“How Does It Feel To Be a White Man?”: William Gardner Smith’s Exile in Paris

August 11, 2019 0 By JohnValbyNation

In 1951, the novelist Richard Wright explained his decision to settle in Paris after the war. “It is because I love freedom,” he wrote, in an essay titled “I Choose Exile,” “and I tell you frankly that there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than in the entire United States of America!” Few of the black Americans who made Paris their home from the nineteen-twenties to the civil-rights era would have quarreled with Wright’s claim. For novelists such as Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, for artists and musicians such as Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and Beauford Delaney, Paris offered a sanctuary from segregation and discrimination, as well as an escape from American puritanism—an experience as far as possible from the “damaged life” that Theodor Adorno considered to be characteristic of exile. You could stroll down the street with a white lover or spouse without being jeered at; you could check into a hotel or rent an apartment wherever you wished so long as you could pay for it. You could enjoy, in short, something like normalcy.

Baldwin, who moved to Paris in 1948, two years after Wright, embraced the gift at first but came to distrust it. While blacks “armed with American passports” were rarely the target of racism, Africans and Algerians from France’s overseas colonies, he realized, were not so lucky. In his essay “Alas, Poor Richard,” published in 1961, just after Wright’s death, Baldwin accused his mentor of celebrating Paris as a “city of refuge” while remaining silent about France’s oppressive treatment of its colonial subjects: “It did not seem worthwhile to me to have fled the native fantasy only to embrace a foreign one.” Baldwin recalled that when an African joked to him that Wright mistook himself for a white man, he had risen to Wright’s defense. But the remark led him to “wonder about the uses and hazards of expatriation”:

By the time of the essay’s publication, Baldwin had returned to America and joined the civil-rights struggle that Wright preferred to observe from afar. Perhaps because Baldwin was grateful to the city that, as he puts it, had “saved my life by allowing me to find out who I am,” he never gave us a novel about the “uses and hazards of expatriation.” This achievement belongs, instead, to a long-forgotten writer three years Baldwin’s junior, William Gardner Smith, a Philadelphian who moved to Paris in 1951 and died there, in 1974, at the age of forty-seven, of cancer. A journalist, Gardner Smith published four novels and one work of nonfiction. The most striking of his books is “The Stone Face,” a novel set in Paris against the backdrop of the Algerian war. Long out of print—it is forthcoming from NYRB Classics—it was published in 1963, the same year as Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” and radiates a similar moral urgency. But where “The Fire Next Time” is a reckoning with the defining injustice of Baldwin’s native land, “The Stone Face” explores a black exile’s discovery of an injustice perpetrated by his host country, a place the protagonist, Simeon Brown, a young black American journalist and painter, initially mistakes for paradise.

“The Stone Face” is an anti-racist novel about identity, but also a subtle and humane critique of a politics based narrowly on identity. The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire famously imagined a celebration of the oppressed at the “rendezvous of victory,” but in “The Stone Face” the West’s victims—black, Arab, and Jew—are often bitterly at odds in their struggle for a place at the table. One of the Algerian characters explodes into an anti-Semitic tirade, accusing Algeria’s Jews of being traitors to the national cause, worse than the colonialists themselves. Stung by this outburst, Simeon’s Polish-Jewish girlfriend, Maria, a concentration-camp survivor, begs him to forget about race and the Algerian question and live a “normal” life—which Simeon is neither willing nor able to do. No one in “The Stone Face” is impervious to intolerance, or moral blindness. (In a somewhat clumsy metaphor, both members of the couple are visually impaired: one of Simeon’s eyes was gouged out in a racist attack; Maria is undergoing surgery to avoid going blind.)

The novel’s title alludes to the hateful face of racism, and Gardner Smith suggests it lies within all of us. Confronting the stone face, Simeon learns, is not simply a matter of defending one’s own people. By the end of the novel, he has repudiated “racial” loyalty with his black American brethren in favor of a more dangerous solidarity with Algerian rebels. In its embrace of internationalism, the novel argues powerfully that exile needn’t be a delusional fantasy, or a solipsistic flight from one’s ethical obligations. What matters, what is ultimately “black,” for Gardner Smith, is not solely a question of one’s identity or location but of conscience, and the action it inspires.

Born in 1927, Gardner Smith grew up in South Philadelphia, a black working-class neighborhood in one of the North’s most racist cities. By the time he was fourteen he had already been stripped naked and beaten with a rubber hose by police officers who felt that, as he remembered in a 1967 speech that he gave in Switzerland, “I lacked proper respect.” At nineteen he was assaulted at a night club by a mob of white sailors who thought that his light-skinned date was a white woman. Gardner Smith, a precocious student of literature, read the same novelists as most aspiring writers in mid-century America: Hemingway and Faulkner, Proust and Dostoyevsky. Keen to begin publishing, he turned down scholarships at Lincoln and Howard to take a job at a black-owned newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier.

