What may surprise readers of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain isn’t that protagonist Coleman Silk is black (a revelation made less than a third of the way in) but that in 1998, when the novel is set, he still keeps that fact a secret. A classics professor at a New England liberal arts college, Silk awkwardly straddles a historical and racial divide:
Reaching adulthood during segregation, he finds that his light skin lets him pass as white in a world (literary academia) where blacks were not always welcome. He fashions a life as a Jewish family man, and with each year, his birth identity goes from “being a hot secret to being a cool secret to being a forgotten secret of no importance.” As a friend observes, Silk’s life is a “masterful performance” born out of necessity and sustained out of convenience.
Victim of societal prejudice? Or self-loathing opportunist? Public perception of passing tends to choose the latter, though not without some amount of morbid fascination. The recent death of David Hampton—the inspiration for John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation—as well as last year’s depiction of Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can fuel our imaginations while reminding us how closely passing resembles fraud. Recently, however, academics have cast a kinder eye on these complicated lives. In two new books, Kathleen Pfeiffer’s Race Passing and American Individualism (University of Massachusetts) and Brooke Kroeger’s Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are (Public Affairs), passing emerges as a complex form of self-invention that demands closer inspection and greater public empathy, if not compassion. As Kroeger writes, it is not “a faded emblem . . . of times we moved beyond,” but something current and vital that surrounds us always.
Passing served as a staple in literature and cinema long before The Human Stain (whose own Miramaxed version, starring Anthony Hopkins, opens next month). Perhaps the definitive passing character of American fiction is Jay Gatsby, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. The son of impoverished North Dakota farmers who presents himself as the Oxford-educated heir to a Midwestern dynasty, Gatsby’s significance lies in what Pfeiffer calls an “insistence on self-determination and self-realization”—ideals that reject inherited identity for a created one. What could possibly be more American?
If passing thrives on concealment, then skin color is one of the most versatile of masks. (“The inheritance of melanin is an uneven business,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. once wrote.) The need to belong compels many light-skinned African Americans to choose a side—thus Halle Berry is black, while Anatole Broyard (the late New York Times literary critic) was white. But what is Vin Diesel? As pejoratives like mulatto disappear from the spoken language, few words remain to describe this racial no-man’s-land, save possibly Tiger Woods’s self-coined Caublinasian. Passing helps bypass this uneasy territory, swiftly expediting its practitioners between chromatic shores. But according to Pfeiffer, a professor of English at Oakland University, passing acknowledges the very divide it seeks to abridge: “The fact that it is a nameable event reinforces the idea that there are such things as authentic racial identities.”
That race is a man-made construct, as Pfeiffer suggests, would render Vin Diesel’s true colors irrelevant, as indeed they already are for his legions of fans. Still, it’s easy to forget that for most of American history, the infamous “one-drop” rule reigned supreme: Anyone with one black ancestor was lawfully black. Having collapsed the racial continuum into a binary structure, the one-drop rule still persists in the American consciousness. Last month’s reunion of Sally Hemings’s descendants provoked the usual murmurs of disapproval from the Monticello Association. As the Times reported, for every white Jeffersonian descendant who accepts the idea of having a black progenitor, there comes from council elders an injunction to set progress back a generation: “You were born white, and you’re going to stay white.”
For passers, blood remains that immutable proof of lineage. The Human Stain begins with an appropriately sanguineous excerpt from one of the world’s oldest passing dramas, Oedipus Rex. “What is the rite of purification? How shall it be done?” Oedipus asks Creon. “By banishing a man, or expiation of blood by blood,” he replies. Two thousand years later, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth proposed something just as extreme, though certainly less violent: “Everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody ’til they’re all the same color.” Is there a more practical solution? Contemporary passers (many still exist; see below) should check out the novels Pfeiffer analyzes in her book. Like Gatsby, these Segregation-era protagonists challenge the status quo by transforming themselves into what Pfeiffer calls “the fully individualized product” of their own imaginations. In short, progress begins with them.
Before he was a teenager, David Matthews was already passing. Born in 1967 to a Jewish mother and a black father, Matthews grew up in a racially divided Baltimore where being black meant seldom associating with whites. By late elementary school, Matthews had begun passing as Jewish—first in the upscale magnet school he attended, and then in social settings with his mostly white friends. “It was always a question of being allowed in,” he tells NYU journalism professor Brooke Kroeger in her new book. “Whatever I had to do . . . wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because not being allowed in was so much worse.”
For Kroeger, finding contemporary passers like Matthews was surprisingly easy: “In every case, I had a close introduction and there was no more than one or two degrees of separation.” Her subjects describe their experiences with professional detachment (Matthews refers to passing as “selective editing”), and most see themselves as honest people. Some even pass by their own volition: A closeted gay rabbinical student says that “he never felt forced into secrecy by the seminary” and that “he was fully aware of seminary policy before he ever applied for admission.” Another subject, a gender-bending, pseudonymous music critic (who happens to contribute to the Voice), admits that he loves “a sense of game-playing,” describing it as an “adventure.”
While celebrities like Eminem engage in what Kroeger calls a “cultural emulation” that is different from passing, they nevertheless contribute to the dismantling of dogmas like cultural authenticity and representation. “But passing is not for everyone,” Kroeger cautions. “It’s not something you can advance in a way you might civil disobedience.” And as empowering as it may seem, passing can inflict a lasting psychological toll. Life is often easier for those with no possibility of passing, Pfeiffer says. “It’s precisely the possibility of a choice that makes things so vexing.”