I recently read The Vanishing Half (review here), about a young, light-skinned Black woman who makes the life-altering decision to pass as white, and the anxiety and stress that dog her life from that point on while trying to protect her secret.
The novel, written by a young Black author, Britt Bennett, is currently a New York Times bestseller. After reading The Vanishing Half, I turned to another novel with a storyline about a Black man who passed as white, The Human Stain, by Philip Roth, a white man. I first read the novel when it was published in 2000, and last week I read it again.
In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, who has been passing as white since his early twenties and is now 71 and a distinguished professor at a small New England college, is harassed into resigning his position because he said something that was perceived as a racist slur.
The Human Stain was the third of a loose trilogy written by Roth about America in the second half of the twentieth century (American Pastoral, I Married A Communist). It was also a national bestseller and won a number of literary awards.
I wonder if that novel, written by a white man about a Black character, would be published today due to the pressure and momentum to publish “#ownvoices”. I understand the need to give voice and exposure to the underrepresented and marginalized. But as an author whose major skills are imagination, research, and endurance, I’m of the mind I can write anything I want, about any kind of character, in any kind of situation. If the result reads as authentic, I’ve achieved my goal. The ultimate arbiter, of course, is the market.
Regardless of who wrote these two novels, both of them are exceptional. The concept from these books that lingers with me—gnaws at me, makes me want to explore further—is the idea of “passing.”
Passing is the ability to be accepted, wrongly, as being a certain type of person, or having a specific identity, or belonging to a particular group. Passing is, in its essence, a big lie.
Harboring a secret as profound as your racial identity forces extremely painful decisions. In both novels, the characters must abandon their birth families in order to propagate their lies. They both marry white partners and then suffer while waiting to discover if their children will look Black. They both must live their lives basically on the run from themselves. This is the stuff of great fiction.
What great fiction also does is inspire you to reflect upon yourself. These novels make me think about how we all engage in passing, mostly in small ways, but sometimes in significant ways.
I’ve passed as someone with experience in order to get hired for a job. I’ve passed as knowledgeable about things I’ve known little about. I’ve passed as older when I was younger and trying to get into bars. I’ve passed as courageous while inside I was fearful. I’ve passed as kind and generous at times I felt mean and miserly. I’ve passed as calm when I’ve felt chaotic. I’ve passed as someone who wasn’t heartbroken. I’ve passed as someone who cares. I’ve passed as someone who doesn’t care.
Have I passed in so many tiny ways that all this passing is actually who I am? A compilation of feints and fakes conceived and executed in order to protect or project myself? I don’t think I can answer those questions here.
From The Human Stain:
. . . we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen–there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic it doesn’t require a mark.Philip Roth, “The Human Stain”