Daily Archives: January 1, 2014

Coleman Silk

humanstain_coverCharacter:  Coleman Silk

Source Text:  Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.

Entry Author:  Claire McDonald

Coleman Silk is a Jewish professor who teaches classics at Athena College. After spending his academic career as a professor and dean of the college, Silk is accused of making a racist remark about two of his students. Although this accusation is false, Silk is heavily criticized by his fellow professors, which leads him to resign in protest. Following his resignation, Silk begins a friendship with Nathan Zuckerman, an author who acts as the narrator of The Human Stain. At their first meeting, Silk commands that Zuckerman write the story of Silk’s perceived racism and actual innocence. He tells Zuckerman to write his story, but Zuckerman does not know the entirety of Silk’s story until Silk’s death in a car accident.After Silk’s death, Zuckerman learns from Silk’s sister that Silk is not Jewish, as he had known him to be. Instead, Silk is revealed to be a light-skinned black man passing for white. Silk first began to pass as white at a young age, when his boxing instructor, who was known to teach boxing to Jewish teenagers, told him not to mention his race at a match. Silk is told to allow other people to construct their own ideas of him, and this means that he is assumed to be Jewish because of his appearance and his affiliation with this particular instructor. This realization eventually led to Silk’s decision to pass for white and Jewish in all aspects of his life; he is hired by Athena College under the assumption that he is Jewish, and his wife and children all know him as a white Jewish man. It must be noted that Silk grew up before the Civil Rights Movement, and during his childhood and adolescence he was forced to see his highly intelligent father be belittled and mistreated at his menial jobs because of his blackness. This is not a fate that Silk wanted for himself, so he makes the choice to reject his blackness because he thinks that this will enable him to have the life that he wants to live.

Silk’s hidden identity is important to The Human Stain because it reveals an important aspect of the confines of freedom at this point in time. Silk can only obtain the freedom to live his life as he chooses if he is willing to give up his identity as a black man; this shows the institutionalized racism present in academia during the mid-20th century. His choice to pass as white also presents an interesting look at the definition of freedom. After being told that Silk lived his life as a white Jewish man, Zuckerman wonders if Silk’s choice to pass is the ultimate example of American individualism. By this, he means that Silk has completely prioritized his own success over the well-being of anyone else, including his mother, siblings, wife, and children. Roth essentially uses race to convey conflicting definitions of freedom and personal choice as they relate to the general sense of morality present in the U.S. at this moment in history.

Charles Bon

Absalom, Absalom! cover

Absalom, Absalom! cover

Character:  Charles Bon

Source Text:  Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Random House, 1951.

Entry Author:  Claire McDonald

Charles Bon is the son of protagonist Thomas Sutpen and Sutpen’s first wife, Eulalia Bon Sutpen. During Sutpen’s time spent as a plantation overseer in Haiti, he was offered Eulalia’s hand in marriage after ending a slave rebellion on the plantation. Sutpen assumes that she is of Spanish descent, but she is actually part black, meaning that their son is also part black. Sutpen cannot bear the knowledge that his wife and son are partially black, and so he abandons them and attempts to begin a new life. Eventually, Eulalia and Bon leave Haiti and move to New Orleans.As a student at the University of Mississippi, Bon is admired and practically idolized by many of his classmates, including Sutpen’s recognized son, Henry Sutpen. Henry and Bon become friends at school, and Henry brings Bon to Sutpen’s Hundred for Christmas; at the time, Henry is unaware that Bon is his half-brother. Bon’s reunion with Sutpen poses a significant threat to Sutpen, as Bon is evidence of Sutpen’s past actions. However, he refuses to acknowledge him as his son until Bon and Judith, Sutpen’s daughter, express their desire to marry each other. Sutpen is furious about this, but his anger is more directed at Bon’s perceived blackness than at the fact that Judith and Bon are half-siblings.Just as Sutpen disowned Bon because of his blackness, Henry eventually does the same. Henry and Bon are close friends while they are attending University of Mississippi together, and Henry initially repudiates his father when he learns that Bon is his half-brother and that Sutpen had abandoned him and his mother. He continues to support Bon’s wish to marry Judith until Sutpen reveals that Bon is partially black. Henry, much like his father, is also disgusted and infuriated by the thought of Bon tainting their family’s pure bloodline. Bon’s death comes at the hands of Henry, who shoots him at the gate of Sutpen’s Hundred.

Bon’s race is important to Absalom, Absalom! because of his father and brother’s response to it. Despite the fact that both Bon and Henry are Sutpen’s biological sons, Sutpen rejects Bon because he cannot accept the fact that Bon is partially black. Bon’s status as black also means that Sutpen’s dream of becoming a Southern aristocrat cannot be achieved; Bon cannot inherit his father’s plantation because of it, meaning that Sutpen’s goal of creating a legacy cannot be achieved. Bon also signifies the desecration of the Sutpen bloodline’s purity, which Sutpen also cannot abide by. Faulkner is able to use Bon as a way to comment on Southern perceptions of race. Because Bon is considered to be black, he brings shame upon his own father because he is seen as subordinate; the bond between father and son is severed because Sutpen refuses to accept a son who is, by the one-drop rule, black.