Coming to Terms with a Family Secret

Bliss Broyard's father took some secrets to his grave. But that didn’t keep her from digging them up. The result was a revelation about him—and herself 

by Bliss Broyard
father and baby daughter image
Photograph: Courtesy of Bliss Broyard

I recalled my father’s endless commentary about my clothes, hair, weight—the discomfort I felt in the face of his scrutiny. Now I wondered how I would have rated. Shouldn’t his great love for me, his daughter, have made him blind to my objective physical appeal as a young woman? And what about my intelligence, my sense of humor and compassion—didn’t these qualities matter, too? I’d never been completely comfortable with being found attractive by men or been able to enjoy the tension of mutual desire. I was too suspicious about where flirting was headed, too quick to recognize it as a means to an end. I chalked up my inability to treat seduction like a game to a nervous temperament and a shortage of confidence in my own appeal. It took years after my father died for me to realize that not all women felt this way, that perhaps another part of my father’s legacy was my paranoia about men’s motives. I still haven’t managed to completely shake my knee-jerk reaction to male attention, whether harmless flirting at a party or a spontaneous back rub from my husband.

At the same time, my father was the parent to whom physical warmth and declarations of love came more naturally. I couldn’t sit next to him without having his arm draped over my shoulder or wrapped around my waist. Every day he told me he loved me. I always credited his steady affection with my belief in myself and my insistence on being treated fairly in relationships. Like the question of his racial identity, the impact of his romantic life was not as simple as black or white.

If my father had lived longer, as his appetites waned and my sense of self grew, our evolving relationship might have resolved some of these contradictions. But since I didn’t get that chance, I was forced to try to forge an understanding of my dad’s life on my own. As I did so, a funny thing happened: I started seeing him less as my father and more as another struggling human being.

I imagined the confusion about his racial identity that he must have felt growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where his family moved when he was six. In their neighborhood, the Broyards were the only Creoles, an identity that had allowed his parents to comfortably straddle the color line back in New Orleans. I imagined how liberated he must have felt on arriving in the late 1930s at Brooklyn College, where his classmates, mostly children of recent Jewish immigrants, were outsiders, too. I envisioned him in Greenwich Village, where he moved after dropping out of college in 1938. There, nobody cared who his parents were or where they’d come from. They wanted to know what he thought—about literature, art, politics and women.

Among these would-be artists and intellectuals, I imagined him cultivating his identity as a charismatic man of letters; someone who seemed as if he belonged at the athletic club, the dinner party or the beach house; and an aspiring Casanova for whom each conquest represented social acceptance. I pictured him meeting my mother, a Waspy blonde of Norwegian ancestry, and gaining entry into her world of upper-middle-class possibilities as he downplayed his racial origins. I thought about the births of my brother and me, and our father’s unspoken relief that his blackness didn’t imprint itself on our appearance. I considered his decision to keep that background from us to protect us from the racial uncertainty of his own childhood, to make true his determination that a person’s background shouldn’t matter.

Rather than viewing his life before I came along as irrelevant, I started to see it as the beginning of a continuum that led him to being my father. Even his sexual exploits made more sense when considered in light of his constant need to seduce everyone around him into his vision of himself and the world.

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