A black writer found tolerance and a different racism in France


When William Gardner Smith submitted his last novel, THE STONE FACE (New York Review Books, paper, $ 16.95), Speaking to a French publisher, his friend and biographer LeRoy Hodges recalled, the editor Smith said it was “very brave to have written the book, but we cannot publish it in France”. How could a brave novel by an established writer be dismissed so quickly? In America, “The Stone Face” (1963) by Farrar, Straus, like the three previous Smith novels, was accepted. Why not France?

The answer is more complicated than denial. In 1951, Smith, a black Philadelphia journalist and writer, joined the celebrated cadre of African American expatriates who made France their home in the mid-20th century. He was a close friend of Richard Wright and often shared the illustrious company of James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and others. Smith, for his part, was a child prodigy. Before leaving Temple University, he had established himself as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier owned by Black. Farrar published Straus his first novel “The Last of the Conquerors” in 1948 when he was only 21 years old. Like his colleagues, he believed that France would offer a safe haven from the bigotry and violence he had experienced at home; he might also have hoped the move would save his marriage. He made his living abroad as an editor and correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Paris and helped set up a television station in Ghana.

Smith’s fiction belies a lifelong skepticism. His books, most of which are now out of print, are sometimes referred to as protest novels, and although they deal with social subjects, they are far from mandatory; Neither one ever gives a simple answer. “The Last of the Conquerors” describes the experiences of a black soldier in Germany after the Second World War, who realizes that he has found more acceptance in hostile territory than ever before in his own country. “The Stone Face” represents the maturation of a voice determined to confuse preconceived notions about patriotism, blackness and refuge, and accordingly, the story takes no prisoners, so to speak.

The Algerian War began in 1954, three years after Smith arrived in France. As a reporter, Smith knew the details of the conflict and could not ignore the parallels between his treatment by whites at home and the anti-Arab sentiments he was experiencing in his adopted country. With semi-autobiographical undertones, “The Stone Face” traces the journey of Simeon Brown, a journalist and aspiring painter who, like Smith, hails from Philadelphia. Brown lost an eye in a racially motivated attack and comes very close to getting revenge for his mutilation, but his gun is stuck. Shaken, he moves to France and claims: “I went to prevent me from killing a man.”

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