A Black Writer Found Tolerance in France, and a Different Racism

When William Gardner Smith submitted what would be his final novel, THE STONE FACE (New York Review Books, paper, $16.95), to a French publisher, his friend and biographer LeRoy Hodges recalled, the editor told Smith it was “very courageous to have written the book, but we can’t publish it in France.” How could a courageous novel by an established writer have met with such immediate dismissal? In America, “The Stone Face” (1963) had been accepted by Farrar, Straus, like Smith’s three previous novels. Why not France?

The answer is more complicated than the rejection. In 1951, Smith, a Black journalist and novelist from Philadelphia, 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 wunderkind. Before leaving Temple University, he’d established himself as a journalist for the Black-owned Pittsburgh Courier. Farrar, Straus published his first novel, “The Last of the Conquerors,” in 1948, when he was only 21 years old. Like his peers, he felt France would provide a safe haven from the bigotry and violence he had experienced at home; he may also have hoped that the move would save his marriage. While abroad, he made his living as an editor and a correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Paris, and helped start a TV station in Ghana.

Smith’s fiction belies a lifelong skepticism. His books, now mostly out of print, are sometimes referred to as protest novels, and while they tackle social issues, they’re far from prescriptive; none ever provides an easy answer. “The Last of the Conquerors” details the experiences of a Black soldier in Germany after World War II who realizes that he has found more acceptance in what was enemy territory than he ever did in his own country. “The Stone Face” represents the maturing of a voice determined to confound preconceived notions about patriotism, Blackness and sanctuary, 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 couldn’t ignore the parallels he saw between his treatment by whites at home and the anti-Arab sentiments he witnessed in his adopted country. With semi-autobiographical overtones, “The Stone Face” traces the journey of Simeon Brown, a journalist and aspiring painter who, like Smith, hails from Philadelphia. Brown has lost an eye in a racially motivated attack and comes very close to avenging his mutilation, but his gun jams. Shaken, he moves to France, claiming, “I left to prevent myself from killing a man.”

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