Working on my syllabus for my upcoming “Black Expatriate Writers in France” class, I came across William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face (1963), and even though the course focuses on Southern France (Marseille and Nice), I decided to include Smith’s novel, which is set in Paris, because of its depiction of French colonial racism against Algerians and itd depiction of the Paris Massacre of 1961. Along with this, I chose to include The Stone Face because the novel explores the tensions that authors such as James Baldwin, Smith, and others experienced as they headed to France to escape racism and oppression in the United States and their feelings of guilt, at times, of being in France during the Movement itself in the 1960s. Along with these tensions, the novel also addresses, through the Algerian nationalists that Simeon Brown befriends, the far-reaching tendrils of racism across the globe.
Two epigraphs precede the narrative of the novel, and both epigraphs come from the Bible. Exodus 2:22, “I have been a stranger in a strange land,” refers to the birth of Gershom, Moses’ son. In the novel, this epigraph relates to Simeon, and we can read it either as a reference to his experiences in the United States where he is the victim of physical and psychological racist attacks or in reference to his time in France as a foreigner seeking refuge. While this epigraph is important for the overall context of the novel, I want to focus on the other epigraph for this post. 1 John 3:15 reads, “Whosever hateth his brother is a murderer.” Again, we can take this epigraph in multiple ways, but considering the surrounding verses in 1 John 3, I want to look at this verse in relation to Simeon’s awakening to French oppression of Algerians in Paris.
In 1 John 3, the author exhorts the reader to lover our neighbor as ourselves, and in 1 John 3:17, the author writes, “But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” This verse encapsulates, in many ways, the tensions that Simeon experiences upon learning of the police treatment of Algerians in Paris during the early 1960s. As Adam Shatz notes, “The Stone Face explores a black exile’s discovery of the suffering of others: an injustice perpetrated by his host country, a place he initially mistakes for paradise.” Simeon has, what Edward Said calls, a “double perspective” because as an exile in France he sees the French treatment of Algerians with the two-fold vision of thinking about what he escaped in the United States and drawing connections from his own experiences to those of Algerians in Paris.
Simeon’s initial encounter with police brutality against an Algerian occurs after he spends time in a café with Babe and some white European women, another Black expatriate. As they sit in the café, four white Americans come in and verbally attack, with racist comments, Babe and Simeon after Babe refuses to let them talk down to him. The café owner asks the white men to leave, and they become irate, telling Babe and Simeon they “better stay over here with these n*****-lovers, cause [they’d] have painful lessons to learn again in the states.” The men leave and the café apologizes, giving Babe and Simeon’s party free drinks.
Leaving the café, Simeon sees a police officer beating a man in the street, and Simeon can’t understand the language that the man speaks. Simeon stares at the scene until the patrol wagon pulls up and the officer put the man inside it and drive away. Turning to Babe, Simeon asks, “What was that?” Babe simply replies, “That man was probably an Arab” and reminds Simeon about the ongoing Algerian war that started in 1954. Both Simeon and Babe stand by as the officer beats the man senseless, neither doing a thing. Simeon doesn’t know what is happening, and the event makes him think back to his own encounters with police in Philadelphia. Babe, on the other hand, sees scenes like this all of time, and he only responds by saying the “man was probably an Arab.”
Babe and Simeon both left the United States to escape police brutality and racism, and the novel opens with a commentary on Simeon’s move to France: “America was behind him, his past was behind him, he was safe.” Simeon feels safe in Paris, the myth of Paris. The café owner stands up for him and Babe. He sees white women dating Black men and Black women dating white men. He feels at ease, able to breathe in peace without having to worry about someone verbally or physically assaulting him. However, this illusion bursts when he gets arrested along with a group of Algerians.
Simeon’s friend Harold takes him to an Algerian café, and when Simeon leaves he sees an Algerian man arguing with a Dutch woman. Simeon confronts the man, thinking the woman is trouble, and the two begin to fight. The police arrive and arrest both of them. At the police station, the officers treat Simeon with respect and degrade the Algerian man, telling his to shut up. Eventually, the Algerian man explains that the woman stole money from him, money that he was going to send home to his family in Algeria. The officers tell him not to be stupid and keep him in jail overnight. They let Simeon go.
As an officer leads Simeon out of teh station, he tells Simeon, “You don’t understand. You don’t know how they are, les Arabs. Always stealing, fighting, cutting people, killing. They’re a plague; you’re a foreigner, you wouldn’t know.” This language mirrors white supremacist language in the United States, and Simeon starts to see the similarities, especially the next day as an Algerian man calls to him from a café, “Hey! How does it feel to be a white man?” This question shocks Simeon at first, but the man explains to him how the French treat Algerians and Arabs, telling Simeon, “We’re the n****** here! Know what the French call us — bicot, melon, raton, nor’af.”
This moment is Simeon’s awakening to the omnipotence of racism and it use a means of gaining and maintaining power. Simeon begins to think about the similarities between his own experiences in the United States and those of the Algerians in Paris, and he begins to see the connections, even though they are not a one-to-one corollary. His recognition of these similarities causes him to start thinking about his own role in the system and gets him to thinking about his role in combating racism and white supremacy in the United States. He begins to feel torn about seeking refuge in France while ignoring what is happening back home. From this moment, he see his brother in need and assists.
There is more I could say here, and I will add some more to this in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.