Passing as Post-Racial: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Political Correctness, and the Post-Racial Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2018-04-12 00:38Z by Steven

Passing as Post-Racial: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Political Correctness, and the Post-Racial Passing Narrative

Contemporary Literature
Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2017
pages 233-261

Mollie Godfrey, Assistant Professor of English
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia

In March 2016, Robert Folsom published an article in The Socionomist declaring that the rise of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate marked “the violent death of political correctness” (1). Folsom argued that while “[t]he conventional narrative on Trump is that he has succeeded despite his rejection of political correctness,” the “truth is that he has in large part succeeded because of it” (4). Indeed, the past few years have seen the rise of vigorous, mainstream opposition to many multiculturalist policies associated with political correctness at all levels and from all directions: from the Supreme Court’s back and forth on voting rights and affirmative action, to the 2015 spate of articles that derided trigger warnings as an attack on free speech, to the crowds of voters like Steve Crouse cheering Trump for speaking his mind and “saying a lot of the things that I think we’re all thinking” (Proskow). These recent events have renewed a debate that began in the 1960s and 1970s, when Civil Rights and Black Power activists and second-wave feminists sparred with traditionalists over the diversity and inclusivity of university curricula, faculty, student bodies, and standards of academic excellence. By the culture wars of the mid–1980s, traditionalists had begun to use the phrase “political correctness” in order to deride these demands for inclusivity.1 Teresa Brennan argues that the phrase “political correctness” was especially useful to its critics because it enabled the rebranding of demands for inclusive language as a violation of the American principle of the freedom of speech: “[t]he campaign against political correctness has been so successful because it has portrayed the attempt to uphold the rights of disadvantaged groups as the infringement of individual rights” (x). Now, criticism of political correctness has gone mainstream: a poll conducted in October 2015 by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 68% of Americans and 81% of Republicans agreed with the statement “[a] big problem this country has is being politically correct” (Lalami 12).

The year 2000, which Folsom describes as the turning point in American public discourse over the value of liberal multiculturalism and its much caricatured cousin, political correctness, was also the year that Philip Roth’s highly acclaimed novel The Human Stain was published. The Human Stain made waves among critics and scholars as a racial passing novel for the new millennium, one that was especially surprising because the passing genre focuses on a social practice that Jet magazine had once optimistically declared would “pass out” with the end of Jim Crow (“Passing Out”).2 In The Human Stain, the light-skinned African American protagonist, Coleman Silk, decides to pass as Jewish during the 1940s, gaining as a Jewish American in the post–World War II era many of the privileges of whiteness.3 He marries a Jewish woman and rises to prominence as a professor of classics and the first Jewish dean of faculty at Athena College, a small liberal arts school in New England with a mostly white faculty and student body. Near the end of the novel, Coleman’s sister affirms that his black-to-Jewish-to-white passing is out of place in the post-Jim Crow era of liberal multiculturalism and affirmative action: “Today, if you’re a middle-class intelligent Negro and you want your kids to go to the best schools, and on full scholarship if you need it, you wouldn’t dream of saying that you’re not colored. That would be the last thing you’d do” (326). Her claim that passing is no longer profitable in contemporary America is also arguably affirmed by the twist in Coleman’s plot: near retirement, he uses the word “spooks” to refer to two students who have been absent from his class all semester; the students turn out to be black, Coleman is accused of racism by his politically correct colleagues, and he resigns amid the ensuing scandal. This plot twist seems to turn Coleman’s racial passing plot into an ironic tragedy about the shifting…

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Identity Crisis

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Judaism, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States on 2017-03-24 01:07Z by Steven

Identity Crisis

Washington Independent Review of Books

Helene Meyers, Professor of English
Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas

The “white Jewish” question posed in The Human Stain.

Emma Green of the Atlantic started a firestorm recently with the article “Are Jews White?” Taking for granted that Ashkenazi Jews have assimilated to whiteness, Green used the white Jewish question to wonder whether the rise of the so-called “alt-right” (read racist, misogynist white supremacists) is upending Jewish security in the U.S.

Green’s provocative title question caused quite a bit of tumult on Twitter. Predictably and understandably, Jews of color replied, with much amusement and some angst, “No.” Some white Jews responded, “No,” as well, citing anti-Semitism and/or Jewish distinctiveness. For once, this group agreed with the likes of David Duke, who tweeted in all caps “NO — JEWS ARE NOT WHITE.” Some white Jews and blacks unequivocally replied, “Yes,” citing white privilege as decisive.

While the answers to Green’s question from Jewish-American literature are all over the map, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain brilliantly depicts the continuing effects of “so arbitrary a designation as race” on those who choose or are assigned the off-whiteness of Jewishness…

Read the entire essay here.

