Magazine article The New Yorker

THE RACE CARD CENTRAL CASTING Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

THE RACE CARD CENTRAL CASTING Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

In the new film "The Human Stain," based on the Philip Roth novel, an actor named Wentworth Miller plays the young Coleman Silk--or, rather, the young Anthony Hopkins. (Hopkins, you see, plays the older Wentworth Miller.) Silk is a black man who, by dint of the lightness of his skin and his determination to circumvent prejudice, passes himself off, for most of his life, as a white man--a Jewish white man. In real life, Hopkins is a Welshman (white, not Jewish), but Miller's origins are mixed. His father is black; his mother is white. (To be precise, his father is African-American-Jamaican-German-English; his mother is Russian-Dutch-French-Syrian-Lebanese; and, like most people, he has a Jewish great-grandmother, on his father's side.) Miller doesn't look black, whatever that means, but neither does Hopkins, or Silk. (Miller doesn't look anything like Hopkins, either.)

In the story, Silk, a classics professor, loses his job when he is accused of racism for using the word "spooks" to describe two black students who have never shown up for his class. He means that they're so reliably absent as to be nonexistent, but the students and the school administrators hear something else. Silk holds on to the race card, choosing not to reveal that he's black--a fact that would, presumably, exonerate him. Down goes Silk.

It so happens that Wentworth Miller found himself in a similar jam when he was in college. As a junior at Princeton, in 1994, he published, in the Daily Princetonian, a cartoon featuring Cornel West, who was then a professor of African-American studies there but who had just been hired away by Harvard. The cartoon depicted Muffy, a white Harvard student, imagining her first class with West, who is saying, "Today's lecture is entitled, 'Rhythm--Why None of You Have It, and How You Can Get It.' " It also described West as "newly purchased," which is academe-speak for a new hire.

This did not go over well--"newly purchased" was taken to be a reference to slavery--and within days the paper had run angry letters signed by dozens of students and faculty members, including the novelist Toni Morrison, symposia had been convened, and the school had been plunged into one of those predictable convulsions of recrimination and argument. The story made the Times, and Wentworth Miller, who everyone assumed was white, was transformed into a controversial figure: the campus bigot. …

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