In 1946, Gardner Smith was drafted into the Army. That summer he went to occupied Berlin as a clerk-typist with the 661st TC Truck Company. He spent eight months in Germany, and by August, 1947, he had completed a draft of a novel, “Dark Tide Over Deutschland.” Farrar, Straus & Company paid him five hundred dollars for the manuscript and published it in 1948 under the title “Last of the Conquerors.” A reviewer in the Times described the novel— the story of a love affair between a black soldier in Berlin and a German woman, with strong echoes of “A Farewell to Arms”—as “a revealing example of the tendency of minority groups . . . to project themselves into a fantasy world in which they enjoy rights that are inherently, if not actually, theirs.” But to read “Last of the Conquerors” today is to grasp that it is out of such “fantasy worlds” that freedom is ultimately born. The novelist’s protagonist, Hayes Dawkins, has come to the Old World as a “liberator,” but he is serving in a segregated army that, for all its talk of spreading democracy, has imported the racist practices of Jim Crow. And like many of his black fellow-soldiers, he has his first taste of freedom in the arms of a white German woman, in a country that has slaughtered millions of people on racial grounds.

After Gardner Smith’s discharge from the Army, in 1947, he returned to Philadelphia, and on the G.I. Bill attended Temple University, where he helped organize demonstrations against police brutality, and read Marx. (His ties to Communists and Trotskyists raised the suspicion of the F.B.I., which kept a file on him for the next two decades.) He married a local woman, Mary Sewell, received a fellowship from Yaddo, and published a novel, “Anger at Innocence” (1950), a story about a love affair between a middle-aged white man and a white female pickpocket half his age. But for all his success, he felt suffocated by racism and McCarthyism, and feared, as he later told an interviewer on French television, that if he stayed in America he would end up killing someone. The Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James suggested that he try living in France and gave him Richard Wright’s address on the Rue Monsieur le Prince, in the Latin Quarter.

In 1951, the Gardner Smiths sailed to France. The couple moved into a tiny hotel room for $1.60 a night, until they could find an apartment. He took a job at Agence France-Presse, profiled Wright for Ebony, and became a drinking companion of Himes and the great cartoonist Ollie Harrington at the Café de Tournon, a haunt for black writers and artists near the Luxembourg Gardens. He published a new novel, “South Street” (1954), about a black American radical who has returned from exile in Africa. But the reviews were lukewarm, and he felt that he’d “come to a dead end” and no longer wanted to follow “the road of protest.” He took a long hiatus from fiction, divorced, and met the woman who became his second wife, Solange Royez, a schoolteacher from the French Alps whose mother had fled Nazi Germany as a child. Marrying a French woman reinforced his self-perception as an exile. So did the scrutiny of the American government, which, in 1956, shortly after he made a visit to East Berlin, declined to renew his passport. For more than a year he lived in Paris as a “stateless” person.

“Youth was the most outstanding characteristic of William Gardner Smith—youth and naïveté,” Chester Himes wrote. He was also audacious. Most of the black American exiles in Paris adhered to an unspoken agreement with the French government that, in return for sanctuary, they would not intervene in “internal” affairs, above all the sensitive question of French rule in Algeria, which was officially considered a part of France and divided into three departments. As Richard Gibson, a member of the Tournon circle, recalled, “There was a lot of sympathy for the Algerian national struggle among the American writers, but the problem was, how could you speak out and still stay in France?”

Even before the war of independence broke out, in November, 1954, Gardner Smith wrote about the oppression of Algerians in France. In an article for the Pittsburgh Courier, he described sitting on the terrace of the Café de Flore and overhearing racist chatter about an Algerian rug-seller who’d passed by. As Edward Said has written, the exile has a tendency to compare the country left behind and the present land—a “double perspective” that, he argues, gives the exile “a better, perhaps even more universal idea of how to think, say, about a human rights issue.”

