Philip Roth’s award-winning novel, The Human Stain (New York: Vintage, 2001), depicts a classical literature professor and former college dean who is harried into early retirement by a baseless charge of using a racial epithet in the classroom. One day, well into the semester at a small New England college, Professor Coleman Silk wondered aloud whether two students on his class roster who had never attended—whom he had never seen and thus did not know were African-American—might be
spooks. Ironically, as the novel’s narrator learns after the professor’s death two years later, Silk had been born
Negro but, beginning with his World War II military enlistment, had successfully passed as a Jew. Roth’s fictional character was based in part on Anatole Broyard, a book reviewer for the New York Times who, until his death in 1990 at age seventy, had similarly hidden from most, including his children, the fact that he was African-American.
Roth’s novel has stimulated me to think about similarities between racial and religious
passing, to wonder whether, after I no longer taught at Mennonite colleges and attended a Mennonite church regularly, I had been in some ways
passing, too. Of course, my kind of passing was much easier. In the Mennonite church of my youth, we had had no distinctive dress; and I carried no inerasable markers such as Silk’s and Broyard’s springy hair. More important, my group origin in no way impeded my own advancement—at worst, my colleagues in secular universities found my Mennonite background
quaint. However, for Silk and Broyard, making their ways as
Negroes during the thirties, forties, and fifties meant facing open prejudice and harsh social and professional limits in a strictly segregated world.
Nevertheless, I have often thought that growing up Mennonite may be in some ways more like growing up Jewish or even African-American than like growing up Methodist. If you spend your formative years in a place where family, church, and community are all rolled up into one—such as Kidron, Ohio, and Bluffton College—the word
Mennonite can seem to describe not just one’s religion but the totality of one’s social identity. Moreover, the geographical isolation of such places added to an emphasis on how Mennonites are called to be different from the rest of the world can lead to a
we-they mentality similar to what might result from living in a racially segregated world.
Many people find sufficient elasticity within such an environment and its extensions—such as a Mennonite church planted at a university or within a city—that they never need to leave it to form and develop over a lifetime satisfying individual identities. Others do not. The reasons may be social, such as limited gender or professional roles within the Mennonite community. The reasons may be psychological, as when the boundaries between family, church, and community are so fuzzy that it seems all three must be jettisoned in the process of becoming individuated as an adult. Ultimately, the reasons some stay and some break away may remain a mystery.
In Roth’s novel, Coleman Silk’s older brother Walt embraced his racial identity and extended its boundaries by becoming in 1947 the first Negro teacher in a white school, later advancing to principal and superintendent (322). Coleman’s mother and sister, themselves racial pioneers in nursing and education, could never figure out why Coleman broke and stayed away. As long as they knew him,
being a Negro was just never an issue with him (325); his sister concludes it must have been something about his individual personality—the
dogged commitment he could make to his every decision (325), something captured in a picture of fifteen-year-old Coleman as a boxer upon which she had written,
Mr. Determined (343).
Roth’s narrator, however, puts Coleman Silk’s decision to pass in a broader cultural context. While in part young Coleman may have been trying to escape the
great American menace of racism (106), he was also acting within America’s
great frontier tradition of
accepting the democratic invitation to throw your origins overboard if to do so contributes to the pursuit of happiness (334). Silk was living out the American dream of radical self-creation portrayed also by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1925), which has a similar mode of narration and violent ending. Ironically in Roth’s novel, this dream of self-creation is expressed by Silk’s nemesis in the campus controversy, a young professor from France who decided,
I will go to America and be the author of my life. . . . I will construct myself outside the orthodoxy of my family’s given (273).
The beckoning of this American dream, especially as it involves upward mobility, must account for the passing of many individual Mennonites into the mainstream. Higher education being an elevator that often leads individuals not only up but also out, some conservative Mennonites as well as Amish discourage it. But economic ladders too can lead out in ways that are perhaps not so obvious. The abundant material rewards for hard work often available in America with or without a higher education sometimes seem to be quite easily accommodated within the boundaries of Mennonite church and community life. And one might ask if such group rejection of Mennonites’ traditional ideal of a simple life—or of their traditional peace witness or any theological position whatsoever that distinguishes them from evangelical or mainline Protestantism—can be seen as another form of passing.