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Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny — Unless You Passed for White

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-06-19 01:49Z by Steven

Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny — Unless You Passed for White

The New York Times

Brent Staples

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, a man who demanded so much from books that it seemed he could never be satisfied.” From his early reviews for The Times in the 1960’s up to his death in 1990, Mr. Broyard was often gratuitously cruel and clever at the author’s expense.

The novelist Philip Roth was one of the favored few. Mr. Broyard praised him in the column ”About Books” and seemed to see his life through Mr. Roth’s work. When Mr. Broyard was diagnosed with cancer, for example, he compared his symptoms to those of Portnoy, Mr. Roth’s fictional alter ego in ”Portnoy’s Complaint.”

The comparison made perfect sense. Mr. Roth’s great theme was his own struggle to preserve selfhood against the smothering pressures of ethnic identity. That, in a nutshell, was Mr. 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. The largest private employer of black labor at the time was the Pullman Company, which sought college-educated black men to work essentially as servants on train cars that accommodated white travelers only…

Read the entire article here.

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“These narratives of racial passing have risen from the dead”

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-08-29 01:46Z by Steven

“These narratives of racial passing have risen from the dead”

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
May 2015
275 pages
DOI: 10.7282/T38G8NJG

Donavan L. Ramon

Ph.D. Dissertation

Instead of concurring with most critics that racial passing literature reached its apex during the Harlem Renaissance, this project highlights its persistence, as evidenced in the texts examined from 1900 to 2014. Using psychoanalysis, this dissertation recovers non-canonical and white-authored narratives that critics overlook, thus reconceptualizing the genre of passing literature to forge a new genealogy for this tradition. This new genealogy includes novels, life writings, and short stories. In arguing for the genre’s continued relevance and production, this project offers a rejoinder to critics who contend that racial passing literature is obsolete. Part one of this dissertation complicates the notion that characters pass only in response to witnessing a lynching or to improve their socioeconomic status, by asserting that racial passing begins in the classroom for male characters and at home for their female counterparts. It thus precedes the threat of violence or middle class aspirations. Whereas the first half of this project is preoccupied with the gendered beginnings of racial passing, the second half examines its effects, on both writing and death. This project explores racial passing in Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929), Vera Caspary’s The White Girl (1929), Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s The Stones of the Village (1988), Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1999), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), Bliss Broyard’s One Drop (2003) and Anita Reynolds’ American Cocktail (2014).

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350:445 Revisiting Racial Passing in the 21st Century

Posted in Course Offerings, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-11-01 04:01Z by Steven

350:445 Revisiting Racial Passing in the 21st Century

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Summer 2013

This is a course on racial passing, which many people wrongly believe is an antiquated phenomenon. Passing has historically referred to light-skinned African Americans who use their phenotypes to pretend to be white and enjoy the privileges of whiteness. As we will discuss in our seminar, today people pass in a variety of ways, and not just racially. For example, folks regularly pass economically, religiously, and/or through gender. In discussing contemporary passing, we will begin with President Barack Obama, who some have argued has engaged in a form of passing by having black skin yet “white politics.”

We will read primary and secondary material on this literary genre, to determine the tropes, images, themes, and formal elements that comprise “the passing narrative.” We will also consider the ways in which it has been expanded in this “post-race” era.

Primary texts will include:

Films will include: “Imitation of Life” (1934 & 1959) and “The Human Stain” (2003).

For more information, click here.

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Racial Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2013-10-13 02:34Z by Steven

Racial Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

A Vertentes
Universidade Federal de São João del Rei
Volume 19, Number 2
13 pages

Maria Luiza Cardoso de Aguiar
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

The so-called racial passing is defined, mainly, as a phenomenon through which black people who are light-skinned pass for whites, in order to achieve social and economic advantages which are usually more easily available to white people. Based on problematizations around the concepts of passing, the present article intends to analyze, comparatively, two important works from the 20th century: The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man (1912/1989), written by James Weldon Johnson, and The Human Stain (2000), written by Philip Roth. The analysis of these works aims at investigating how the issue of passing is portrayed in each of the novels, in order to highlight the fact that, although the protagonists at stake share many similarities, such as the desire to free themselves from the decisiveness of pre-established categories like race, the experience of passing is heterogeneous and it is differently constructed and operated in each of the novels.