Yet exile alone does not insure this “double perspective.” It requires time, reflection, and, above all, vigilance. As Baldwin observed of Wright, accepting one’s adoptive country too fully can prevent it from forming. At first, Simeon falls into the soft embrace of the black American expatriate scene: the soul-food restaurant run by Leroy Haynes in Montmartre, the Tournon and Monaco cafés, the bookshop near Richard Wright’s apartment on Monsieur Le Prince, the jazz clubs. Himes makes a cameo as the grouchy novelist James Benson, a “strange cat, a sort of hermit” who “disappears into his apartment with whatever girl he happens to be living with,” and occasionally emerges to curse the white world and the American government. Simeon is initially too happy to pay much attention to the headlines in the papers: “MOSLEMS RIOT IN ALGIERS, FIFTY DEAD.” But when he finds himself gazing at a man “with swarthy skin and long crinkly hair” pushing a vegetable cart, he remembers the way, in Philadelphia, a group of whites “had stared at him—and how he had stared back, sullen, defiant, detesting their nice clothes and lazy, inquisitive eyes.” Soon after, Simeon gets into a scuffle with an Algerian man named Hossein, and the two end up in the back of a police wagon. Simeon notices that the sergeant addresses Hossein with the familiar tu while using the polite vous with him. While Hossein is locked up for the night, Simeon is released. “You don’t understand,” the police officer tells him. “You don’t know how they are, les Arabes. . . . They’re a plague; you’re a foreigner, you wouldn’t know.”

The next day he runs into Hossein, who asks him, “Hey! How does it feel to be a white man?” One of Hossein’s friends, Ahmed, an introspective young medical student from a Berber family in Kabylia, invites him to dinner the following evening. They hop into a bus together, and “the further north the bus moved, the more drab became the buildings, the streets and the people. . . . It was like Harlem, Simeon thought, except that there were fewer cops in Harlem. . . . The men he saw through the window of the bus had whiter skins and less frizzy hair, but they were in other ways like the Negroes in the United States. They adopted the same poses: ‘stashing’ on corners, ready for and scared of the ever-possible ‘trouble,’ eyes sullen and distrusting.” Noticing that Simeon’s attention has wandered, Ahmed asks him, “Where are you?” “Home,” he replies.

The Algerians, to Simeon’s disappointment, do not “break into smiles and rush to embrace him shouting: ‘Brother!’ They kept their distance, considering him with caution, as they would a Frenchman—or an American.” In “The Stone Face,” whiteness is not a “racial” trait; it is, rather, a synonym for situational privilege. Relinquishing it, Gardner Smith suggests, is a difficult process, especially for an oppressed man who’s barely begun to enjoy it. In a pivotal scene, Simeon brings his Algerian friends to a private club that he could never have joined in America. People at other tables whisper as they enter; the host is chillier than usual. “To his own astonishment, Simeon felt uneasy. Why was that?” Perhaps “he was afraid of something. Of losing something. Acceptance, perhaps. The word made him wince. Of feeling humiliation again.” An argument erupts between a white woman and one of Simeon’s friends, but Simeon, shamed by his initial response, rallies to his friend’s defense, and feels, for the first time, “at one with the Algerians. He felt strangely free—the wheel had turned full circle.”

Simeon’s black friends at the Tournon frown upon his decision to disavow his privilege: they have no desire to place their security in France in jeopardy—or to be associated with a group despised by their hosts. Maria is even more alarmed by Simeon’s deepening attachment to his Algerian friends, one of whom—to Simeon’s horror—has expressed a violent suspicion of Jews. Why, she asks, can’t he “simply accept happiness” instead of “seeking complications”?

As Simeon is taken into the confidence of his Algerian friends, he learns of the existence of detention centers and camps inside France, and of a network of French supporters for the resistance. In the last pages of the novel, Gardner Smith provides a wrenching account of a police massacre of Algerian protesters that took place on October 17, 1961—the only one that exists in the fiction of the period. (The first French novel to broach the topic, Didier Daeninckx’s “Meurtres pour mémoire,” was published in 1984.) Gardner Smith’s French publisher told him it was “very courageous to have written the book, but we can’t publish it in France.” Unlike his other books, “The Stone Face,” his only novel set in Paris, has never been translated into French.

“The Stone Face” ends with Simeon deciding that it’s time to go home, where civil-rights activists are “fighting a battle harder than that of any guerrillas in any burnt mountains. Fighting the stone face.” Some admirers of the novel have interpreted its conclusion as a failure of nerve, a retreat from the cosmopolitan solidarity it otherwise promotes. The cultural critic Paul Gilroy called the end of the novel a “capitulation to the demands of a narrow version of cultural kinship that Smith’s universalizing argument appeared to have transcended.” But Simeon’s decision could also be read as evidence of a more internationalist understanding of race and empire. When Simeon refers to black Americans, he now calls them “America’s Algerians.”

