“The Algerians are the niggers of France”: The Stone Face by William Gardner Smith

Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, May 1960. Simeon Brown has just arrived from Philadelphia. The amateur painter in him scrutinizes the passing faces, trying to discover the characters they revealed, when he notices these men with baggy pants, worn shoes, and shabby shirts. Their eyes are unhappy and angry, reminding Simeon of the eyes he knew from the streets of Harlem. Their hair is crinkly and their skin while not quite white is surely not black either. When they glance at Simeon, unsmiling, a strange unspoken recognition passes between him and them. Simeon has just had his first encounter with Algerians who will progressively play a central role in the life of this African-American journalist, who left the United States because “I wanted to prevent myself from killing a man.”

Written by William Gardner Smith, a native Philadelphian himself, The Stone Face carries us through a dual discovery experience. All his life Simeon Brown had to struggle against the racism and prejudice so prevalent in the 50’s in the United Sates. It cost him an eye when, as a teenager, he was attacked by a Polish gang while going to the Italian store on Reed street to get spaghetti sauce for his grandmother. The cold face of his tormentor, devoid of feeling, with its blue sadistic eyes, betrayed a soul of stone. It would forever come back and haunt Simeon whenever he encountered prejudice.  Painting the stone face would also become his obsession. Years later Simeon comes close to killing a man out of rage when he encounters another manifestation of the stone face. Frightened, he decides to escape to Europe.

Travel to Europe, with possibly an extended stay in its cosmopolitan capitals has long been a rite of passage for American artists and intellectuals since the end of the nineteenth century. The names of some members of the “Lost generation” such as Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein are familiar to many, but beyond the phenomenal success of Josephine Baker and the popularity of jazz among European audiences, what is less known is that African-Americans artists and intellectuals had their own group of famous expatriates.  “From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980” by Michel Fabre recounts this history quite well. While he did not achieve the notoriety of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith is probably the one member of that generation who paid the most attention to the plight of Algerians in France during the Algerian revolution.

As a journalist working for Agence France Presse, Smith was well acquainted with events taking place in Algeria, but as a foreigner in France, he could not openly express his solidarity for the Algerian cause (something that Simeon Brown was reminded of multiple times in the novel)  and chose instead to express his views through a work of fiction.

W.G. Smith Top row second from right. 1954 Paris Review Photo from the Wall Street Journal (obtained from the Morgan Library) and Entree To Black Paris http://goo.gl/OGC6D

Post-War France had earned a mythical status among African-Americans as a ‘land of liberty’.  Soon after arriving in Paris, Simeon meets Babe Carter, the massive, gregarious bookshop owner who introduces him to the local community of African-Americans. Babe has been in Paris for ten years. He came to  “get out from under” and he wishes he “could move the whole black population out of the states.” While enjoying the freedom to “go anyplace, do anything” Simeon progressively discovers another reality as he observes the way Algerians are treated by the French police. His fellow expatriates dismiss his inquiries about  Algerians. When he asks Raoul and Henri, two French students he meets at the Café Tournon, “Is there racism in France?” they tell him “Of course not. The French don’t believe in racist theories; everybody knows that. Africans feel perfectly at home here. The French don’t understand racism. Why do you ask?”  When he persists and asks “What about Arabs?” he is told “That’s different. The French don’t like the Arabs, but it’s not racism. The Arabs don’t like us either. We’re different.” He will soon get a first-hand experience of this difference. Leaving a bar one night, he gets into a fight trying to rescue a woman he believes is being attacked by a man who turns out to be Algerian. Other Algerians come out of the bar to help their compatriot but when the police arrives a French waiter testifies that “These Arabs attacked the American.”At the police station Simeon is treated with respect by the police who call him “Monsieur”. Nothing like what happened to him in Philadelphia when he was beaten up by the police after he responded to offensive remarks by one of the officers. But he quickly discovers the Algerian is not so fortunate. In fact the man was trying to recover some of the money that the woman had stolen from him. Money that was to be sent back to Algeria to support his family. He gets locked up nonetheless. Feeling embarrassed and remorseful, Simeon tries to intervene and says it was all his fault. He is quickly rebuked and told “You don’t understand. You don’t know who they are, les Arabs. Always stealing, fighting, cutting people, killing. A night in jail is letting them off easy.”  A few days later Simeon will meet again the same group of Algerians who ask him “Hey! How does it feel to be a white man?” Sitting at a table at Odéon Café he gets an earful: “We’re the niggers here! Know what the French call us-bicot, melon, raton, nor’af. That means nigger in French. Ain’t you scared we might rob you? Ain’t you appalled by our unpressed clothes, our body odor? No, but seriously, I want to ask you a serious question-would you let your daughter marry one of us?”