O chamado passing racial trata, principalmente, do fenômeno no qual negros de pele mais clara e de traços mestiços se passam por pessoas brancas, a fim de, mais comumente, conseguirem vantagens sociais e econômicas, frequentemente mais acessíveis aos brancos do que aos negros. A partir de problematizações em torno dos conceitos de passing, o presente trabalho visa a analisar comparativamente duas importantes obras da literatura norte-americana do século XX: The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912/1989), de James Weldon Johnson, e The human stain (2000), de Philip Roth. Pretende-se investigar como a questão do passing é retratada em cada uma das obras, a fim de se destacar que, apesar de os protagonistas em questão apresentarem muitas similaridades e desejarem que categorias pré-estabelecidas não sejam decisivas em suas trajetórias, a experiência do passing é heterogênea, sendo construída e operada diferentemente em cada um dos romances.

Read the entire article here.

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Clearly Invisible Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, and: The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-10-08 21:15Z by Steven

Clearly Invisible Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, and: The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (review)

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2013
pages 99-103
DOI: 10.1353/prs.2013.0024

Donavan L. Ramon
Rutgers University

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012, vxi + 229 pp.

Michele Elam, The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011, xxiii + 277 pp.

According to W.E.B. DuBois’s prophetic theory articulated in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (221). Myriad critical and popular pieces over the past several years suggest that this theory has run its course: the celebration of mixed race people putatively implies the “end” of race. Certainly the election of the first biracial president has been touted as the epitome of post-race life in America. Yet as recent critical interventions by Michele Elam and Marcia Alesan Dawkins remind us, race remains prevalent because of biracial people, not in spite of it.

The continuities between DuBois’s theory and Elam’s are underscored by the title of the latter’s monograph. In The Souls of Mixed Folk, the Stanford University English Professor asserts that the notion of post-Black art being apolitical is a complete fiction, much like the idea that post-Civil Rights politics are in decline. By examining the images of mixed race subjects in a wide range of artistic forms, Elam argues that these venues are the newer locations that “engage issues of civil rights and social change” (16). To accept this belief, she begins her book by convincing readers that the increased interest in mixed race deludes many people into believing that race no longer exists. If this is truly the case, then why do fictional representations of biracial people continue to represent anxiety across a multitude of genres? More specifically, why has the last several years seen a resurgence in narratives of racial passing—such as Philip Roth’s The Human Stain?

Elam explores these questions across five thoroughly researched and well-written chapters. The first traces the history of mixed race studies in curricula across the nation while raising related yet ignored issues. For instance she problematizes the focus of heteronormative depictions of mixed race families at the expense of homosexual ones, while also reminding us that mixed Americans have historically been the result of sexual violation. She believes we must be mindful of considering the product of these unions as representatives of racial progress without understanding the nuances of slavery and violence inflicted on black bodies by whites.

Chapter two changes the focus from history to contemporary comic strips by Aaron McGruder and Nate Creekmore. In their works, Elam rightly sees racial identity as “a matter of public negotiation, social location, cultural affirmation, political commitment, and historical homage” (58). In chapter four, Elam situates the traditional European bildungsroman against the “mixed race bildungsroman”. The former focuses on the “social incorporation of the individual” (125) whereas protagonists in the latter are not “incorporated into the society or the social progress that they are supposed to represent . . . [and they] challenge the popular image of the ‘modern minority’” (126). She applies her theory of the “mixed race bildungsroman” to Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter (1997) and Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic (2004). Elam’s last chapter examines performances of mixed race in Carl Hancock Rux’s play Talk and “The Racial Draft” skit from Dave Chappelle’s defunct late-night comedy show. Her argument here is that in both performances, there is a “re-visioning and a re-membering of the national order” (161).

The middle chapter is the one that is most germane to this journal, as it examines racial passing in Danzy Senna’s Causcasia (1999), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (2000). Despite research to the contrary, Elam begins this chapter by arguing that racial passing literature is far from being an obsolete genre, as these novels attest. Despite living in a post-race era, these narratives collectively argue for the rebirth of racial passing as a “social inquiry” (98). Explaining further, the novels addressed here force readers to reconsider “the performative, iterative nature of racial identity as a rich social heuristic” (98).

This is nowhere more evident than in The Human Stain , where racial passing acts as a “reactionary vehicle to critique political correctness”—particularly because it is set during President Clinton’s sex scandal (98). In this regard, “performance,” can have multiple meanings in the novel: one referring…

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Reading The Human Stain through Charles W. Chesnutt: The Genre of the Passing Novel

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-08-16 03:03Z by Steven

Reading The Human Stain through Charles W. Chesnutt: The Genre of the Passing Novel

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 2, Number 2 (Fall 2006)
pages 138-150
DOI: 10.1353/prs.2011.0066

Matthew Wilson, Professor of English and Humanities
Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg

This article historicizes The Human Stain, placing it in the genre of the passing novel. The analysis is filtered through a reading of Chesnutt’s passing fictions, particularly The House Behind the Cedars and The Quarry.

