Academic journal article African American Review

Confronting the Stone Face: The Critical Cosmopolitanism of William Gardner Smith

Academic journal article African American Review

Confronting the Stone Face: The Critical Cosmopolitanism of William Gardner Smith

Article excerpt

In one of the key moments of William Gardner Smith's 1963 novel The Stone Face, the African American expatriate Simeon Brown passes near the Odeon metro station in Paris when he is hailed by a man speaking in thickly accented English. "Hey," the stranger shouts, "How does it feel to be a white man?" (Stone Face 55). Simeon is startled at this outburst, and by the laughter of the shouter's companions. After all, he is visibly black, and the four men who are heckling him are light-skinned Algerians. However, although the label seems absurd to him, he recognizes almost instantly that it is true: here, in the Paris of the early 1960s, he is indeed enjoying, in spite of his skin color, the privileges of a white man, and it is the Algerian minority that takes the place of, as one of them puts it, "the niggers" (57). Simeon is deeply shocked at this realization, which at once destroys the illusion of a racial paradise with which Paris so far seemed to present him. The fate of the Algerians in France, he suddenly understands, is different but at the same time similar to the fate of African Americans in the segregated United States; while he himself, as a black American, might be safe and free in Paris, others are not. Simeon's painful recognition about the omnipresence of racism and oppression mirrors that of the novel's author, who made similar experiences and came to similar insights as a black American expatriate in France during the 1950s and '60s.

Once believed to be on the verge of a great literary career, William Gardner Smith faded into obscurity after his death, and his work has received very little attention over the years from scholars of African American literature. His biographer LeRoy Hodges noted in 1985 that Smith was--unjustly--considered a "minor writer" with a "marginal" creative output (i), and despite Hodges's efforts, little has changed since then. However, Smith's work--and particularly his fourth and final novel The Stone Face--deserves more scholarly attention, as Michel Fabre, Paul Gilroy, and Tyler Stovall all have pointed out. (1) Not only is the novel one of few African American texts dealing with the complicated relationship of the black U. S. community in Paris to the so-called Algerian question; it is also an impressive exploration of the difficulties and complexities of intercultural understanding, and of the ways that cosmopolitan sentiments and attitudes are produced and expressed. Smith's protagonist Simeon starts out as a man habituated to American patterns of racism, haunted by his memories of violence and abuse, and rather oblivious to French racialization and discrimination of Algerians. In the course of the story, however, and as a result of his encounters with people he learns to care for, Simeon comes to understand that the inhuman "stone face" of racism--which gives the novel its title--is universal, even if its colors and features vary as much as those of its victims. Simeon's reaction to this realization is to change his understanding of France as a racism-free space and to give up his privileged position as a "white man." Newly politicized, he begins to actively support the Algerian liberation struggle, and, at the end of the novel, decides to return to the U. S. to support the civil rights movement there.

This final moment of "homecoming," Simeon's apparent abandonment of a political conflict in exile in favor of what seems to be a more "domestic" national struggle, is what Paul Gilroy, in Against Race (2000), has termed a "capitulation to the demands of a narrow version of cultural kinship" (323). In Gilroy's view, Smith's choice to send his protagonist "home" to African America significantly damages what is otherwise a powerful story about cosmopolitan personal expansion and universal political commitment. For this reason, Gilroy insists, the novel "does not measure up to the best historical examples yielded by the actual black Atlantic itinerants whose lives might be used today to affirm other, more timely and rewarding choices" (324). …

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