December 19, 2003
By SHEILA JOHNSTON
Secrets and lies circle and shadow Philip Roth’s novel, The Human
Stain. It opens with a sardonic reference to the 1998 troubles of Bill
Clinton, the former president who, while posing as a devoted family man,
left his own, very human stain on the front of Monica Lewinsky’s
dress. And it unfolds into another, fictional deception: the lifelong
one practiced by Coleman Silk, a distinguished professor of classical
literature at a New England university. On the eve of retirement, Silk
is fired when a casual remark he makes in class is deliberately misread
as racist. What the professor, who has always claimed to be Jewish, cannot
reveal is that he is, in fact, a very light-skinned African-American.
When the film version of The Human Stain world premiered in Venice in
September, many viewers carped at its bizarre casting. The unmistakably
white Welshman Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk? Nicole Kidman as the drab,
chain-smoking cleaning woman with whom he falls in love? With his light
olive complexion and startling green eyes, Wentworth Miller seemed equally
inappropriate as the younger Coleman. Critics were astonished, therefore,
when Miller revealed himself to be of mixed race.
"My mother is white and my father is black. Expanded on, she’s
French, Dutch, Syrian and Lebanese. He’s African-American, Jamaican,
English and German," says Miller, 31, who describes himself engagingly
as a "racial Lone Ranger".
Just to stir up the melting pot a little more, he was born in Chipping
Norton, a village near Oxford, where his father was a Rhodes Scholar.
The family moved to Brooklyn when Wentworth was a young child but he still
holds both British and American passports. Americans are very much in
the business of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where can I put
you?’ and ‘Are you one of us or one of them?’Still,
Miller took the precaution of bringing his family snapshot album along
to the audition for The Human Stain, anticipating that someone would doubt
his racial heritage. "In a way I’m the right actor at the right
time for the right role," he says. "I hope they were happy to
find an actor who brought a little bit of racial authenticity to the table.
"He is bright and very ambitious," he adds of Silk, whom he
plays at the moment when a failed romance with a white girl provokes the
decision to disown his family. "But he has been completely defined
by his environment as a black man in 1940s America. It’s a prison
and he decides to break out, which is a very bold, arrogant and ultimately
destructive thing to do, because he lands in another prison of his own
making. In passing as white, he embarks on a life which does not allow
for intimacy, because he can never be completely honest with his wife.
It’s also a life of fear, because every time he walks into a room,
there’s the danger of someone recognising him for who and what he
Rooted in long traditions of immigration, pioneering and geographical
mobility, America has historically made it easy for individuals to reinvent
themselves far from their roots. Indeed, it’s seen as desirable.
The national culture applauds the self-made-man (or woman) and champions
the belief that anyone can, by sheer force of will, turn themselves into
whatever they want to be.
For Robert Benton, the director of The Human Stain, it’s this myth
that Roth set out to dismantle. "America promised everyone the freedom
to achieve their dreams," Benton says. "But the fine print in
the contract is: ‘if you do that you will have to sacrifice your
family origins’. Where do you draw the line between individual freedom
and responsibility to your community? That was the defining thing of this
book for me. It is about a man of enormous talent who turns his back on
the people who need him the most."
Silk had compelling reasons to conceal his identity in an era not so long
after the end of slavery and well before the advent of Civil Rights. Until
the 1960s, certain states, such as Virginia, maintained that a single
drop of black blood inherited from a distant ancestor was enough to have
you classified as legally black, with all the penalties - including a
ban on racial intermarriage - which that entailed.
"The Great Gatsby notion of social mobility is very much part of
our culture," says Brooke Kroeger, a media professor at New York
University, referring to F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about
a man from an impoverished mid-West farming family who briefly shines
in East Coast high society. "But racial passing challenged the law."
But that was then. As Silk’s sister points out in The Human Stain,
"Nowadays it’s hard to imagine that anyone would do what Coleman
felt he had to do."
Who, today, needs to deny their true selves in this age of equal opportunity
and positive discrimination, of being proud to be black and glad to be
gay? A slogan coined in the 1960s summed up the new, permissive spirit
with its catchy claim that "passing is passé".
Yet it’s clear that many still think otherwise. Kroeger’s
provocative book, Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, which
has just been published in the US, presents six modern Americans who,
for a variety of reasons, have spent much of their lives concealing their
race, religion, gender or sexual preference.
One is half-black but emphasises the white-Jewish side of his family.
Another is an upwardly mobile Hispanic woman who has found it advantageous
to pose as Jewish. A gay seminarian and a lesbian naval officer pass for
straight. A male poet assumes a female nom de plume for his second career
as a rock music critic.
In fact, if the term is interpreted loosely enough, most people at some
time employ a degree of dissimulation. "The concept of passing seems
more alien to British people [than to Americans]," says Kroeger,
who lived for some years in the UK. "But, actually, class passing
is very common in your country." And what, after all, do actors do
but turn passing into a life-long profession?
Kroeger’s six case studies all use passing in different and complex
ways. "I focused on people who had something reasonable they wanted
to achieve," she says, arguing that the subterfuge need not inevitably
lead to tragic consequences. Instead, it can be a way of challenging the
status quo, "an instrument of positive social change", which
also enables people to be "more truly themselves".
She points out that Silk achieved a lot by passing, for others as well
as for himself, since his status at the college enabled him to appoint
black colleagues and liberalise the curriculum. But the film is a classic
cautionary tale, like Douglas Sirk’s 1956 weepie, All That Heaven
Allows, in which a light-skinned black woman bitterly regrets having rejected
her mother, or Boys Don’t Cry, the more recent true story of a girl
who spent much of her short life posing as a man. When The Human Stain
was released in America, Kroeger was invited to speak on several panels
before African-American audiences. Overwhelmingly, their response to Silk’s
choice was an outraged, "How could he?"
Miller himself says he has never considered passing, either personally
or professionally, and would never play a white character in a story in
which race was a central issue. "I’m lucky enough to have been
born into a family that has allowed me to be proud of who I am."
But his experience as a light-skinned black man is in some ways, even
more complex than Silk’s. "Americans are very much in the business
of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where can I put you?’ and
‘Are you one of us or one of them?’ As long as we feel the
need to tear other people down to make ourselves feel better, and use
race as the easiest tool to do so, we’ll still have this very hot-button
"A situation I encounter all the time is when I’m at a party
surrounded by white acquaintances and someone makes a [racist] comment.
Do I stop the party and raise the picket sign or do I let it slide? If
the comment is outrageous enough, I will certainly step forward and say
so. There’s a great quote in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved:
‘Definitions belong to the definers, and not the defined.’
I’m constantly having to define myself for other people, lest I
be defined by them. But I am not dedicating my life to fighting some racial
battle. It’s an exhausting prospect."
• The Human Stain is released on 23 January.
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