William Gardner Smith: The Stone Face (New York Review of Books Classics, 2021 - originally published by Farrar, Straus, 1963)

“With Last of the Conquerors, The Stone Face, and Return to Black America, Smith left us with an extraordinary trilogy about the liberation, and the costs, of a black writer’s exile in Europe.” – Adam Shatz, US editor of the London Review of Books  

In A Stranger in Paris, his carefully researched introduction to the NYRB Classics reprint of The Stone Face, this is some of the information Adam Shatz gives us about the author:

William Gardner Smith was born in 1927 in a black working-class neighborhood in South Philadelphia, described by Shatz as “one of the North’s most racist cities.” At fourteen he was stripped naked and beaten with a rubber hose by police officers who felt that he “lacked proper respect.” At nineteen he was assaulted at a nightclub by a mob of white sailors who thought that his light-skinned date was a white woman. Among his first encounters with ‘the stone face’.

Last of the Conquerors. A precocious student of literature, Smith turned down scholarships at Lincoln and Howard universities to take a job as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, a black-owned newspaper. In 1946 he was drafted by the army and sent to work as a clerk-typist in Berlin, occupied Germany the setting for his first novel, Last of the Conquerors (Farrar Straus, 1948).

It is a novel of racial and democratic paradox and irony. A black American soldier finds love and freedom in the arms of white German girl, Ilse, in a country that had slaughtered millions of Jews on the basis of race. The liberators, the ‘last of the conquerors’, is a segregated US army fighting for democracy, yet spreading the racist Jim Crow practices to Germany. And once his affair with Ilse is discovered, his superiors in the army do what they can to keep the lovers apart, working closely with former Nazis in the local polizei, as eager as the Americans to keep “the races” separated.

After eight months in Germany, William Gardner Smith returned to Philadelphia where he attended Temple University on the GI bill, passed by Congress in 1944 to assist veterans of World War II.  Studying Marx and participating in demonstrations against police brutality, he attracted the attention of the FBI who kept a file on him for the next two decades (one result of which was that the US government in 1956, after a visit by Smith to East Berlin, refused to renew his passport).

Feeling suffocated by racism, McCarthyism and American puritanism, afraid he would end up killing someone if he stayed in America, as he later told it in an interview on French television, the Trinidadian Marxist and scholar C. L. R. James suggested that he try living in France, giving him the famous African American novelist and exile Richard Wright’s address in Paris. And in 1951, William Gardner Smith and his first wife (he was married trice) sailed for France.   

La rive noir. In Paris Smith became part of what Wright biographer Michel Fabre has called ‘La rive noir’, the colony of black expatriates that – aside from Wright himself – , included writers like James Baldwin, Chester Himes and political cartoonist Ollie Harrington, gathering at haunts like the Café de Tournon, jazz clubs, and Leroy Haynes renowned soul-food restaurant in Montmartre.

He wrote a profile on Richard Wright for Ebony magazine, found a job at AFP, Agence France Presse, divorced and married his second wife, Solange Royez, a schoolteacher whose mother had fled Nazi Germany as a child. Having left America behind him, he felt free. He felt safe.

But freedom came at a price. In the essay Alas, Poor Richard, published just after Wright’s death, James Baldwin had accused his mentor of celebrating Paris as a ”city of refuge” while remaining silent about France’s oppressive treatment of its colonial subjects. (An exception, Shatz notes, is Black Power (1954), “which contains a number of scathing criticisms of French colonialism”).

Then, in November 1954 the Algerian War began. It would last for nearly eight years, with serious repercussions for the Algerians and the French, and even for exiles like William Gardner Smith.

The Stone Face. A lesser writer than Wright, Baldwin and Himes, William Gardner Smith with his first novel and his last never the less made his mark. A mere twenty when he finished the manuscript for Last of the Conquerors, The Stone Face must be considered his major effort, Adam Shatz calling it “the most striking of his books, his deepest inquiry into the ambiguities of exile.”  

Set in Paris against the backdrop of the Algerian War, and drawing heavily on the story of Smith’s own life, the novel is divided into three parts: The Fugitive, The White Man, and The Brother, revealing the trajectory of his protagonist’s developing consciousness and standing in the conflict.