The first draft of Gardner Smith’s book ended with Simeon heading to Africa. Gardner Smith did the same, leaving his job at A.F.P. and going to Ghana, where W. E. B. Du Bois’s widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois, had invited him to help her launch the independent state’s first television station. He flew to Accra in August, 1964, with Solange and their one-year-old daughter, Michele, and moved into a big house on the sea provided by Kwame Nkrumah’s government.

“For the first time in a long time I feel very useful!” he wrote his mother shortly after his arrival. “This country is going places—Nkrumah is a real African patriot, and he wants his country to develop fast. The people walk proud and tall.” He met other prominent African-American writers living in Accra, including Maya Angelou and Julian Mayfield, and spent an evening talking to Malcolm X when Malcolm swept into town in November, three months before his assassination. In those early days, Gardner Smith allowed himself to dream that he’d come back home. Sounding not unlike Simeon Brown among the Algerians of northern Paris, he wrote that on the boulevards of Accra he “felt, sometimes, as though I were walking down a street in South Philadelphia, Harlem, or Chicago. These black people in their multicolored robes, with their laughter, with their rhythmic gait, were my cousins.” In July, 1965, he affirmed his bond with the African motherland when Solange gave birth to their son, Claude.

Gardner Smith’s African dream, however, disintegrated even more rapidly than his Paris reverie. While the “visible signs of black sovereignty” in Nkrumah’s Ghana still moved him, he realized that “the idea of black American nationalists, summed up in the phrase, ‘We are black, therefore we are brothers,’ is incomprehensible in tribal societies where the hereditary enemies have, precisely, been black. For the Ibo of Eastern Nigeria, the Hausa of the North is a much more fearful, deadly and real adversary than the white-skinned men across the sea he will never sail.” Early in the morning of February 24, 1966, he and Solange were awakened by gunfire. The army and the police had staged a coup against Nkrumah. When Gardner Smith arrived at his office, he was detained by a group of armed men, and taken to a rebel-controlled police station. He and his family flew to Geneva soon after with all their belongings, before making their way home to Paris.

Not long after their return, Gardner Smith separated from Solange. He had fallen in love with a young Indian-Jewish woman working at the Indian Embassy, Ira Reubner, the daughter of a judge on the high court of Patna; they married as soon as his divorce was finalized. (Their daughter, Rachel, now a singer and actress, was born in 1971.) Restless as ever, he continued to travel for A.F.P. In the summer of 1967, he spent three weeks in Algeria and a month in the United States, where he saw his mother for the first time in sixteen years. This reporting became the basis of his book “Return to Black America” (1970), a fascinating study of the transformations among “America’s Algerians.” He interviewed the Black Power leaders Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam; he also met with young gang members, and Ellsworth (Bumpy) Johnson, the king of the Harlem underworld, who reminded him of Ali La Pointe, an Algerian rebel who started out as a criminal in the casbah. Youth gangs, Gardner Smith wrote, were “becoming the hard core of the black nationalist movement. . . . The same thing . . . occurred with Algerian gangs . . . during the Algerian liberation struggle.” He marvelled at the confidence exhibited by young black people, their fearlessness in confronting white supremacy, even “the way they moved, the way they acted.” But “the real change, the real revolution, was inside,” he wrote. “These black youths with whom I talked from coast to coast were much more different from most people of my generation than we were from the generation of our fathers.”

What had triggered this cultural revolution among young black Americans, he argued, was the Second World War, when black soldiers like himself were “uprooted from their tenant farms and ghettos and hurled across an ocean to do battle with white and yellow men in the name of freedom, democracy, and equality. The war opened up new horizons. Many black Americans came alive for the first time in the ruins of Berlin, the coffeehouses of Tokyo, the homes of Frenchmen or Italians. Members of a victorious army, they found respect and consideration for the first time—but from the former enemy!”

The activists in the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Power movement, as Gardner Smith saw it, were the spiritual children of these men. Black America’s revolution, he suggested, had been fuelled not only by oppression but by the enlarged perspective and imaginative freedom that displacement and exile had afforded. The awakening that Simeon Brown undergoes as an exile in Paris had become the experience of an entire generation of young African-Americans. Nothing less than a “radical transformation of the surrounding white society itself,” Gardner Smith concluded, could answer the revolution’s demands for equality “in every sphere—political, economic, social, and psychological.” Like Baldwin, who drew a similar portrait of the Black Power era in “No Name in the Street,” from 1972, he predicted that white America would do everything in its power to resist such a transformation. Gardner Smith never returned to the States. Until his death, in 1974, Paris remained his home. He described himself as a “man without a country,” yet he embraced his exile—an exile without illusions.

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