Last post, I started looking at William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face, a novel that, as Adam Shatz points out, presents whiteness not as a racial trait but as “a synonym for situational privilege.” Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at Simeon’s dream sequence after he speaks with the Algerians at the cafe who call him “white.” This sequence takes place immediately after their conversation and at the very end of part one, which is entitled “Fugitive,” and it leads directly into part two, “The White Man.” The dream sequence, and specifically the old man’s words to Simeon during the sequence, mark a turning point in Simeon’s outlook. He goes from seeing France as a refuge and safe space to a nation that oppresses others, specifically Algerians. This shift causes Simeon to question his complicity in this oppression and whether or not he should return to the United States and become an active, on-the-ground participant in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.
In many ways, Simeon’s dream sequence reminds me of the opening sequence in Invisible Man where the eponymous protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s novel recollects on the past, specifically his grandfather who told him to stick his head in the lion’s mouth. I say this because Simeon’s sequence looks back to his past as well as he thinks about what it would be like to return to the United States and Philadelphia. He thinks about, what appear to be past events, involving both his father and his mother as they experienced racism and oppression on a Jim Crow bus and with an employer respectively.
Before these recollections, Simeon’s dream sequence begins with him back home and fearing what he will encounter. Coming from France, Simeon returns to a racist United States, and this mere fact causes him to curl up in the fetal position and cry. As he lies in this state, he hears an old man tell him, “So, wherever racism exists, wherever oppression exists, anybody who lives complacently in its shadow is guilty and damned forever!” The old man’s statement sits at the heart of The Stone Face as Simeon recognizes the oppression that exists around him then moves towards activism in order to alleviate and end the oppression. In this manner, he differs from Benson and other African American expatriates who choose not to act in solidarity with the Algerians.
Benson and others in the novel correlate to authors such as Chester Himes and Richard Wright who lived in Paris, amidst the oppression against Algerians, and who did not openly speak out against it. As Shatz points out in the introduction, “They were not perpetrators of anti-Algerian racism, but they are passive bystanders, clinging to the inclusion they’ve been denied at home.” We see this when Benson and Simeon see police officers beating an Algerian man outside the cafe and Benson simply tells Simeon that the man is probably an Arab. Benson doesn’t engage with the police, seeking to deescalate the situation and help the man; instead, he simply observes it and moves on because his engagement would put his “inclusion” in French society in jeopardy.
Following the old man’s words, Simeon keep screaming and gets taken to the police station where he encounters Chris, the white boy who gouges out Simeon’s eye. Chris appears as a police officer, and he tells Simeon, “Them French are dirty. . . . Besides, they’re n*****-lovers. Ain’t you glad to be back among us?” Chris’ words, in many ways, echo the white men’s words from the cafe when they tell Simeon and Babe to stay in France because they will have some “lessons” to relearn if they return to the United States. As Chris speaks with Simeon, acid begins to flow from his eyes, signifying the decay within him.
Following Chris, Simeon dreams of his father telling him about Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, and Nat Turner before his father tells him about an incident on a Jim Crow bus where a white man accosted him. After this, Simeon dreams of his mother who worked as a live-in domestic for a white family, only getting Tuesdays off. On election day, her boss asks her if she is going to vote. Simeon’s mothers tells her boss she will and that she will vote for Roosevelt. The boss, then, refuses to let Simeon’s mother off to vote because she does not want anyone voting for Roosevelt.
The incidents with Simeon’s father and mothers show specific incidents that Simeon seeks to escape by moving to France, and as he listens to his mother’s story, he tells her he will change things and she will not have to take any orders from white people. While Simeon stands up in this moment, proclaiming he will fight back, the next moment sees him dressed in a tuxedo surrounded by his brothers. One of his brothers looks at him and says, “Hello, white man.”
As Simeon wears a tuxedo, his brothers are all blind, wear “rags,” and smell “of stale sweat.” Standing amongst his brothers, Simeon catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and he looks like “a pale zombie,” with both of his eyes, as his brothers do manual labor around him, swinging axes and sweating. Simeon’s zombie-like appearance indicates his ongoing attitudes of seeking escape and his complicity, through his inaction, in the oppression of others.
The end of Simeon’s dream drives all of this home as he sees one of his brothers tied up to a tree “with a hangman’s rope” as a tiger stalks around the tree before leaping at the man. The dream concludes with the brother crying to Simeon, “Die with me!” Within the context of the dream, the brothers appear to be Algerians, specifically Ahmed and Hossein whom Simeon meets and becomes friends with. The brother’s concluding plea, coupled with the old man’s words, call upon Simeon to act, to stop sitting on the sideline, clinging to the safety he’d been granted by the French. These words, as well, cause him to think about his own refusal to stand up and fight, in the United States, during the Civil Rights Movement.
While The Stone Face directly addresses racism in the United States, the also serves, as Shatz notes, as “a subtle and humane critique of a politics that is based narrowly on identity.” The use of “whiteness” in the novel to refer to one’s “situational privilege” and not just to one’s phenotype is important because it highlights the social structures that racism and oppression create and sustain, not just in the United States but elsewhere in the world.
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.