Notice, Passing

The Times of London – “Pale Imitations”

August 5, 2012


December 13, 2003: Arts Section
Hollywood has finally tackled a hidden issue in American society: the story of a black man who changed identity to ‘pass’ for white.

It is one of America’s less familiar traditions.

Faced with the realities of the colour bar in the age before the civil rights movement, untold thousands of black Americans chose to adopt a new identity by “passing” for white. The dilemma facing Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain was described a century ago by another American writer, James Weldon Johnson, in his novel The Autobiography of an Ex- Coloured Man. Johnson’s narrator, a well-educated mulatto with a talent for music and an “Italian-like complexion”, ultimately decides the only way to secure a modicum of dignity is to erase the “negro” side of his heritage, persuading himself that “to forsake one’s race to better one’s condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one’s country for the same purpose. I finally made up my mind that I would change my name, raise a moustache, and let the world take me for what it would.” Coleman Silk follows a similar path, with tragic consequences. To judge by some of the American reviews for The Human Stain — which opens in Britain next month — you might assume that Robert Benton’s film adaptation, with Anthony Hopkins as Silk, is an inferior melodrama, a mere shadow of a fine novel. You would be wrong. The movie — the story of a light-skinned college professor who has lived his professional life as a Jew but who finds his career threatened by allegations of anti-black prejudice — offers a profound meditation on shifting identities.

Roth has described how the idea arose from his memories of dating a light-skinned black girl when he was a graduate student in Chicago in the 1950s. After being introduced to her family, he heard stories of how some of their relatives had opted to cross the colour line, severing all ties, never to return. Some of the novel’s reviewers also saw parallels between Coleman Silk and The New York Times’s literary critic Anatole Broyard (1920-90), who was born into a black family in New Orleans but who kept the truth of his heritage even from his children.

With a weighty cast that also featured Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris, The Human Stain initially seemed destined for success. But after a tepid reception at the Toronto Film Festival, its backers seemed to lose confidence. Plans for a full-scale American release were reduced drastically. Box-office returns on the opening weekend were disappointing. When I saw the film one evening in San Francisco late last month there were barely a dozen people in the auditorium. All this is a huge pity. Here is that rare phenomenon, a commercial film that deals with a grown-up subject in a grown-up manner.

To most Americans, “passing” is an unknown subject. For obvious reasons, no one can even be sure how many people have taken the ultimate decision of changing their racial identity. But there is no question that, when segregation was at its height, it was a reasonably common phenomenon. Given the many ambiguous skin tones within the “black” community — from so-called “high yellow” to the lightest of European shades — there was every temptation to adopt a counterfeit persona. In an era when the “one drop” rule dictated that even Americans who had almost entirely white genetic make-up could be assigned to the “wrong” side of the divide, the pressure to embark on a new life, free of petty restrictions, was all the more intense.

Escape became a motif of black American literature. Johnson’s “autobiography” (which is believed to have been inspired by the experiences of a friend from university) is probably the best known example, although much of the story is actually taken up with the narrator’s journey through the various sub-sets of black society in the age of ragtime. His decision to assume a white identity — which in effect takes him back to the path on which he was initially launched in childhood — occupies only a small part of the text. We can glean an even more vivid image of the complexities and compromises in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s elegant 1928 novel Plum Bun. Fauset is not much read today — even during her lifetime her portraits of demure black middle-class life were regarded as staid by white critics obsessed with the seamier side of life in Harlem. But Plum Bun stands as a marvellously delicate, Jane Austenish tale of a young, near-white woman, Angela Murray, who reinvents herself among the artists and bohemians of New York. Angela becomes the exotic, uncategoriseable Angé le Mory and drifts further away from her darker-skinned sister Virginia.

In the most poignant scene in The Human Stain, the young Coleman Silk explains his decision to his widowed mother; both know a precious bond has been broken for ever. To his mother, his act is akin to murder. Forty years after the passage of Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation, it is hard for successive generations to understand how pervasive and potent the old codes were. The Washington Post columnist Donna Britt recently described how, after taking her septuagenarian mother to see The Human Stain, she was appalled by her 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.”

Britt’s mother was speaking from experience; she had, after all, known people who passed. When Britt argued that the sense of betrayal and loss would surely have been overwhelming, her mother gave a stark response: “You’d sentence your child to a less happy life?”

Even in these more enlightened times, racial subterfuge is not entirely a thing of the past, as the journalist and New York journalism professor Brooke Kroeger explains in her new book, Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are. Although Kroeger broadens her definition of the phenomenon to encompass, for instance, gays pretending to be straight, she still found examples of old-style passing. “Cases still come to light,” she told me. “In conversations over the past two months with African-American audiences, many people shared passing stories with which they were personally familiar. Often, you find that they involve people in their sixties and seventies, who began passing before the civil-rights era and have continued to do so. Whereas in the time before civil rights, passing would most often have been viewed by other African-Americans as cultural tragedy, after civil rights it is viewed more as cultural treason.”

It is a sign of how much progress we have made that more and more light-skinned people who would once have been classed as ‘black’ or ‘mulatto’ now have the confidence to think of themselves as, say, ‘biracial’. No longer imprisoned by the one-drop rule, we are freer to choose our own identity.

Still, if society at large can be proud of the progress it has made, old sensitivities remain. Some American critics seemed almost offended by the notion that Anthony Hopkins, rather than a black actor, should have been cast as Silk. Yet Hopkins’s understated performance underlines the crucial point that Silk’s ethnicity has become invisible to all around him. (The film’s main flaw, in fact, lies in Silk’s lover, the self-destructive janitor, Faunia Fare ly, a character who is as implausible on the screen as she is in the pages of the book. Nicole Kidman has a thankless task on her hands.)

It’s even more instructive to note how a hierarchy of colour that James Weldon Johnson observed in 1912 is still enforced, even by black filmmakers. “Its existence is rarely admitted and hardly ever mentioned,” Johnson wrote. “It may not be too strong a statement to say that the greater portion of the race is unconscious of its influence.”

How often have you noticed that when a black couple are shown in a scene together, the woman is almost always lighter than the man? I can’t think of an example, in fact, where that has not been the case. The convention remains one of the last unwritten rules of the cinema. Halle Berry’s Oscar win was good news, no doubt, but was it really the final step in the journey? Probably not.

The Human Stain opens in Britain on January 23