Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Anatole Broyard's Human Stain: Performing Postracial Consciousness

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Anatole Broyard's Human Stain: Performing Postracial Consciousness

Article excerpt

If we are to move beyond racism we shall have, in the end, to move beyond current racial identities.

-K. Anthony Appiah

Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain (2000) traces the rise and fall of Coleman Silk, an African American boxer-turned-professor who has passed for most of his adult life as Jewish and (in this context) as white.1 Many commentators have noted that Roth based the character of Coleman on Anatole Broyard, an influential New York Times literary critic and Greenwich Village man-about-town, yet no one has (to my knowledge) examined Broyard s criticism of Roth's works or Broyard's fascinating fiction and essays to shed light on the curious mix of concealment and disclosure that characterizes Coleman's passing. In Broyard's works, there are a series of cryptic references to passing that could be explained away as nods to the self-fashioning of the heady post-World War II era, when shedding the bland past was, if not a national pastime, certainly a common Village event. These allusions in Broyard's work are emblematic of how Coleman, in Roth's novel, thrives on the secrecy of passing. By modeling Coleman on Broyard, then, Roth argues that the creation of the self (or of many selves) requires and feeds off of a multicolored carousel of disclosure and concealment. That is, Roth was careful to choose a man who cultivated a persona that broadcasted a rich array of ambiguous signs as his template for Coleman precisely so that he could drive home his point that all coming of age involves adopting, in Broyards terms, a set of fictions about the self. Because he demonstrated the performativity of race, Broyard offered a perfect model for Roth's main character.2

In a presentation at the Center for Democracy in a Multiracial Society at the University of Illinois, George Lipsitz argued that instead of identity determining politics, politics should ground identities. In a similar vein, Michael Rothberg takes posthistoricism (or postmodernism) to task for denuding politics: "In the name of politicizing identity, posthistoricism actually depoliticizes difference." These recent evaluations of identity politics point to a new movement away from the multiculturalist insistence on difference and perhaps herald a new turn toward a postracial consciousness where identities need not be grounded primarily in race.3 Indeed, by some accounts, we (in the United States) are demographically approaching an era where racial categories will literally break down. Roth's The Human Stain contributes to this turn toward postracialism by arguing that identity should be fluid and that the good intentions of the multiculturalists can sometimes be thwarted by a rapidly outdated adherence to what K. Anthony Appiah terms "current racial identities" (32). I have argued elsewhere that Roth's The Human Stain claims that we need to think of race outside of racial categories to overcome racism (see Kaplan). In this essay, I extend that argument by asserting that precisely because Roth used Broyard as the model for Coleman, The Human Stain can be read as a treatise on how the concept of race should be fluid. Because Broyard refused to be classified, he offered Roth an opportunity to explore how racial identities can be surpassed and to imagine a postracial consciousness where the limiting identitarian strictures that feed racism can be abolished.

To demonstrate how Broyard's particular relationship to passing-his refusal to allow racial identities to limit him-functioned in his life and writings as well as in Coleman's character, I briefly summarize Roth's The Human Stain, examine how Broyard performed his elected identity, turn to Broyard's readings of Roth's works, and analyze some of Broyard's essays and short stories. I conclude with an exploration of the echoes of Broyard in The Human Stain. I should note here that I use the word passing throughout this essay for want of a better term; indeed, Broyard and Coleman (or rather, Roth) both avoid this term because it continues the notion of discrete races that both try to negate. …

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