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Black on White: Language and Revolution in Genet’s Political Writings Gisèle Child-Olmsted W HEN GENET BEGAN his involvement with the Black Panthers in 1970, his initial concern for Black issues was more than a decade old: his play The Blacks was written between 1957 and 1958, and its first stage production took place in 1959. One can suppose that Genet’s close connection to Sartre accounts for much of his interest in and knowledge of Black issues, for Sartre played a crucial role in introducing radical Black writers to the European intellectuals and to the world at large. Published in 1948, “Orphée noir,” Sartre’s groundbreak­ ing preface to Léopold Senghor’s Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malgache de langue française had great repercussions in intellectual circles and generated increasing interest in Black poets. Sartre also wrote the preface to Les Damnés de la terre( 1961), Frantz Fanon’s masterpiece which became one of the most influential works on Black activists of the Sixties. Many of the topics developed by the poets of “ Négritude,” or by Sartre in “ Orphée Noir” and in Saint Genet can be found in Genet’s play. Like the poets and Fanon, the Blacks in Genet’s play experience lin­ guistic and cultural alienation and fight psychological domination by seeking a new identity through the creation of a new language. Genet’s Blacks use language in a very sartrian way, as a weapon that attempts to sap the very foundations of society. It would seem that The Blacks, viewed as a revolutionary play, should more accurately be considered a reflection of the aesthetic and political ideology prevalent among certain radical Caribbean and Black African Parisian groups in the time frame that spans the two wars. Genet’s genius is to give violent poetic expres­ sion to these revolutionary concerns. Although The Blacks remains a violent critique of racial discrimina­ tion, its fundamental theme is more universal in scope. This can be seen in Genet’s use of Black actors to play the role of the White Court, a tech­ nique that blurs the distinction between the races, and focuses on the fact that discrimination based on pigmentation of the skin is but the outer garment, easily stripped and replaced by another that hides an issue of concern to all mankind: the exploitation and subjugation of man by his fellowman. Hence, even in 1959, the use of “ black skin, white masks” is Vol. XXXV, N o. 1 61 L ’E s pr it C r éa te u r not just a pirandellian gesture or merely a clever concretization of the title of Frantz Fanon’s famous book published in 1951, it is Genet’s attempt to say that the racial problem is just one more paradigm of the master and slave dialectic that continues to afflict all the races. Later on, this thought, which is presented in a latent and symbolic way in the play, will acquire more precise political overtones when Genet, a member of the Communist Party, joins the fight for the Black Panthers: in “ Le Rouge et le Noir,” an article which addresses the relationship between communism and the Blacks, Genet states specifically: “ Racisme et lutte de classe sont la même chose” (ED 103).1 One can therefore conclude that when Genet writes about the Blacks some twelve or thirteen years before his experience with the Black Panthers, he is more concerned with showing the Blacks as an example of a more general problem, as a sub­ group of a much wider category that includes all the alienated, the per­ secuted and the oppressed. Thus he quips, when recalling how he had been commissioned to write a play for Black actors: “ Mais qu’est-ce que c’est donc qu’un Noir? Et d’abord, C’est de quelle couleur?” (7V79). It is in this light that we should understand his words to Hubert Fichte: “je ne pouvais me retrouver que dans les opprimés de couleur ou dans les opprimés révoltés contre le Blanc. Je suis peut-être un Noir qui a les couleurs blanches ou...


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