The issue of a whole group’s passing—or
acculturation as it is often labeled—is not explicitly addressed in Roth’s novel. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, Roth demonstrates that an individual’s pursuit of the American dream of radical self-creation often carries an ignoble, even criminal underside. Through a network of allusions and plot parallels, Roth compares Coleman Silk’s story to Greek tragedy, especially Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.
Seeking to avoid the gods’ prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus leaves the family and country within which he was reared only to meet and kill on the road the king of a neighboring country whom he later learns was his biological father. When young Coleman Silk leaves the Negro world to journey out into the white, he tells his mother he will have no more contact with her; describing this scene later, Coleman’s sister Ernestine says,
he was murdering her (138). Roth is here building on Sigmund Freud’s use of the Oedipus myth to suggest that the process of individuation typically involves patricide or matricide, if only psychological and thus metaphorical. Accordingly, this process carries with it an inevitable load of guilt and fear of punishment.
Poetic justice decrees that these surface later when Coleman Silk has his own children. His Negro origin is part of their identity too, and so they have a right to know about it—Coleman’s sister points out that if his daughter marries white and
gives birth to a Negroid child her husband might doubt he was the father (320). But Silk never tells even his wife, let alone his children. Instead, he agonizes that his
terrible lie has been
intuited by his youngest son Mark, who, from earliest childhood, harbors a fierce and otherwise inexplicable animus toward his father. According to Ernestine, Coleman
saw Markie as the punishment for what he had done to his own mother (321).
Ernestine says also that
if Coleman was intent on keeping his race his secret, he should not have had children at all; that in doing so, he was
testing fate (320). Within his own lifetime at least, Coleman did elude genetic fate. But as sociologists and others have come to recognize, race is more social concept than biological fact; and the fate of pejorative social definition proves impossible for Coleman to escape. He may slip free from the noose
nigger in the 1940s, but in the 1990s he will be snared by the label
racist. Like Oedipus, Silk learns that trying to be the sole author of one’s life is an act of inordinate pride; and that offended gods punish harshly someone who defies their prescribed scripts, such as the scripts of social category.
During the battle with his accusers, Coleman’s wife dies of a stroke; he resigns from the college, retreats into angry isolation, and has an affair with a woman decades his junior who works on the college janitorial staff. Unfortunately, this defiance of age and class categories elicits the wrath of not only the college community but also his children. And Coleman comes to a violent death because he gets involved with two people who are also living out scripts written largely by others. Having been sexually abused during childhood by her stepfather, the woman Coleman has an affair with has perfected the art of pleasing and being pleased by men in bed. The husband from whom she separated because he abused her had returned from the Vietnam War a killer. Now enraged that his wife is playing the
whore (161) with
the Jew professor (257), he lives out his own social script when he uses his truck to force their car into the river.
When Oedipus begins the quest for self-knowledge that eventually leads to his exile, some of his friends sense that the truth about his past will be horrible and advise him not to continue. Similar voices counsel against my trying to tease from Coleman Silk’s and Oedipus’ stories as tragedy certain similarities to the experience of Mennonites’ passing—if for no other reason that one does not like to end an essay on the downbeat. However, Aristotle promised that the experience of tragedy can lead to a healing catharsis, and so I continue, with the caveat that much of what follows is merely hypothesis—I am not a professional psychologist or sociologist.
Psychologically, it may be that when the process of individuation involves
killing one’s parents not just individually but also socially—as when one also assumes a different race, religion, level of education, class, community—the resulting guilt and fear of punishment are significantly increased. This may be one of many possible reasons for what has been observed as Mennonites’ tendency toward depression. In addition, if family, church, and community are seen as one package that must be rejected in the process of growing up, an individual’s later willingness to identify with any group may be affected. For example, if creating and maintaining necessary psychological boundaries between self and parents have proved difficult, one may find membership in any subsequent group threatening and feel safer just hanging around the margins. Or, the effect may be exactly the opposite. Uncertain of one’s personal boundaries, one may try to shore them up by joining (or rejoining) a group having rules and boundaries which are explicit, even rigid. In other words, perhaps what the stories of Oedipus and Coleman Silk suggest about human psychology can help explain why some Mennonites live
on the hyphen as Mennonite-Americans; why some, after leaving, choose particular churches or other groups, or join no organized group at all.
