Racial Passing and Double Consciousness in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

Racial Passing and Double Consciousness in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 14, Number 1, 2018
pages 55-69
DOI: 10.5703/philrothstud.14.1.0055

Dyanne K. Martin, Assistant Professor of English
Broward College, Fort Lauderdale, Floirida

Philip Roth’s nuanced understanding of the issues of race in pre- and post-Civil Rights America offers fresh thinking in a field that perhaps needs to explore new directions. The approach in this article is to use techniques of semiotics to assess the subtle cues in the linguist protagonist’s language as his statements move in and out of clarity, ambivalence, and doubleness. I argue that these forms of semiotic doubleness represent the dualities and ironies with which mixed-race people struggle in a society still divided by race.

Much has been said about Philip Roth’s use of racial passing as a trope in his novel The Human Stain. Critics such as Luminita Dragulescu and Jennifer Glaser argue that the novel represents the complexities of identity performance. Dragulescu, in particular, positions Roth’s use of racial passing as “a terrain of discursive power” (96). Glaser agrees with Dragulescu but adds that Roth’s mixed-race protagonist, Coleman Silk, portrays the traumatic complexities of the mulatto’s decision to traverse not just the color line but also the ethnic line. Passing as both white and Jewish, Silk illustrates what Glaser calls the “ongoing dynamics of racializcd power” in the discipline of critical race theory, a theory that is “inherently comparative” (1465). While these critics have engaged important issues in The Human Stain, they leave unaddressed Roth’s use of verbal or syntactic ambivalence in relation to the trope of racial passing in his novel. When Coleman Silk in a pivotal scene lashes out that he “don’t carry no nigger,” he seems, ostensibly, to be making a simple, straightforward statement (Stain 117). Yet Silks words are both…

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