The experience triggers Simeon’s interest in these people who live on the periphery of Parisian life. Who remind him of what life was like back in Philadelphia. He thought he had escaped racism only to discover that it still existed here in the land of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternite’, even if it now affected someone else.

The second discovery The Stone Face takes us trough is more personal and more subtle.  It revolves around two fateful encounters. At the Café Tournon, Simeon falls in love with Maria, a beautiful aspiring actress. Soon they end up spending most of their time in night-clubs, café terraces or having dinners with friends. Simeon writes articles for an American magazine while Maria goes to acting school and rehearsals. A Jew who has survived a concentration camp as a child in her native Poland, she wants to live in the present and enjoy life to the fullest. She is also worried by her medical condition. Doctors have told her she might go blind, and she came to Paris to get  the surgery that could save her. Simeon finds Maria’s energy exhilarating and enjoys every moment he spends with her.  Life is good. Until Simeon has a chance encounter with Ahmed, one of the Algerians he had met at the Odéon Café. Ahmed studies medicine but  dreams of becoming a writer. He wants to apologize for Hossein who had lectured Simeon too harshly.  They talk at length and Ahmed shares with Simeon his feelings about violence. He hates it, but knows it has to be used sometimes. His brother has been fighting for four years in the mountains of Kabylia in Algeria, and Ahmed would love to join him , but he is told by the National Liberation Front, the FLN, to focus on his studies. Algeria will need trained men when independence comes. Simeon and Ahmed agree to meet again to share a couscous. As the bus takes him progressively away from the white Paris into the Arab neighborhoods in the North of Paris, where he is to meet Ahmed, Simeon feels like he is traveling towards Harlem. Everything reminds of that. The drab buildings, the cheap stores, the people on the street, men out of work with nothing to do, Arab music blaring from the cafés or the windows of bleak hotels. But then there was police everywhere “stalking the streets, eyes moving insolently from face to face, submachine guns strung from their shoulders. It was like Harlem, Simeon thought, except that there were fewer cops in Harlem, but maybe that too would come one day.” Simeon becomes fascinated by the conditions of Algerians. He meets Ahmed frequently, and even gets  caught when a police raid hits the hotel where he had gone to see Hossein who is an active member of the FLN. Luckily he had his US passport with him. The sense of purpose, the cause that Ahmed and Hossein embody make Simeon reconsider his life in Paris. Maria, who had a successful surgery, is more than ever determined to have an acting career. She goes to parties to meet directors and travels to Italy for a small role in a movie. Their lives are now on separate tracks. An article in the Herald Tribune about black children having to go to school accompanied by soldiers in a small town in the south of the US, the news of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and a meeting with Ahmed, who had just returned from a trip to Algeria, push him further in his determination. Ahmed advises him not to let himself rot away: “You know, ‘Drifting from cafe to café’. ” Ahmed tells him how he felt when he was in the mountain of Kabylia with a group of guerrillas while French helicopters came at them. “I was happy for the first time in my life.”  With Ahmed, Simeon meets Latifa and Djamila. The first Algerian women he meets in Paris. He learns all about the torture they have been subjected to, and insists until the women demonstrate for him the you-you he keeps reading about in newspapers. He finds it “bloodcurdling.” Although he struggles at first through this gradual awakening, Simeon Brown eventually reaches a state of serenity that allows him to finally see clearly the direction that his life must take. He had felt helpless in the face of racism in Philadelphia, and when he arrived in Paris to escape from it he was impressed by  Babe Carter’s vow to never go back to the States. Now he was reconsidering that option. The Algerians had shown him a different way of reacting. A different response. While he obviously could not consider and armed struggle, he realized the futility of running away from the problem. The stone face must be confronted.

