Last week I attended a book party for “One Drop,” a new book by Bliss Broyard about her family’s hidden racial identity: her father, who died in 1990, was a light-skinned black man who “passed” for white for much of his life, and never told his children the truth about his ethnic identity.
Some of you may remember the story, which was originally publicized by Skip Gates in a New Yorker piece called “White Like MeâThe Passing of Anatole Broyard.” (I believe Gates has since reprinted it in a collection.)
In One Drop, Broyard recounts the story of how Gates came to write that profile, and, if you’re interested in how Gates works, it is fascinating.
Broyard and Gates are originally introduced through a mutual friend, and Gates calls Broyard.
I started out the conversation pacing back and forth in front of the counterâI was anxious about sounding stupid or ill-informedâbut his easygoing manner and a conversational style peppered with words like “dig,” “brother,” and “crazy motherfucker” soon relaxed me….. Skip asked me question after question….. After talking for almost an hour, Skip promised to put together a reading list for me and hung up.
Gates also encourages Broyard to write about her father, saying that it would make a wonderful and important story.
Before long, Gates calls and asks Broyard if she wants to have lunch. She agrees, but isn’t sure of his motives.
I wondered briefly if his interest was romantic…..
Then Gates cancels because (this is so typical, it’s a little funny), he has to go to Washington to receive an award. Then it turns out that he is interested in a different kind of seduction.
I‘ve got some good news, he says. Tina Brown wanted him to write about Anatole Broyard for a New Yorker profile.
Bliss Broyard isn’t happyâshe wants to be the first to break the news of her father, and she isn’t ready to write about him.
We hung up at a crossroads. As he continued to call throughout the fall, trying to win my cooperationâand by extension, my family’sâmy trash-talking buddy Skip rapidly disappeared. Messages from Henry Louis Gates, Professor Gates, Dr. Gates, and then finally Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. piled up on my answering machine. …Eventually Skip realized he was barking up the wrong tree.
When the article is published, it is not unsympatheticâI read it at the time and found it moving and fascinating, especially because the Broyards grew up down the street from my childhood home, and Bliss’ brother and I attended the same schoolâbut it was still painful for the Broyards.
My family and I stood stiff with anger, blinded under the glare of this sudden spotlight. The characterization of my father as an obsessive seducer of women particularly upset my mother.…
Some time later, Gates sent to Broyard a detailed genealogy, all the research that the New Yorker had done to establish the race of Anatole Broyard. A guilty conscience or the fulfillment of a promise to help Broyard write about her father?
As I read this, I don’t particularly think Gates did anything wrong. It’s arguable that he should have told Broyard in their first conversation that he was thinking of writing about Anatole Broyard, as he surely was, but on the other hand, lots of journalists troll for ideas in everyday conversations. (Pretty much all the time, in fact.)
But it’s nonetheless a fascinating and not very attractive portrait of the way that an ambitious journalist goes about his business, and how a person’s painful life story can be commodified both by an outsider and by a family member. (Because surely Bliss Broyard must have known what a fascinating book her father’s story would make, just the kind of thing that the American literary intelligentsia would snap up, and how her father’s life story could boost her own career.)
What makes this incident even more intriguing is that the New Yorker piece probably did help Bliss Broyard get her book contract, for more money than she would otherwise have gotten, I suspect.
So you see, journalism can be a pretty interesting business.