Recently, I’ve been looking at “whiteness” in William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking further at Simeon’s interactions with Ahmed and Hossein, specifically on going to Hossein’s apartment in Paris. While Simeon, earlier in the novel, recognizes, through his “double perspective,” the atrocities that the French enact upon the Algerians, the movement through the, as Simeon dubs it, the “Harlem of Paris” solidifies the connections between the racism Simeon encountered in the United States and the racism and xenophobia that Ahmed, Hossein, and others encounter in France.
Simeon and Ahmed ride the bus to Hossein’s apartment, and the narrator makes it clear that the movement through Paris represents the movement through New York to Harlem. The bus is described as moving “[n]orthward toward the Harlem,” and the opening sentence of the section chronicles Simeon’s thoughts, “Orpheus descending into Harlem.” Driving north, Simeon looks out of the window and sees scenes that remind him of Harlem and Philadelphia. While “Arab music” emanates from the cafes, he sees “[m]en out of work, with nothing to do and no place to go” as they stand sullenly in groups on street corners. He sees police patrolling the streets with “submachine guns strung from their shoulders.”
Looking out at the streets, Simeon things to himself, “It was like Harlem . . . except that there were fewer cops in Harlem, but maybe that too would come one day.” Even though the men that Simeon observed from the bus’s window “had whiter skins and less frizzy hair,” they had similarities to Black men in the United States, striking “the same poses,” having similar phrases, and watching the police as the police surveilled them. All of this, and more, reminds Simeon of Harlem and his own experiences back in the United States with racism and oppression. He thinks back to seeing vendors on Tenth Street in Philadelphia, the music coming from cafes, and much more, connecting those images, sounds, and smells with what he sees passing by him in Paris.
Noticing Simeon as he gazes out the window, Ahmed turns and asks him, “Where are you?” Simeon simply replies, “Home.” This simple word, “home,” signifies Simeon’s thoughts and the connections he sees between the Algerians in France and himself in the United States. He looks at the scene with Edward Said’s “double perspective,” bringing together his own past and geography with the present and its geography an ocean away from his past. What Simeon sees, through his interactions with Ahmed, echoes James Baldwin’s discussion of Harlem and the North in “East River, Downtown: Postscript to a Letter from Harlem.” Baldwin points out the way that the North positions itself as righteous and in juxtaposition to the South, wearing this façade “as proof of good intentions.” However, the North doesn’t think about its own complicity in racist structures and the way that it leads to an “increase, in the heart of the Negro they are speaking to, a kind of helpless pain and rage — and pity.”
Earlier, Simeon talks with two French students, Raoul and Henri, about whether or not racism exists in France. Raoul tells Simeon that France isn’t racist and that “Africans feel perfectly at home” in the country, adding, “The French don’t understand racism.” When Simeon pushes further, asking specifically about Arabs such as Ahmed and Hossein, Raoul changes his tone and says, “That’s different. The French don’t like the Arabs, but its not racism. The Arabs don’t like us either.” Raoul’s comments deflect France’s colonialism and places the blame on Arabs as well, ignoring the systematic repressions of Algerians and Muslims in Algeria specifically since 1830.
Simeon pushes back against Raoul, noting the France’s systemic oppression or Arabs, but Raoul calls this “a historical accident” before regurgitating stereotypes about Algerians and Arabs. Henri interjects and clearly states, “The French are racists as far as the Algerians are concerned.” Simeon sits back and smiles and Henri and Raoul debate whether or not France is, in fact, racist. Henri probes Raoul, asking him if he has ever invited an Algerian to his house, how he feels when an Algerian sits next to him in a café, whether he would rent a room to an Arab, and whether or not he has any Algerian friends. All of this recalls the United States as well, and I think about Lillian Smith’s “Addressed to Intelligent White Southerners: There Are Things to Do” where she talks about where she lays out what whites, in the South, can do to end racism and Jim Crow.
Even in the face of Henri’s statements, Raoul doubles down, telling his classmate, “It’s not racism. They’re different. I wouldn’t rent a room to an Arab because he’d probably rob the whole apartment while I was out. That’s a fact. But it’s not racism.” Here, Raoul reinforces Henri’s comments because Raoul views Arabs as “different” from himself, as lesser than himself. He sees them not as humans but as merely thieves who will rob him blind, and all the while he claims that this position isn’t racist. What Raoul ignores is the ways that society has inculcated him with these racist positions because he, like the policeman who walks Simeon out of the prison, views Arabs as a plague, as an infestation, and less than human. This rhetoric stems from France’s colonizing of Algeria and its language that permeates, as I showed in a recent post on Marseille, the ingrained feeling of Algerians and Arabs in this manner.
Simeon merely sits back and smiles as Henri points all of this out to Raoul. He sees the connections, and as an outsider, he sees the ways that France, for all of its espousing of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all limits these attributes and denies them to specific individuals. Simeon sees this over the course of the novel, and as he rides the bus with Ahmed, the scenes he encounters drive it home even more. In the next post I’ll finish this up by looking more at this moment in the novel, specifically Simeon’s interaction with Hossein and others in the apartment.
Until then, what are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.