A Black Writer Finds Tolerance and Differentiate Racism in France

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Brown quickly jumps into the hectic Black expatriate lifestyle and befriends a Jewish woman, a Polish refugee who is chasing memories of the Nazi camps. While he sees extraordinary goodwill from his host nation, he can’t help noticing that the French treat the Algerians with ordinary bigotry, which he readily accepts. Moreover, the Arabs realize that he notices. “How does it feel to be a white man?” asks an Algerian that he accidentally got himself in trouble with the law.

Like Smith’s expatriate friends, Brown’s siblings warn him not to get involved in French politics lest he appear ungrateful, get deported, or worse. This problem forces a Black immigrant in the story to do the weird mental gymnastics to avoid making the connection that Brown made so easily. “Algerians are white people,” warns Brown’s closest black immigrant friend. “A black man has enough trouble in the world without defending whites.” Still, the empathetic Brown’s intensifying friendships with two Algerians – Ahmed, a student, and Hussein, who was initially wronged and turned out to be an Algerian militant – draw Brown further into the struggle. And then it explodes.

In real life, on October 17, 1961, French police killed an estimated 100 to 300 Algerian protesters. (Official reports that emerged only in 1998 put the number closer to 40.) According to some sources, authorities tied some people’s hands behind their backs and threw them into the Seine to drown them. The international press downplayed the event, and the French government suppressed and censored the event in the press for decades. It’s unclear whether Smith witnessed any of the October 17 events firsthand. In the novel, he shifts the date of the violence to October 1, perhaps to avoid suggesting too precise a parallel. But Brown’s sad account of the event proves to be the culmination of “Stone Face,” which takes its title from Smith’s description of the face of indifference and hatred that Brown seeks to complete.

“Simeon,” Smith writes, “has seen old men fall to the ground, sometimes being hit with sticks by five or six cops at a time, their corpses beaten after the men have died. In gruesome scenes of sadism, Simeon saw pregnant women punched in the stomach, babies torn from their mothers and thrown to the ground. Along the Seine, the police picked up the unconscious Algerians and threw them into the river.”

This passage would be the only depiction of the massacre in literature until Didier Daeninckx’s novel “Meurtes Pour Mémoire” (“Murder in the Memoriam”) was published more than 20 years later in 1984. The New York Review Books, with a foreword by Adam Shatz, will finally be out this year in France, when Éditions Christian Bourgois will publish a translation in October on the 60th anniversary of the massacre.

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