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 is.”
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 issue.
“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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For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.