August 31, 2003, p. B1
by Donna Britt
Who among us has never “passed”?
Haven’t we all let others think, however briefly, that we’re richer or poorer, sharper or slower, more or less sexually experienced than we are? Haven’t we let strangers believe that we were younger or older than the calendar would insist? Each day, miserable employees smile brightly for their bosses, adulterers act like faithful spouses and date seekers take out personal ads describing themselves as thinner, younger and more successful than anyone else would describe them.
Such lies, we tell ourselves, are understandable. Necessary, even.
Which is pretty much what people who pass in more serious, permanent ways tell themselves. They adopt false racial, sexual and religious identities that deny their pasts and often their families’ hard-fought histories for reasons they find perfectly justifiable.
Should we have a problem with them?
It’s one question raised by “The Human Stain,” director Robert Benton’s new film of Philip Roth’s celebrated novel. Anybody who hasn’t heard the key plot twist on which “Stain” hinges and wants a surprise should put down the newspaper and see the movie immediately.
The movie’s hero is Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant, prickly literature professor and his fictional college’s “first Jewish dean of faculty.” Silk is accused of racism after referring to a pair of never-seen students who haven’t bothered to attend his class as “spooks” — as in, do these kids exist at all?
The students, it turns out, are black. Disgusted by his colleagues’ serious consideration of the charge, Silk resigns.
Which would be interesting even if Silk weren’t secretly African American.
Moviegoers who can get past arguing whether Hopkins is convincing as even a closeted brother or whether Nicole Kidman makes a believable cleaning woman still have plenty to chew on. Like the scene in which the young Silk (Wentworth Miller) informs his mother (Anna Deavere Smith) of his decision to permanently pass after his white fiancee rejected him upon learning his true identity.
Silk’s mother, informed that her “golden child” intends to obliterate her existence and refuse to let her know her own grandchildren, hisses one word:
What did Silk hope to slay? His father’s rigid plan for his life, which included attendance at Howard University, where students proudly spoke of “we, the Negro people” while Silk wondered, “What about being proud of being me?” Was he attacking America’s pre-World War II insistence that even brilliant “Negroes” never venture beyond limited, demeaning roles?
I took my 70-something mom to see “Stain.” Growing up near Silk’s New Jersey environs, Mom knew real people who’d passed. Her post-film reaction:
“If I’d had a child back then who could have passed and wanted to, I’d let him go. We’d just have to meet secretly every year.”
“People today don’t understand how horrible being black was made to be.”
Stunned, I asked: So what about the people who could have passed and refused to? The toll of living a 24-hour lie? The black community that desperately needed members as gifted and role model-worthy as Silk?
What about losing everything that, even then, was wonderful about being black? One’s family and friends, the spiritual grounding provided by a rich shared culture and experience — benefits that “Stain” barely acknowledges?
Doesn’t “passing” also mean “dying”?
“So,” Mom countered, “you’d sentence your child to a less happy life?”
Who can be sure? Brooke Kroeger, author of the new book “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” once thought that pretending to be a significantly different person was “something from the past.” Yet she found six people in their mid-twenties to early forties who passed: as straight, as white, as black.
“I started out . . . feeling that an honorable person couldn’t do this,” Kroeger says. But as she dug deeper, her subjects’ choices seemed “much more layered and complex. . . . Sometimes it almost felt courageous.”
Kroeger came to see passing as being about how an individual chooses to live his or her “one unrepeatable life.”
At some point, we all choose. Director Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer,”) grew up dyslexic in a small Texas town where people “thought I was retarded or stupid,” he recalls. “So I ran from my past.”
Growing up white in “absolute segregation,” Benton, 71, witnessed why blacks might gladly have shed their identities. Nonblacks, too, have passed, he adds, citing Jewish fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s “compelling images of a perfect, white, WASPY America that never existed.”
“American culture now tells us we can achieve anything if we work hard,” Benton continues. “For many black people, that’s blocked off.”
So that makes passing worth the “inevitable” accompanying guilt and shame?
It was to Anna Deavere Smith’s aunt, who passed as “Spanish” to become a dancer — and never regretted it. Gregory Williams, author of “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black,” learned of his African American heritage when his father, who everyone assumed was Greek or Italian, left his white wife to return with his sons to his home town. Williams, then 10, “got on that bus a white boy and got off a black boy.”
The unexpected benefit of his father’s lie?
For 10 years, Williams recently told the Los Angeles Times, the “great American mythology of unlimited possibility and self-invention belonged to me,” helping him to transcend racism and poverty. The effect of not feeling part of that mythology can be seen in the nation’s disproportionately black prisons, ghettos and unemployment lines, he added.
So what about today? My biracial friend Candie, 22, could pass for white but “was raised with way too much cultural direction” to do so, she says. “Being biracial and being black aren’t mutually exclusive to me.”
So when people assume she isn’t black, she corrects them? “I enlighten them,” she says.
“And some do treat me differently.”
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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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.