Here is how ‘the fugitive’ describes himself on the first page of the novel: “He was just under thirty and a Negro, and his name was Simeon Brown. He had only one eye; a black patch covered the socket of the other … America was behind him, his past was behind him … Paris. Peace.”

But Simeon soon notices the newspaper headlines: “MOSLEMS RIOT IN ALGIERS. FIFTY DEAD.”  And while blacks in Paris “armed with American passports” were rarely the target of racism, Africans and Algerians from France’s overseas colonies were not so lucky.

Arrested after a street brawl with an Algerian, Simeon notices that while the police address him with the polite vous and call him monsieur they use the familiar vu and derogatory words like bicot, melon, raton, nor’af when speaking to the Algerian, putting him in jail but letting the American go.

Simeon had become ‘the white man’. And one day, passing near the Odéon Café, he hears the voice of the Algerian shouting at him from across the street: “Hey! How does it feel to be a white man?”

Simeon’s girlfriend Maria, a young Polish immigrant, interned in a concentration camp in Poland during WW II, had seen her parents led away to the gas chamber, finding herself orphaned at nine.

But Paris is a city where oppressed people fail to stand together against their oppressors. One of the Algerians rave: “I hate Jews! Worse than I hate the French! Worse than I hate the colonialists!” A black American expatriate warns Simeon against the Arabs: “Forget it, man. Algerians are white people. They feel like white people when they’re with Negroes, don’t make no mistakes about it.”

And taking four of his new Algerians friends to a posh club, Simeon learns that associating with the ‘pariahs’, the ‘untouchables’ you will quickly loose the white privilege of an American passport.

The climax of the novel is William Gardner Smith’s account of the Massacre of 17 October 1961, ‘fictionalized’ in the book as October 1st. As the conflict between Algiers and France escalated, the French government had imposed a curfew. In response, FLN, the Algerian National Liberation Front, called on all Algerians in Paris to go into the streets that evening to demonstrate. The response was swift and merciless. Police methodically clubbed men, women and children. Along the Seine, they lifted unconscious Algerians from the ground and tossed them into the river.

It is here that Simeon, coming to the defense of a woman with a baby sadistically clubbed by  a policeman, and subsequently arrested along with the Algerians, earns the title of ‘the brother’. It is also here that Simeon learns his final lesson on ‘the ambiguities of exile,” a French official spelling it out for him: “You understand, I know something about your problems. I’ve been reading the newspapers about the trouble in the schools … We like Negroes here, we don’t practice racism in France … We understand why you prefer to live here. We wouldn’t like to have to expel you …”

Adam Shatz notes that The Stone Face was never translated into French and published in France.* And only in 1998 did the French government acknowledge that a massacre had taken place.

Return to Black America. Both Simeon and William Gardner Smith had read about and seen the pictures in the Paris Herald Tribune: Black girls and boys (the ‘Little Rock Nine’) marching in 1957 to integrate a formerly whites-only school in Little Rock, Arkansas, armed federal troops the only thing standing between them and a white howling mob, between them and violence.

In the novel the fictive Simeon plans to go home, but Smith himself was not yet ready to face American racism. Instead, at the invitation of W. E. B. DuBois’ widow Shirley Graham DuBois, he went to Kwame Nkrumah’s newly independent Ghana to help build the country’s first TV-station. But after the 1966 military coup against Nkrumah he went back to France to work for AFP.

It was the AFP that eventually sent him back to America to cover the civil rights struggle. He saw his mother for the first time in 16 years, his AFP articles and interviews with black leaders, family and common folks the basis for his last book, Return to Black America (Prentice-Hall, 1970).

BEFORE HIS DEATH  in 1974, Shatz writes, William Gardner Smith proposed a novel he called “Man Without a Country,” described by his widow Ira Gardner-Smith as the story of “a black American who lives in France, who also lived in Africa, and because of these three continents – which all become a part of him – he ceases to belong anywhere.” He could not find a publisher.

Adam Shatz: “It’s time for his books to be restored to print, and for William Gardner Smith to be repatriated to the one country where he found a lasting home: the republic of letters.”  

UFI // 27 September 2021   

* A New York Times reviewer writes on 13 July 2021 that Éditions Christian Bourgois will finally publish a French translation of The Stone Face in October, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre.    

Note: The cover image for the NYRB Classics reprint is Norman Lewis’ American Totem, 1960 – see index for a Reading Black article on Lewis.