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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d'ettuks americaines Volume 27, Number 1, 1997, pp. 21-41 Sartre, White America, and the Black Problem Renate Peters 21 At various times, Jean-Paul Sartre addressed issues of racism and prejudice: anti-Semitism in Anti-Semite and Jew ([1946] 1948), colonialism in his prefaces to Black Orpheus ([1948] 1963) and Fanon's Wretched of the Ea.rth ([1963] 1968). His views on American racism were, similarly, a transient preoccupation . Although his writings on anti-Semitism were contemporaneous with his writings on American racism, he barely connected one form of prejudice with the other. In Orwell's critique, Sartre "[made] no attempt to relate antisemitism to such obviously allied phenomena as, for instance, colour prejudice 11 (Orwell [1948] 1968, 452). 1 Beyond this failure, his writings on racism in America-the subject of this essay-also reveal his failure to grasp the complexities of race prejudice. If Sartre's views on black America are known at all, they are understood through his play The Respectable Prostitute ([1946] 1949b). Yet prior to this play Sartre wrote two articles for Le Figarowhich explore his perceptions of Afrkan Americans. These articles, however, have been largely ignored, and in fact are not reprinted in Situations (1947-76)-a collection of Sartre's literary and political writings. A more thorough understanding of Sartre's views on this subject requires a rereading of these articles in conjunction with The Respectable Prostitute. While Sartre's understanding of America's role in international affairs represented a rather sophisticated evolution of thought (see Peters 1990), his understanding of that country's internal problems underwent a less certain 22 Canadian Review of American Srodies Revue canadzemze d'kudes ambicames development. In particular, Sartre's views on what he termed 'the black problem' remained ambivalent, and he retained certain simplistic notions about the place of African Americans in American culture. The evolution of his thought on this issue may be traced directly through his wartime writings for Le Figaro (1945a; 1945c) and his play, The Respectable Prostitute, and indirectly through his writings on oppression and otherness in general. Although America played a secondary role in Sartre's thought, from his early childhood it was nevertheless a constant presence-visible or invisible -in his work. Sartre eventually distanced himself from the popular myths which his childhood readings had taught him; he distanced himself from such characters as Buffalo Bill, for example, who "galloped across the plam, at times pursuing, at times fleeing the Indians," or from such characters as Nick Carter who "knocks someone out or gets blackjacked" (Sartre 1964, 216). In other words, Sartre naturally escaped from his childhood universe where he, little Poulou, dreamt of fighting "against Blacks as eaters of their neighbours" (de Beauvoir 1981, 245, author's translation). Yet these popular images which formed part of his childhood universe already showed him an aspect of America he would come to know, for these Manichaean images did not occur only in his childhood books or in the cinema, but also formed part of the American psyche. Eventually these images were to provide him with subject matter for his play, The Respectable Prostitute, but his American education truly began when he was a correspondent for Le Figliro and Combat during the Second World War. Sartre's America Articles When Sartre visited the Unites States in 1945 he wrote about an America which had lost, for him, its Wild West appeal. Yet he replaced one myth of America with another. In the days following the liberation of France, Sartre-either because he did not want to insult his host country or because he lacked knowledge of America-described this country to his French readers as one which was successful in attempting to resolve its problems. In other words, Sartre discovered a country with few contradictions other than the 'black problem.' But even in admitting the existence of this problem, Re1u1te PetersI 23 Sartre believed that "he had encountered a new spirit in America" (Sartre 1945£12, author's translation) Initially, in many of his articles for Le Figaro and Combat, Sartre described America as a place where harmony reigned, but he could only...


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