For persons in all of the above categories, Coleman Silk’s story offers a challenge to examine what one has picked up in the process of dropping the label
Mennonite—Roth’s narrator notes the irony that Silk avoided being lynched as a
nigger only to die in large part because his killer hated Jews (325). Although I have never had children myself, I have observed that this rite of passage into adulthood often initiates special soul searching for Mennonite couples who have
passed. Once again, Roth’s novel proves relevant through its portrayal of how being Jewish played out in succeeding generations.
Coleman’s identity as a Jew was not so much a choice as a convenience he fell into; he grew up in a predominantly Jewish New Jersey neighborhood and, after the war, swarmed with other intellectuals, many of them Jewish, around Washington Square in New York, where he met and married his Jewish wife; for Coleman, passing as a Jew was often simply a matter of not contradicting other people’s assumptions. Coleman’s wife was reared by
two uneducated immigrant atheists whose
hatred for every form of social oppression was especially virulent toward
the authority of the rabbis (127). Together, the Silks became
anticlerical, atheistic parents who
were Jews in little more than name (61).
Their kind of rearing was apparently unproblematic for their two older sons, who follow in their parents’ footsteps by marrying happily and becoming accomplished, self-confident professors. The younger twins, however, struggle. Born with the
incurable altruism, Lisa is a Reading Recovery teacher
perpetually hovering around the edge of depletion and chronically unable to
withhold kindness to a
demanding boyfriend (58). At age sixteen, Mark had become an Orthodox Jew; at thirty-eight, he is supported by
a religiously observant young woman while he writes un-publishable narrative poetry on biblical themes (61). Perhaps tragically, these twins live out separately two aspects of Jewish identity traditionally held together—an abiding concern for social justice and a deep religious commitment. It is a combination their acculturated parents could not give them.
Such an example of parent-child relations might give pause to
ethnic Mennonite parents who no longer go to church or who attend another church only sporadically. They may still be critical of organized religion in general and the Mennonite church in particular; reflecting on the distinctive mark it made on them while they were growing up, however, they may consider rather bland by comparison what they are offering to their own children, such as an unspecific spirituality, a commitment to social justice unsupported by a community, a secular individualism. Moreover, remembering how they themselves rebelled against their upbringing, they may wonder where their own children’s ricochet journeys might take them. Parents who
pass enthusiastically into a non-Mennonite church may be less conflicted. But that does not insure that their children as well will not at some point reevaluate their parents’ decisions.
As I know from my own experience. For I must confess that I have often considered that my parents in many ways
traded down when they moved from a Mennonite church and rural community in Ohio to an evangelical and decidedly Calvinist Presbyterian church in the Florida city where my father relocated part of his business. In fairness, though, I must also ask whether my own kind of passing has been any better. During most of my professional years, the university where I taught and various associations related to my academic specialty satisfied my doubtless less-than-average needs for organized group membership. Now that I am retired, however, I wonder how long I will be satisfied by a network of individual family relationships and friendships—by far the greatest number being maintained through telephone and internet—coupled with participation in several small and spiritual, if not, strictly speaking religious, groups in the city where my last professional move dropped me. Especially as I look toward the inevitable dependencies of old age, I appreciate what
a place where family, church, and community are all rolled up into one has to offer. And I wonder if a Mennonite retirement community somewhere will kill the fatted calf for a prodigal daughter who returns home a vegetarian.
Probably so. Because any exile I have experienced has been voluntary; unlike Oedipus (or some Mennonites and Amish), I have not been banished (or shunned) to expiate my crimes. And because unlike Coleman Silk, I have not insisted on my isolation and thrown up additional boundaries. Rather, I have hovered around the edges enough to think that I can still make a pretty good stab at
passing for Mennonite; and to think also that when I fail, there are still Mennonites forgiving enough not to rub it in.