by Asad Haider
Today’s politics of identity — the epoch of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and privilege-checking — was already the subject of debate in a 1964 exchange between Amiri Baraka, then still known as LeRoi Jones, and Philip Roth. It began with Roth’s negative review of Jones’s The Dutchman, along with James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, in The New York Review of Books. The Dutchman had presented a theatrical allegory of the failures of liberal integrationism, and the seductive treachery of the white world. Roth’s dismissive review displays no real understanding of the political critique at work in the play; nevertheless, the line that became the real point of contention contains a kernel of insight. This was Roth’s speculation that Baraka, then Jones, wrote The Dutchman for a white audience, “not so that they should be moved to pity or to fear, but to humiliation and self-hatred.” Jones retorted in a vicious letter that, “The main rot in the minds of ‘academic’ liberals like yourself, is that you take your own distortion of the world to be somehow more profound than the cracker’s.”
Roth’s The Human Stain, written during the reign of our first “first black president” (you have to wonder if Toni Morrison regrets saying that), illuminates the distance between 1964 and 2016. Here Roth presents a biography that moves from the personal costs of segregation to the contradictions of liberal multiculturalism. Coleman Silk, a light-skinned black professor of classics — like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which provoked the trigger warning debate at Columbia — spends a lifetime passing for white. Yet in ’90s America it is not the black identity which destroys his life and reputation, but the somehow ontologically irrefutable accusation of anti-black racism.