Brent Staples NYT
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
NEW YORK The New Yorker was trying not to speak ill of the dead when it described Anatole Broyard as the "famously prickly critic for the Times." From his early reviews for The New York Times in the 1960's up to his death in 1990, Broyard was often gratuitously cruel and clever at the author's expense.
The novelist Philip Roth was one of the favored few. Broyard praised him and seemed to see his life through Roth's work. When Broyard was diagnosed with cancer, for example, he compared his symptoms to those of Portnoy, Roth's fictional alter ego in "Portnoy's Complaint."
The comparison made perfect sense. Roth's great theme was his own struggle to preserve selfhood against the smothering pressures of ethnic identity. That, in a nutshell, was Broyard's life. He was a light-skinned black man born in New Orleans in 1920 into a family whose members sometimes passed as white to work at jobs from which black people were barred.
Anatole Broyard wanted to be a writer - and not just a "Negro writer" consigned to the back of the literary bus. He followed the trail blazed by tens of thousands of light-skinned black Americans. He methodically cut ties with his family (including a mother and two sisters) and took up life as a white man with a white wife in white Connecticut. By the late 1980's, he had been "white" for 40 years, with two adult children who were unaware that they were part of a large black family that included an aunt who lived an hour away in Manhattan.
This was raw meat for Philip Roth, who may have known the outlines of the story even before Henry Louis Gates Jr. told it in detail in The New Yorker in 1996. When Roth's novel about "passing" - "The Human Stain" - appeared in 2000, the character who jettisons his black family to live as white was strongly reminiscent of Broyard. The action in Roth's book centers on Coleman Silk, an aging classics professor who is forced into retirement after he is accused of making a racist remark in class.
Movies rarely convey the power of the novels that inspire them. The film version of "The Human Stain," to be released in the United States next month, is an exception; it has been stripped of subplots that diluted the novel, making the film more useful as an assay of the 1940's, a neglected period in the racial history of this country.
Light-skinned black people who passed typically did so by moving to places where they were unknown. The 1940's offered millions the chance to get lost, both through the Great Migration - in which blacks moved en masse from the rural South into the cities - and especially World War II.
Those who had escaped the penalties of blackness in the military were often unwilling to go back to second-class citizenship after the war. One demographer estimated that more than 150,000 black people sailed away permanently into whiteness during the 1940's alone.
The people left behind would describe these relatives as "passed" (a euphemism for dead) or as "lost to the family." They conspired to protect passing relatives by pretending to be servants when they visited their homes - and sometimes by agreeing not to recognize them on the street. The black news media went along with the ruse. The newspapers and magazines of the black media could have outed Broyard - whose passing was widely known among the black elite - but chose not to.
The most heartbreaking moment in "The Human Stain" comes when the near-white Coleman Silk informs his darker-skinned mother that he is engaged to a white woman and has told her that his parents are dead. White moviegoers will see this as tragic. Black moviegoers who lived through American apartheid - the prime period of passing - will find it not just tragic but familiar.
The writer is a member of The New York Times editorial board. http://www.iht.com/articles/109360.html