Saturday, 30 January 2016

A Challenging Story : Family Secrets and Freedom

I've just finished a long book my friend Ellen discovered. One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets


Bliss Broyard's father's family originated in France, arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana when said territory belonged to the French in the 1700's - well - the land belonged to Chocktaw Indians, really - but was colonized by the French including one of our Longueuil Lemoynes. Enter slaves - both from Africa and Indian... Somewhere along the line, the Broyard family became 'mixed.' On both sides. Only, they were mostly 'fair-skinned' mixed. Language is tricky and for now am avoiding using the word 'race.' Also sprinkling liberally with quotation marks.

It's a very long story - and I learned a great deal about the history of Louisiana, racism, the Civil War, the development of laws - is there a word for devolving laws? - as in they became more and more rigid and - let's see - evil ... Fear ... Horrors ... People of colour lost land and the ability to find work - this is speaking politely - not even mentioning water-fountains, etc...  ) So, Bliss's grandfather moved the family to NYC. When they crossed the Mason-Dixon line, they were 'permitted' to sit in the same cars as whites. But before we get too smug, racism was alive in the north as well. 

Her Dad had fair-skin, dark brown (wavy, though) hair, and blue-ish eyes. When he was 17, he went to apply for a Social Security card. It took a long time - deciding what to check off - was he White or Negro or Other? Eventually,he put a faint C in Other and when asked the meaning, said it was for Creole. There's a whole story there - the meaning and history of Creoles in Louisiana. 

Long tense discussion with clerk - what was he? - eventually the boss came over and wanted to know what the problem was. Boss (looking him over) says, effectively - "He's obviously white!" and checks the box. 

Officially, Anatole Paul Broyard became white. He passed for white. He cut himself off almost entirely from his family, moved from Bedford Stuyvesant to Greenwich Village,  eventually married a blonde woman of Norwegian descent, and brought the two children up in pretty well white Connecticut. Worked as a critic for the New York Times. Died in his 60's of cancer. His children only discovered their 'racial' heritage as he was dying. Bliss went on a 16+ year journey to discover who her father was - and who she was and is. 

Fascinating. Troubling. 

When Gram, Auntie Jenny (her younger sister) and her Mum left Bermuda in 1904, they passed through Ellis Island on their way to their brother Charlie in Liverpool. In the Ellis Island registers, they are listed as West Indian African Black. Auntie had fair hair and skin. Gram had fair skin with African and/or American Indian facial features.  Laura Mary, their mother and my great-grandmother, was a little darker.

Auntie and Gram - possibly taken shortly before they emigrated in 1904

Great-Gram - Laura Mary
They began a journey, once they were in Liverpool, of 'passing' for white. In 1908, when they arrived in Montreal, of course it continued. Mum and Auntie Joyce had died before I made the discovery about our roots. Auntie Eileen knew, but it was a pretty well-kept family secret. Sadly. Sadly, because secrets are destructive. And sadly because it was necessary if they wanted freedom and better opportunities in education and finding work, etc. 

Questions of belonging. Questions of power and overt and covert discrimination. Questions of equality. I could say questions of 'race' but there is no such thing as race. The concept was developed to divide and conquer. 

Towards the end of the book, Bliss Broyard quotes T. S. Eliot from his poem "Little Gidding" :
"We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."

An ongoing journey.

Broyard writes:
"I began this journey with the revelation of my father's racial ancestry. After sixteen years of exploration - and being by turns impressed and dismayed by my father and his choices - I feel I have only now... begun to know the dilemma for myself.

I may never be able to answer the question What am I? yet the fault is not in me but with the question itself. And with that realization, that letting go, I can finally say good-bye."  Page 463.

I'm still on the journey - and hope to return before long to Bermuda to capture in writing some of the stories of the women of colour in and around St. George's before it's too late  - family and friends who don't go back quite to Gram's day - after all, she'd be 125 this year :-) but some are in their 90's and their parents were of Gram's generation.

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