Literary critic Anatole Broyard lived a life that imitated a famous novel

June 30, 1996|By GLENN MCNATT

"I KNOW THAT in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions," declared the narrator of James Weldon Johnson's classic 1912 novel, "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man."

Johnson's fictional hero, who remains anonymous throughout the book, was a light-skinned African-American who managed to escape the crushing social stigma of his race in America by "passing" as a white man. It was, in its time, indeed a terrible secret.

Today the figure of the fair-complexioned Negro who slips unnoticed across the color line strikes many people as an anachronism, a throwback to the days when the countless humiliations, large and small, heaped upon black people in America still retained the full force of law and custom.

Yet the same forces that, at the turn of the century, impelled Johnson's tragic protagonist to submerge himself in a sea of whiteness are still at work, having lost little of their potency despite the acknowledged successes of the civil rights revolution and the black pride movement.

It is probable that even today an unascertainable but significant number of people continue to steal unremarked across the chasm of America's racial divide. Every so often, by accident or design, someone among their ranks is discovered and the event is taken as occasion for peeking behind the creaky, locked door where America's monstrous racial dilemma still gnashes its teeth and groans.

Such was the case with the late Anatole Broyard, the distinguished daily book reviewer for the New York Times and for more than 40 years one of the leading lights of literary New York. Broyard, who died in 1990 at the age of 70, led a life eerily recapitulating Johnson's protagonist's that was recounted earlier pTC this month in the New Yorker magazine by writer Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Broyard was born black but became white, Gates writes, and as the author's fame grew so too did his obsession to conceal his past from everyone who knew him, including his wife and children, until he was on his deathbed.

The motivation for this bizarre deception stemmed from equal parts pragmatism and principle, Gates suggests: "Broyard wanted to be a writer, not a black writer. So he chose to live a lie rather than be trapped by the truth."

As things turned out, though, Broyard may have ended up trapped by the lie he so carefully nurtured.

He dreamed, for example, of writing a great American novel. Yet apparently he never managed to summon the unconscious creative resources such a project demanded, possibly because he had blocked them off along with his suppressed racial identity.

Similarly, he tried later in life to write his memoirs but foundered on the paradox of his own personal inauthenticity. When a friend begged him to frankly acknowledge his African-American heritage and how it had shaped his intellectual outlook, Broyard replied that he didn't want notoriety based on his race rather than his talent.

"The man wanted to be appreciated not for being black but for being a writer, even though his pretending not to be black was stopping him from writing," Gates observes. "It was one of the very few ironies that Broyard, the master ironist, was ill equipped to appreciate."

It is fashionable today, of course, to dismiss a career such a Broyard's as a wasted life, one irremediably corrupted by the all-encompassing deception at its core. In the concluding lines of "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man," Johnson's protagonist laments having "sold my birthright for a mess of pottage."

That is perhaps why Broyard, who surely knew Johnson's novel and must have recognized in it the striking parallels with his own life, resisted to the end the confessional impulse that motivated his fictional counterpart:

"I feel that I am led by the same impulse which forces the un-found-out criminal to take somebody into his confidence, although he knows that the act is likely, even almost certain, to lead to his undoing," Johnson's anonymous hero says.

"I know that I am playing with fire, and I feel the thrill which accompanies that most fascinating pastime; and, back of it all, I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society."

Broyard, too, knew that he was playing with fire. But he was also a realist, a hard fact that Gates, who is himself black, readily concedes:

"So here was a man who passed for white because he wanted to be a writer, and he did not want to be a Negro writer. It is a crass disjunction, but it is not [Broyard's] crassness or his disjunction. His perception was perfectly correct. He would have had to be a Negro writer, which was something he did not want to be.

"In his terms, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy. We give lip service to the idea of the writer who happens to be black, but had anyone, in the postwar era, ever seen such a thing?"

Pub date: 06/30/96

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