Back When Skin Color Was Destiny - Unless You Passed
By 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
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
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
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
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 Mr. 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 Mr. Broyard.
The action in Mr. 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. (For decades, Mr. Broyard scandalized
liberal Manhattan friends like Harold Brodkey by
making virulent comments about black people, even
about people he passed while strolling on the
Mr. Roth's novel generated an interesting discussion
among members of the black elite, some of whom were
surprised that a writer from such distant terrain had
exposed the centuries-old conspiracy of silence among
black people that permitted passers to live without
fear of being outed.
Movies rarely convey the power of the novels that
inspire them. The film version of "The Human Stain"
due out 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
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. Light-skinned black men
entering the military could check the box on the
enlistment form that said "Negro" and be confined to
Jim Crow units where they built roads, dug latrines or
served food to whites.
It is likely that thousands of them instead did what
Coleman Silk and Mr. Broyard did. They checked the box
that said "white," which allowed them to become combat
soldiers and possibly even officers in charge of white
units. In some light-skinned families, some members
entered the military as white, while others elected to
enter as black, even though it meant subjecting
themselves to segregation and second-class treatment.
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 that 150,000 black
people sailed away permanently into whiteness during
the 1940's alone, marrying white spouses and most
likely cutting off their black families.
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 press went along with
the ruse, quoting passing Negroes anonymously in
articles that ridiculed high-society racists for being
too stupid to know a Negro when they saw one.
A young relative who saw Mr. Broyard's name in The
Times wished to meet him, but dropped the idea when
told that he was "living on the other side" and did
not want to meet black family members. The newspapers
and magazines of the black press could have outed Mr.
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
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