As I was constructing my syllabus for my upcoming “Black Expatriate Writers in France” syllabus, I wanted to make sure I had at least one text by an African American woman author. Since I as focusing on the South of France, specifically Provence (Avignon, Marseille, and Nice), I wanted texts that either took part, entirely, in the region or partly in the region. I did not want texts squarely situated in Paris. Finding these texts, apart from Claude McKay’s novels, was rather difficult. I chose James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room because David heads to Nice and we see him there in the space he rented. Even though William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face solely takes place in Paris, I chose it because of its connections with with the treatment of Algerians and other French colonial subjects that Jessie Redmon Fauset, Baldwin, and McKay address in their work.
Thinking about the connections and threads between texts, I ultimately chose Fauset’s Comedy: American Style as one of the novels for the class. The action in Fauset’s novel mainly occurs in the United States, but some of it does take place in Toulouse, France, and a very small portion is set in Toulon, which is between Marseille and Nice. Fauset’s novel deals with the social constructions of race and exists within the passing novel genre, even though it differs from novels such as Nella Larsen’s Quicksand or even like Charles Chesnutt’s posthumous Paul Marchand, F.M.C. Olivia Cary can pass for white, and all she wants is to be accepted into white society. However, she marries a phenotypically Black man, and one of her three children, Oliver, cannot pass.
Olivia constantly tells her children, specifically Teresa, to steer clear of interacting with African Americans and to strive towards whiteness. Teresa pushes back against her mother and, while in college, gets engaged to Henry Bates, the some of a judge in Chicago. While Teresa vehemently pushes back throughout the novel against her mother’s views, Teresa begins to think about them and contemplates the ease of which it would be for her to pass. Teresa and Henry’s engagement ends when Teresa suggests that Henry pass a Mexican or Cuban because Henry does not want to pass and wants to uplift the community.
Following her breakup with Henry, Teresa moves, along with Olivia, to France so that she can study French and get better credentials to work as a tutor back in Philadelphia. While in Toulouse, Teresa’s teacher, Aristide Pailleron becomes enamored with her, giving her and Olivia tours of the city and even providing them with an apartment. Olivia sees Pailleron’s attraction to Teresa as an opportunity for marriage, which would allow Teresa to stay in France and pass and even allow Olivia to possibly remain in France and, as she thinks about it, allow her to “be white.”
For Olivia, Teresa’s marriage to Pailleron would keep her from thinking that “she was abandoning her own” if Teresa continued to cling “to her wild ideas of mingling with colored people.” Olivia sees the marriage as an escape, as a way for her and her daughter to become white because no one will know who they are, as the community does in Philadelphia. While Olivia sees the union as a means of becoming white, Teresa sees it, following the marriage, as nothing more than a prison.
Pailleron “had never been out of France,” and when Teresa suggests that they may travel to the United States, he tells her he would love to visit Chicago and see bandits and Indigenous people in the streets. Pailleron’s views come from myths and images in media, and Teresa sees this. Teresa never tells Pailleron that she is Black, and the issue never arises, even in his thoughts about the United States, until their trip to Toulon. There, Teresa sees the French navy and begins to look upon “France as the great world power that it was,” and Pailleron’s national pride becomes her pride as well.
In Toulon, Teresa sees Senegalese sailors, “speaking in, some instances, beautiful, unaccented French.” Upon seeing them, her pride in the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité increased because Teresa saw, in the sailors, “her new country stretching hands across the sea to her black brothers, welcoming them, helping them to a place in the sun.” Unlike Claude McKay who directly comments on France’s treatment of the Senegalese and others or like Clifford in John A. Williams’ Clifford’s Blues who details the propaganda surrounding Senegalese troops in the Rhineland following World War I, Teresa doesn’t address France’s colonialism and its treatment of Senegalese, Algerian, or the individuals in France. Rather, she sees the sailors as a representation of France’s open mindedness and its acceptance of everyone. The myth of French equality overwhelms her.
Later, she expresses her enthusiasm to Pailleron, and he does not agree with her. Instead of accepting the sailors, Pailleron views the, as “ces villains noirs” and as nothing more than “cannon fodder” to help protect France its “many jealous enemies.” Rather the colonial subjects die than Frenchmen, Pailleron tells Teresa, and Pailleron “was rather cold-blooded about it.” Terese pushes back on Pailleron, hoping he doesn’t feel the same way about anyone who is Black. She tells him about her friends in the United States. Here, she gauges his feelings to see if she can ever let Pailleron know she is Black.
She thinks about her brother Oliver and how she would like him to come and live them. She asks Pailleron if he has ever heard of her friend Marise, a famous dancer. At this, Pailleron tells Teresa, “I know nothing about her. She could hardly compare with our French dancers. I should imagine. . . . But still if she is famous in your rich New York, she would undoubtly pay well. . . . Yes, you might have her over. . . . But no men. I do not like any of them. I saw them in the war, les Americains noirs, neither black nor white. Our women liked them too well.” Pailleron illuminates his racism, and his comments cause Teresa to conceal her race from Pailleron.
Pailleron’s views, and Teresa’s concealing of her race, has tragic consequences. Oliver hoped to come to France and live with Teresa because Olivia did not love him due to his dark skin. She would shun him, and when her white friends came over, she would pass him off as her Filipino butler so they would not know she was Black. The psychological impact of this treatment and Oliver’s struggling with his own identity connect him with Teresa because she has always looked out for him.
However, once Pailleron lets his view on Senegalese and African Americans become known, Teresa writes to her brother telling him that he can’t come and live her because “my husband doesn’t know I’m colored. Perhaps I might have got around that. But just the other day he talked to me very bitterly about people of mixed blood, especially Americans.” Upon receiving the letter, Oliver looks in the mirror at his skin and thinks about how it has separated him from his sister. Then, he gets a gun and shoots himself.
Teresa succumbs to her mother’s wishes, that she will pass as white, and she becomes entrapped in a realm of, as Michel Fabre puts it, “uneventful domesticity.” Whereas she has struggled to maintain her identity throughout the book, expressing her race with pride at moments but also hiding it at others, she completely loses herself by denying her very being in her marriage to Pailleron. Along with this, she damns her brother Oliver because as he struggles to have Olivia love and recognize him, she denies him any love due to darker skin. Teresa, in a way, becomes like Olivia, shutting Oliver off so that Pailleron will not discover her true self.
Comedy: America Style is a tragic novel, one that has a myriad of layers to examine. When I constructed the syllabus for the expatriate class, I had never read the novel, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Fauset’s examination of the social construction of race, and her biting satire, hit me unlike other novels like those by Chesnutt or Larsen. Comedy: American Style pointedly calls out the ways that the social construction of race psychologically impacts individuals. I may, in the future, write more about this novel, so stay tuned. What are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.