For many years, Anatole Broyard of The New York Times was a dashing figure in literary New York, a critic of exceptional charm and wit. He was said to be one of those people who talk spontaneously in well-shaped and often funny sentences. After his death in 1990, at the age of 70, a friend remarked in an obituary, "When Anatole entered, the room would light up."
His essays were full of engaging ideas, but it turned out that his life was even more interesting. He had a secret that even his wife wasn't allowed to mention. As they used to say, he was "passing." Born to a black family in New Orleans, he had skin that could have been Mediterranean. After spending his boyhood in a black section of Brooklyn, he moved to Manhattan, stopped seeing people from his past, and lived as a white. He hid his origins even from his children; they didn't meet their darker-skinned Aunt Shirley until after Anatole died.
His story was told by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in an article for The New Yorker in 1996. That piece, "The Passing of Anatole Broyard," later appeared in Gates's collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (Vintage paperback). Reread now, with the sensational revelation long since absorbed, it seems even better to me than it did when it appeared.
Gates, who is in Canada today to receive an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, is one of the best contributors Tina Brown recruited when she edited The New Yorker. For this story, he was the perfect writer. As a scholar and teacher, and in recent years, chair of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard, he's spent decades working through the questions of identity and authenticity that Broyard's life raises. Writing about Broyard gave him a way to explore the ambiguities, hypocrisies and psychological cruelties inherent in racism. His shrewd and sympathetic piece may well become a much-anthologized classic; it's possible that Broyard made a larger contribution to literature as the subject of this essay than through anything he wrote, a thought that surely would mortify him.
He hid his background to avoid being classified. Many among us, white or black, are eager to define each other by race, and that was even more true in the 1950s, when he began to "pass." Had he publicized his background, he would have been considered a black writer and would have been expected to act accordingly. But as Gates says, "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." Reading Gates on Broyard, I thought of something James Baldwin told me: He said that just once he would like to write on a subject, such as Mozart, that mattered deeply to him but was unconnected to race. He never did.
If Broyard had declared himself black, he would have been typecast. But deception may have hurt him more. He never wrote the novel that everyone expected him to write, though he often tried. The reason, Gates speculates, is that he could not look honestly at his own background.
Gates is a unique figure in American culture, a success simultaneously in scholarship, university bureaucracy and journalism. He has brought all of these achievements to bear on the great self-assigned project of his generation of black intellectuals: to build a literary and intellectual tradition that's grounded in careful research and discerning criticism. No one else has been so successful in this work as Gates, and no one has spent so much energy on it. He's edited new editions of writers as different as Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist, and W. E. B. Du Bois, the social visionary.
He's the co-editor of the 2,665-page Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a book likely to be used in university courses for decades. This season, he wrote, narrated and appeared in a remarkable six-hour series for public television, Wonders of the African World, which left many viewers with a much-enlarged idea of African history. Last year, he and William L. Andrews edited Pioneers of the Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives from the Enlightenment, 1772-1815, a collection of stories written by ex-slaves. Those autobiographies, combined with Gates's eloquent and pointed introduction, heighten our understanding of literacy's place in history. The assembled texts allow us to watch these authors as they write their way into European thought and try to draw the European imagination toward the monstrous reality of the slave trade.
Gates has an admirably unpredictable quality. Everyone who sees Louis Farrakhan in action notices that he's accompanied by the Fruit of Islam, squads of young men in white shirts and bow ties; but only Gates has publicly wondered whether the ties are clip-ons or (as Gates likes to imagine) the Fruit of Islam take special classes in knotting by hand. As for an encounter with Louis Farrakhan himself, Gates writes: "I thought he was a crackpot, who trafficked in the poisonous currency of paranoia; oh, and another thing -- I really liked the guy." Gates discovered that, at home in Chicago, the vicious demagogue magically turns into Dr. Huxtable, the character Bill Cosby played on TV. Who knew?
Gates has acquired an excellent academic reputation, but it has at least one drawback. At Indigo Books in Toronto, I found Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man parked uncomfortably in a dead zone, the "Aboriginal and Ethnic Studies" department, instead of where it should have been, in a section called something like "Damn Good Books You Might Have Missed." By their zeal for categories, bookstores run the risk of downgrading the art of the essayist to the mundane level of social science.