and superiority towards Broyard, not because of her own admissions of racism, but because of her appalling ignorance about the reality of racial strife in the United States. It really is difficult to imagine how someone of Broyard's age could have grown up without exposure to the reality of racial discord. That also hammers home the fact that, while racism is generally equated with the South, the fact is that many traditionally white communities, like those found in Broyard's Connecticut, have not engaged in overt racism, not due to not sharing racist beliefs, but because they have not been called upon to do so. Broyard mentions this novelty when discussing the yacht club where her father's memorial was held, which had not admitted African-Americans for most of its history, thought that may not have been due to overt racism; there may simply have been no African-Americans who attempted to become members.
In fact, Broyard acknowledged that she simply did not seem to deal with issues of race until she moved to Charlottesville, a city with a diverse racial population.
She struggled with her own identity and whether she should self-identify as white or black. She also began to recognize her own subconscious actions that contributed to her own feelings of racism. She challenged herself when she found herself thing in stereotypes, and shamed herself when those stereotypes were negative. At the same time, according to Broyard, she made an attempt to deprogram herself from the stereotyped thinking:
First, I would forgive myself, because the only other choice, self-censure, didn't leave any room to correct the problem. I reasoned that given the pervasiveness of racism in America, it's impossible for a person to escape its effect. Of course I was racist, meaning I made judgments, valuations, and assumptions about people based on what I perceived their ethnicity to be. After all, fitting information into categories is how we made sense of the world. Perhaps if people felt less apprehensive about acknowledging their racist thoughts, then they could move on to addressing them. (Broyard, pp.99-100).
One of the things that Broyard's memoir makes very clear is that she spent much of her life feeling very conflicted about race. One description in her book is particularly telling. Relaying a meeting with her friends after the publication of a story revealing her father's racial identity, Broyard said the following:
knew that these old friends looked to me to set the tone about my father's blackness. If I didn't make a big deal out of it, then neither would they. They'd look past it, just as we had looked past that time when we'd seen another friend's mother run screaming across their front lawn as her husband chased her and the friend's little brother hopped up on his father's back, crying and yelling for him to stop. It was clear that we'd seen something we shouldn't have, and so we gathered our things together and stood to go. (Broyard, p.113).
To equate the fact that her father was black to the fact that someone's father was a wife-beater demonstrated a level of racism that Broyard apparently has not yet confronted within herself. Yes, at some point in the history of the United States, such as when her grandparents decided to pass for white in order to get work, seeing that a person was African-American was seeing something that should not be seen. However, that does not mean that it was ever something that should not have occurred, and Broyard later acknowledges that both white and black communities were complicit in this passing. In contrast, domestic violence is something that should not ever occur, not simply something that should not be seen. It is something that reveals a tremendous lack of morality and character in the person offending. Moreover, the fact that Broyard and her friends ignored the event, offering no solace or comfort to their friend or her little brother, demonstrate the superficial nature of their friendships and their own self-involved attitudes. The equation of the two "family secrets" race and violence, as if they are somehow equal, bolsters the assumption that Broyard has not abandoned her own racist ideals.
At the same time that Broyard was struggling to determine her own place in the world, she was also struggling with how to tell her father's story, and how to keep others from telling it. Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was determined to tell Anatole's story, which Broyard felt was a betrayal, given that she had established a personal friendship with Gates. However, she does acknowledge that Gates' interest in Anatole's story was legitimate. "My dad was the most well-known defector from the black race in the latter half of the twentieth century, and Gates was determined to tell his story." (Broyard, p.108). Gates did tell Anatole's story, and managed to get the majority of it accurate, though Anatole's friends "disputed the extent to which [Anatole's] racial identity was described as a secret- most everyone in his life knew." (Broyard, p.110). He also passed along the research he had compiled to Broyard, so that she could continue her investigation into her father's family. Interestingly enough, it was Gates' article that led Broyard to the discovery that many of her family members had been passing as white, and that they were very unhappy about Gates revealing Anatole's African origins. There is an entire side of the Broyard family that does not deny its black ancestors, but still strongly maintains that they are white. Interestingly enough, these "white" cousins offer a telling commentary about American racial attitudes. They refuse to self-identify as black because they suggest that many black people self-identify as inferior and lower-class. While this may seem like an inflammatory statement to many people, the fact is that years of race-based discrimination have contributed to a national consensus that black people are somehow lesser than white people, and this attitude has been adopted by some members of the black community. Light-skinned blacks who can pass for white are not the only people who have identified this issue; it is one that has been repeatedly addressed by various black leaders, thought they have addressed it in different ways. It is also an idea that seemed to help shape Anatole's decision to pass for white.
Broyard's decision to delve into the history of slavery and race relations in the United States appears to have been prompted by a conversation with her aunt, at which Broyard asks if her aunt knew whether they had any slave ancestors. In the United States, being African-American is frequently equated with having escaped from the vestiges of slavery. Broyard made that assumption about her ancestry, and found herself a little disappointed that her assumptions were not proven to be true. On the contrary, the evidence that she did find demonstrated that at least one of her ancestors was from a slave-owning family of free blacks. However, the reality is that Broyard can safely make the assumption that, coming from a family of New Orleans Creoles, there is an overwhelming likelihood that some of her ancestors were slaves. Not being able to document this fact is not unusual, given the dearth of information available about enslaved people.
What Broyard does uncover is very interesting, because her father was not the first person in her family to pass. However, the first person to do so, did…