The climax of The Stone Face and perhaps its most important historical contribution comes near the end of the novel. It is October 1961. The French authorities have decreed a curfew for Algerians and the FLN has responded with a call for a peaceful demonstration.  On October 17, 1961, 30,000 people marched. The head of police Maurice Papon ordered his troops to attack the marchers. For years the French government downplayed the event and would not acknowledge more than 2 deaths on that day. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who has been instrumental in raising awareness of the event in France, has maintained that over 200 people were killed on that day with some of the bodies thrown in the river Seine. A plaque commemorating the event was finally put in place in 2001, although mention of the precise number of victims was avoided.

The Stone Face is generally considered the first fictional account of this event.  William Gardner Smith puts the figure at more than 200: “The corpse of more than two hundred Algerians, Ahmed’s among them were to be fished out of the Seine the next day and for days afterward.” Smith puts his hero Simeon in the middle of the massacre. Having ignored the advice of his fellow expatriates he goes to the march and is horrified by what he sees. “Simeon saw old men clubbed after they had fallen to the ground, sometimes by five or six policemen at a time, their bodies beaten after the men were dead. In scenes of terrible sadism, Simeon saw pregnant women clubbed in the abdomen, infants snatched from their mothers and hurled to the ground. Along the Seine, police lifted unconscious Algerians from the ground and tossed them into the river.” In a last scene of violence, Simeon punches a policeman who is clubbing a woman holding a baby. He had seen the stone face in the face of the policeman and this time he was not running away. He ends up in a police van and is taken to a stadium with hundreds of other Algerians who had been arrested. One more time, his American status comes to rescue Simeon. A condescending officer makes him promise that he would not get involved again in another demonstration and lets him go with these parting words: “You understand, I know something about your problems. I’ve been reading the newspapers about the troubles in the schools. You understand, we like Negroes here, we don’t practice racism in France, it’s not like the United States. We can understand why you prefer to live here. We wouldn’t like to have to expel you.”

It is time to leave Paris. Simeon meets one last time Maria who tells him that she is going to Hollywood with an American director. He then books a return passage to the United States.  The day of his departure as he shaves, he decides to use his razor to slash the canvas on which he had been trying to paint the stone face for over a year.

It is unfortunate that The Stone Face did not enjoy a better reception when it was first published in 1963. The Algerian revolution has certainly had a lasting impact worldwide but the novel came out at a time when the Algerian conflict was no longer in the headlines, and the Civil Rights movement became the central topic of interest for African-American authors. Smith himself became a prominent US expert in the French media.  Nonetheless, his novel remains a rare testimony by an outsider observer of an important chapter in the history of Algeria (and of France ) and deserves to be better known by the Algerian public.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to ““The Algerians are the niggers of France”: The Stone Face by William Gardner Smith

  1. Ged

    Excellent article.
    This period of history should be more investigated to show that no other system has been more racist… And since never really ended.
    Algerians living in France today can be compared to the African-Americans living in the South, they live in ghettos, are treated as second class citizen and often regarded like Algerians in the 60’s as “criminals”.

    Thank you

  2. Thoroughly enthralling read! A very good review but I hope you didn’t give too much away.

    I will look up the book and make the purchase asap.

  3. A thoroughly enthralling read! A very good review but I hope you didn’t give too much away.

    I will look up the book and make the purchase asap.

  4. Pingback: 17.10.1961: When the stars fell from the sky « The Evening Hérault

  5. i want to read this novel but infotunatly it is not available evrywhere

  6. Pingback: The Stone Face

  7. Pingback: The book that prove black lives have always mattered in America – The Guardian | Best Babytoy Store

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