Philip Roth’s The Human Stain was published in 2000, the year I was on sabbatical writing my book, Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. At the time, and even more subsequently, I was struck by the surprising continuities between the passing fictions ot Chesnutt and other writers of his era and Roth’s representation of race in The Human Stain. One of Chesnutt’s novels in particular, The House behind the Cedars (1900), helps us see that although exactly one hundred years separate these two texts, little has changed with regard to race in America. Despite the dismantling of the legal system of American racial apartheid that had its origin in Chesnutt s lifetime, the American racial imagination remains largely intact, and we continue to insist on our racial binary, continue to maintain and police the color line. As Judy Scales-Trent has observed. “[W]hite America expends enormous resources in school and in the media to teach (about) the intrinsic rightness” of the color line, so that it won’t questioned and so that future generations will continue to “stand guard” (481). Of course, the genre in which this standing guard is most obvious is the passing narrative because the liminality of the “white negro” (to use a nineteenth-century locution) calls into question the supposed impermeability of the color line. In this article, I use Chesnutt’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, as a way of approaching the issue of passing and race in The Human Stain, and of exploring the persistence of racial essentialism in American thinking and the responses to that essentialism that maintain the existence of the color line.

Before going on to discuss the issue of race in particular texts, I need to unpack the term “racial essentialism.” As Adrian Piper makes clear in her important esaay “Passing tor White, Passing for Black,” the function of racial…

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“Passing” and the American dream

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-06-16 02:04Z by Steven

“Passing” and the American dream

Salon Magazine

Baz Dreisinger

These days we’re supposed to think race doesn’t matter. But as “The Human Stain” and a raft of recent writing makes clear, we’re just as fascinated by its slippery boundaries as ever.

Every now and then, cultural and social critics fashion an axiom that’s flippant, succinct and thus darling enough to render its truth value irrelevant. Such is the case with a phrase coined by culture-mongers in the 1960s that’s finding new currency today: “Passing is passé.”

“Passing” is shorthand for “racial passing,” and “racial passing” means people of one race (generally African-American) passing for another (usually white). Anybody who’s surprised that there’s a shorthand terminology for what might seem a pretty unlikely scenario will be more surprised that the phenomenon, with its lengthy history in American culture, isn’t all that unusual. Some of the earliest stories about passing reach back to the 19th century, when slaves — like Ellen Craft, who penned a mesmerizing slave narrative — used their light skin to escape, and novelists from Mark Twain to Charles Chesnutt mined the subject for their oeuvre.

Passing was a much-hyped subject during the Harlem Renaissance, which produced a plethora of rich fiction about it: Nella Larsen’sPassing,” Jessie Fauset’sPlum Bun,” Walter White’s “Flight.” The subject had its Hollywood heyday; melodramatic passing flicks from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s include “Pinky,” “Lost Boundaries” and two big-screen versions of “Imitation of Life” (the latter version, directed by Douglas Sirk, probably still delights the Kleenex industry).

But along came the ’60s. And with it, Black Power and other ideologies that made the saga of passing — and the act of passing itself — soppy, weak-kneed and thus unhip. Passing was passé, critics said, because racial pride was where it’s at. Whether prophecy or prescription, their words proved accurate, for a while, at least: The subject never vanished from public or private sectors, but it did step aside for a hot minute or two.

That hot minute is over. Passing, these days, is anything but passé. This week Anthony Hopkins, neither a black man nor a Jew, saunters onto the big screen to play a black man passing as a Jew in the long-awaited screen version of Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” Last month, journalist Brooke Kroeger’s collection of case studies, “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” earned solid reviews and prompted a National Public Radio program on passing. Brent Staples recently penned a series of New York Times editorials on the subject…

Read the entire article here.

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Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United Kingdom on 2012-01-03 22:58Z by Steven

Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

St. Mary’s College of Maryland
English 400.01
Fall 2008

Christine Wooley, Assistant Professor of English
This course will consider representations of passing (and thus also miscegenation) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture. While passing has often been depicted-and dismissed-as an act of racial betrayal, more recent criticism has suggested that we view these depictions of racial transgression and deception in more complicated ways. In this class, we will analyze various narratives centered around passing and miscegenation as sites through which we can better examine-and understand-the construction of racial identities in particular historical and political contexts. We will ask whether or not narratives about passing and miscegenation challenge the stability of racial categories. Likewise, we will pay close attention to how such narratives also engage issues of class, ethnicity, and gender. Syllabus may include works by authors such as Harriet Wilson, William Wells Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Frances Harper, William Dean Howells, Pauline Hopkins, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. In addition, this class will also draw on a selection of historical and legal documents, current critical works on race, and films such as The Jazz Singer and Imitation of Life.

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