Sailer on Broyard and “Passing”

Paleo Retiree writes:

Anatole Broyard, 1920-1990

Steve Sailer has been writing (and leading discussions) about the topic of “passing” — the way some black people “pass” as white.  (See here, here, here and here.) One of his examples has been the late writer Anatole Broyard, who was best-known as a book reviewer for The New York Times, and whose blackness wasn’t publicly acknowledged until after his death. I had this little bit to add to the yakfest:

Many, many years ago, while Broyard was still in his prime, a book critic I knew told me that Broyard was black/Creole; another friend, who’d hung around the NYC lit-intellectual world in the ’50s and ’60s, confirmed it to me; and the black intellectual Albert Murray told me about it too. Murray told the tale with great amusement: he thought Broyard’s adventures were pretty funny.

Albert Murray is great, btw: shrewd and smart about race and racial differences, yet in a very appreciative way; and wise about many things, including writing, books, jazz, art, and life more generally. I only met Mr. Murray (and one does refer to him as Mr. Murray) three times, but I’ve read much of what he’s published, and he’s a thinker who’s had a big impact on me. I’d be very eager to read/hear Steve Sailer’s reactions to him.

In any case … Despite the big fuss at the time the info about Broyard’s blackness went public, I suspect that it had been an open secret in some fancy NYC circles for decades. I mean, even I knew about it. (Never met Broyard myself.)

All of my sources told me that there were two reasons Broyard didn’t want to identify as black: 1) he didn’t want the racial thing to be a big issue in his life (it wasn’t a topic that interested him much), and 2) as a Creole, he genuinely didn’t think of himself as black. (My acquaintances all told me that Broyard was a successful ladies’ man too.) Needless to say, once Broyard died and the fact that he’d been black became more widely known, most commentators turned the discussion into one “about race” — something that struck me as wildly unfair given that Broyard wanted his life and his work to be about different subjects entirely.

America’s one-drop rule — whereby anyone with even a bit of African blood in him/her gets classified as “black” — is nuts, right? As is our tendency to boil 90% of all serious political discussions down into one “about race.” (The same one, over and over and over …) Not that race and racial things aren’t enormously fascinating — but, good lord, could the shape most discussions about the topics take be more predictable and boring? If I never hear the word “identity” again I’ll die a much happier man.

  • Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on Broyard.
  • I love Broyard’s slim books: a memoir about life as a Greenwich Village bohemian, and a collection of reflections and musings noted down as he was dying of prostate cancer. He was one brainy and elegant writer.
  • I wrote a little something about my own battle with prostate cancer.
  • Broyard’s daughter Bliss, who was raised as an upper-middle-class white girl in Connecticut, has published a book about discovering that her dad was part black. Perhaps inevitably, PBS got fascinated by Bliss’ story.
  • Here’s some fun I once had at the expense of PBS’s dragginess and earnestness.

Because we here at Uncouth Reflections are seriously irked by book publishers’ idiotic current pricing policies, let me express my annoyance with the fact that, in the case of both of Broyard’s books and his daughter’s book, the Kindle versions are currently more expensive than the paperback editions. Proof:

There are times when I wonder if the New York City trade publishing wants to die …

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Sailer on Broyard and “Passing”

  1. epiminondas says:

    Broyard isn’t alone. Frank Yerby, who was from Georgia, had a white father. His literary output was prodigious:

    Yerby finally fled the USA because of his identity problem and lived (and died) in Franco’s Spain.

    A few others come to mind, including Dumas pere et fils and Alexander Pushkin.

    Thanks for an absorbing entry.


    • Glad you enjoyed — Sailer’s stuff (and many commenters on his postings) is pretty great, be sure to give it a look. Didn’t know about Yerby. That’s certainly a story someone should be telling in some depth.


    • dearieme says:

      But surely Dumasx2 didn’t “pass”: they just happened to live in a society that didn’t much care that they were partly black. No?


  2. Toddy cat says:

    But… but… I thought that race didn’t really exist, it was all a social construct. So how could Broyard, or anyone else “really” be black if he didn’t identify as black? Are people not to be accepted according to what they feel that they are? That’s what liberals told me about trans-sexuals! This is all just too confusing.


  3. Callowman says:

    The prostate cancer post is my favorite of yours. A pleasure to read it again.

    Somebody – Esquire, I think, though it could have been Vanity Fair – published a status hierarchy of American writers in the mid-80s. It was built out of Post-its on a bulletin board, and reputedly swiped from a New York publisher’s office. Saul Bellow was on top, and Updike and Roth just below. There were 50 or 100 writers in total, all stacked about where you’d imagine and connected by strings. I keep hoping I’ll find it online, but keep coming up empty. Anyway, Anatole Broyard hovered alone, fairly high up but unconnected to the others. His thing was different from anybody else’s – kind of spacey belles lettres that seemed to come from another era. Come to think of it, Hilton Als’s stuff kind of makes me feel like Broyard’s did – like it was written by an elevated aestheto-man who’s not quite as animal as I am. Maybe it’s a black-guy-with-a-very-constructed-persona thing.


  4. Will S. says:

    “America’s one-drop rule — whereby anyone with even a bit of African blood in him/her gets classified as “black” — is nuts, right? As is our tendency to boil 90% of all serious political discussions down into one “about race.” ”

    Yes, you Yanks is funny. We Canucks prefer to obsess about important things, rather than skin colour – like what language one speaks as one’s mother tongue, English or French. 😉


  5. Fenster says:

    Totally agree “identity” is way way overrated. Not that it is not important. I mean just look around the world and you will see how so much we see is a function of that magical stuff. It would be nice if people focused on the bad of identity and not just the good, and were willing to celebrate less and acknowledge more how we are captives of it.

    Here’s a snippet from Terri Gross’ interview yesterday with the black comic W. Kamau Bell. This is not to knock on Gross, who is the best interviewer there is, IMHO. But habits are embedded.

    At this point in the interview Gross has already asked about racial identity six ways to Sunday and Bell, a cheerful guy, has tended to oblige. But he gets to a point where he seems to really want to put a caveat in there about race, race, race. Does Gross hear it, pick up on it, and go in a new direction? Check it out:

    BELL But, yeah, so it (race) certainly becomes a bigger part of your discussion. But I also feel like that it’s not the biggest part. The biggest thing that separates me and my wife is the fact that my wife is Catholic and I like to say I’m sane. You know what I mean? So that’s way bigger for us than race.

    GROSS: So what have you learned by being married to a white woman about race that you didn’t know before – about how white people perceive African-Americans or some white people perceive African-Americans, about your own preconceptions about white people?


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