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January 02, 2004 - Image 11

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-01-02

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Question Of Black And White

GEORGE
CANTOR
Reality Check

ne of last
year's
movies
that came
and went in a rush
was The Human
Stain.
It was about an
African-American
college professor
passing as a Jew.
(And he thought he
had problems

before.)
The movie received lukewarm
reviews, but some commentators
were especially critical of the casting.
The lead was played by Welsh-born
Anthony Hopkins.
Why, they demanded, was a light-
skinned black actor not hired for
the part?
I noticed that none of
these articles suggested the
name of such an actor
who could have carried
the lead in this demand-
ing role. Moreover,
Hopkins is an Oscar-
winner whose name on
the marquee will sell
some tickets. Oh, maybe
not as many as the
supremely gifted Eminem
but a goodly number, nonethe-
less.
So the revelation. that Hopkins'
character is actually a black man car-
ried that much more of a dramatic
impact. Here is a very well-known
actor and it turns out that he con-
ceivably could be passing.
The whole thrust of the film was
the ambiguity of racial classifications
in America. I am sure there are many
instances we never will know about
in which the black-Jewish boundary
was breached, as it could be with
most Mediterranean people.
The movie has been gone for a few
months but it came to mind again in
the stories about the late Sen. Strom
Thurmond's daughter.
Thurmond was, of course, a noto-
rious racist in the first part of his
political career. After South
Carolina's blacks got the vote, how-
ever, he suddenly saw-the light and
became a great friend of the African

George Cantor can be reached via e-
mail at gcantor@thejewishnews.com

American. Whatever.
The incredible irony of this man
fathering a. child with a black woman
while spewing hatred for her race is,
of course, inescapable. Many colum-
nists felt moved to chastise the
woman, though, because she hadn't
spoken up years before.
Their reasoning is that such expo-
sure would have ended Thurmond's
career long ago and limited some of
the damage he did back then.
But not everyone wants to live
their life as a symbol. The demand
for racial justice is an honorable one,
but if she had stepped forward 50
years ago this woman would have
been shaped by her story for the rest
of her life.
Besides, this was her father and,
apparently, he always treated her
well. I can't pretend to
understand the con-
flicting currents that
she must have felt
as she grew up —
the duties of a
daughter weighted
against the chance
to shatter an icon
of Jim Crow.
In the end, she
chose to be a daughter.
I could never second-
guess a decision like that.
In my career, I have
known several Jewish
journalists and media stars who
chose to change their names and
keep their ethnicity a deeply private
matter. They were mostly people
who began their careers in the late
1940s or early '50s when it was not
easy being a Jew in this market.
They didn't want to fight that
fight. They had no interest in being
anyone's symbol. The mass audience
never gave a second thought to their
identity and they were happier that
way.
And that's how it should be. The
hardened lines of race and religion
are far too intrusive in American life.
By government directive, we are told
that we must classify ourselves that
way for purposes of education and
jobs.
If we are ever to reach the just
society, that is, surely, one of the
things that must change. Cling tena-
ciously to our identity in private and
make it nobody's business but our
own. H

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