Mistaken Identity

How to Pass: Past and Present

September 12, 2012

Multiple Pages
How to Pass: Past and Present

Last week, the press whipped itself into a frenzy of anticipation for Barack Obama’s big speech at the Democratic Convention, only to have Obama once again turn out to be the National Letdown.

That raises the question: What was that whole Obamamania thing about, anyway?

Obama’s sudden rise from part-time legislator/part-time lecturer to Presidential Timberhood was conventionally interpreted as the triumph of his supreme personal merit over discrimination’s crushing weight. A less-popular suggestion was that in 21st-century America, identifying as black is good for your career.

One way to test this question is by looking at the phenomenon of people changing their racial identification, AKA “passing.” Traditionally, mixed-race people tried to socially separate themselves from the black masses, and some tried to pass as white. Is that still true? Or has the flow reversed in recent decades, with racially ambiguous people now asserting their blackness?

Passing is back in the news because of the curious onslaught that famed novelist Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint) mounted last week against Wikipedia over its allegation that one of his better novels might have been inspired by the glamorous man of letters Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), one of the last Americans known to have passed as white for career reasons.

“In 21st-century America, identifying as black is good for your career.”

The trouble started when the distinguished and dyspeptic 79-year-old Roth was perusing Wikipedia’s page on The Human Stain (2000), his impressive novel about an elderly professor named Coleman Silk, whose career is wrecked by the anti-racist thought police. Ironically, Silk turns out to be an African-American who has been passing as a Jew since coming back from WWII.

Roth’s key insight about race was that deep down, race is less about skin color than about whom your relatives are. That’s why old-fashioned passing, while beneficial objectively, was relatively rare. Under the American one-drop rule, having any black relatives meant that you were black. Hence, successful passing meant cutting yourself off from familial relationships with your kin.

Recently, Roth read in Wikipedia—to his evident disgust—that The Human Stain’s protagonist was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard,” the dashing New York Times critic and influential advocate  of Roth’s books.

In 1996, a half-dozen years after Broyard’s death, Henry Louis Gates denounced Broyard in a long article in The New Yorker for never mentioning that he was partially black. Not surprisingly, several reviewers, including myself, surmised that Roth had Broyard in mind when writing The Human Stain.

Roth complained to Wikipedia that he hadn’t been thinking of Broyard at all, that his inspiration was Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin, a lifelong crusader for civil rights and close friend of Roth and other famous Jewish writers. In 1985, Tumin had inquired of two students who never bothered to attend his class, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” The two slackers turned out to be black rather than ghosts, and Tumin was subjected to numerous interrogations and indignities.

Amusingly, when Roth objected to Wikipedia, he heard back:

“I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

So Roth has penned a fulminating “Open Letter to Wikipedia” for The New Yorker.

Is Roth truly as cranky as he sounds in the Broyard-Tumin dispute, or is he playing an elaborate joke? Perhaps he’s trying to revive interest in his fan Broyard by writing a vast article about how he never really knew anything about Broyard.

The more Roth tries to explain in his Open Letter that he couldn’t possibly have based The Human Stain on Broyard, the deeper a hole he digs himself.

In a 2008 interview Roth had asserted that The Human Stain wasn’t based on anyone, that he “knew Anatole slightly, and I didn’t know he was black.” But now Roth admits that way back in 1958, after throwing a football around on the beach with Broyard:

Before I left the beach that day, someone told me that Broyard was rumored to be an “octoroon.”…It’s not impossible that I had to look it up in the dictionary later to be sure of its precise meaning.

In other words, Roth first heard that his cool new acquaintance may have been passing 42 years before he published The Human Stain. And when he heard that gossip, Roth may have been intrigued enough to look up “octoroon.”

What about Roth’s candidate for the original of Coleman Silk, Princeton professor Mel Tumin? The Tumin incident certainly sounds plausible. The absurd persecution of poor Professor Tumin in 1985 may have been one of the precipitating incidents in various Jewish intellectuals’ rebellion against political correctness in the late 20th century. Unlike Tumin’s friend Bellow, who converted to neoconservatism, Roth is widely assumed to be a respectable Nixon-hating liberal. Yet his loathing for political correctness is admirable. For example, Slate has a fun story about Roth denouncing feminists at Bard College as incipient Stalinists.

Today in 2012, conservatives have largely given up on protesting political correctness in return for accusing liberals of racism and other sins. But this ploy misses the point that the chief drivers of American cultural and intellectual life are highly antagonistic Jewish writers such as Roth and David Mamet. They are going to be mad at somebody, so better that they be angry at political correctness than at conservatives!

On the other hand, Roth’s assertion that Tumin was also the inspiration for Coleman Silk’s secret racial identity sounds like one of his more contrived flights of authorial whimsy:

[N]ot a few people had wondered if, because of certain seemingly Negroid features—his lips, his hair, his skin tone—Mel Tumin, who was adamantly Jewish in the overwhelmingly Waspy Princeton of his era, might not be an African-American passing for white. This was another fact of Mel Tumin’s biography that fed into my early imaginings of “The Human Stain.”

Maybe, but in the picture of Professor Tumin on the Internet, he looks like a rabbi’s son.

So should Wikipedia trust the novelist, even when the author is a notorious metafictional leg-puller?

Trust, but verify.

I asked Zach Tumin, Melvin’s son, who leads Harvard Kennedy School’s project in Information and Communications Technology and Public Policy. He replied:

Our family is of east European Jewry - Rumanian descent on my father’s side, and darkly complected. My father’s father Reuven, and his father Avram, were as I understand it both rabbis.

So Mel Tumin wasn’t passing, but Roth’s assertion that Tumin’s skin tone inspired rumors can hardly be rejected.

The younger Tumin, who might be the best independent source, confirms Roth’s account:

The story as recounted by Roth in his New Yorker open letter is consistent with the facts as I know them.

Moreover, it’s appears likely from internal evidence that Roth wasn’t drawing much from Broyard even as a second source of inspiration.

In Roth’s defense, it’s likely he wasn’t thinking much about Broyard. He didn’t seem to do any research at all on Broyard’s background, which is crucial to his tale. As Broyard’s French name suggests, the critic was more or less a “creole of color” from New Orleans, where the American one-drop rule was an alien cultural import out of sync with some of the locals’ more Latin views on racial mixture. Instead of a color line, there had long been an informal color continuum.

A half-century ago, however, this Latin approach went out of fashion and was replaced by an ideology of black solidarity that now embraced the one-drop rule.

For example, there was a hit Broadway musical in 1992 called Jelly’s Last Jam, which castigated early New Orleans jazz legend and creole of color Jelly Roll Morton for not calling himself black.

Members of the mixed-race castes began changing their self-image from Not Really Black to the Natural Leaders of Blacks just as white America was switching from despising to subsidizing blacks. Thus, several of the “black” mayors of New Orleans, such as the Morial family, have been creoles of color who could be said to be “passing” as black.

Similarly, as the Hawaiian-born preppie Obama documents in Dreams from My Father, he had to strive for years to make himself black enough to reap the rewards.

Daily updates with TM’s latest