Rite Of "Passing"

New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard was a black man passing as white. His daughter Bliss Broyard has written a book about it.

Last Updated Oct 28, 2007 6:23 PM EDT

For 23 years Bliss Broyard was white, living in tony Greenwich, Conn., isolated from people of color and influenced by the racial attitudes of her surroundings, reports CBS News' Russ Mitchell.

Asked if she used to tell black jokes, Broyard said:

"I did, in high school and it's a very painful memory looking back now. There was a student, an African-American student who was sitting at the table who got up and left and I felt horrible about it and kept wanting to apologize to him but never did."

Her life was based on a secret held by her father, Anatole Broyard, who died in 1990. He was the influential book critic for the New York Times for 18 years.

"I think my father, as a consequence, cut himself off from his family and history, and I think he suffered for that," said Broyard.

Anatole Broyard was Creole, born in 1920. His light-skinned parents, the children of free blacks, moved from New Orleans to Brooklyn, New York, where during the Depression they passed as white to get work.

Anatole's internal conflict began as a teenager, even wrestling with how to identify himself on a social security card application. But after passing as a white officer in World War II, he came home to be a writer, and for him that meant leaving his family and racial history behind.

"He would have, he had one of the most powerful jobs in publishing," said Broyard when asked if her father would have opened doors for many people if he had announced his racial makeup. "And he could have launched a number of black careers and he didn't, and some people think he was more harsh on black writers, so you know there is a very fine line between self preservation and selfishness."

"One Drop," Bliss Broyard's new book, chronicles her father's failure to tell her and her brother about his racial identity and how they had to learn the news from their mother only weeks before he died.

"It's amazing because we're the people that are closest to him and the secret was about us too," said Broyard.

And, she says, one that has had lasting consequences.

"I was really angry at him and one of the hardest things, his immediate family his sister and cousin, it's been very, very hard to repair that rift," said Broyard.

Historically, Broyard's secret was not unique. According to an Ohio State study published in the late 1950s, the number of fair-skinned blacks crossing the color line between 1861 and 1950 grew from 3,000 a year to more than 15,000 a year. And by the trend's peak in 1950, it was estimated 28 million Americans who identified themselves as white had black ancestry.

"Well I know some, in my own family, really I do," said Broyard when asked if she thinks people are still passing today. "People pass in lots of ways, people pass by class all the time. They pretend they are more wealthy than they are."

When asked how she thought her father would have reacted to her book, Broyard said:

"I think he would be happy that he couldn't deal with this secret in his own life but still have the job he had and lived the way he wanted, but I can."