Jean Genet’s May Day Speech, 1970: “Your Real Life Depends on the Black Panther Party”

May Day 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the demonstrations in support of Bobby Seale in New Haven and the unlikely presence of “homosexual outlaw,” Jean Genet, as the invited guest of the Black Panther Party. A good friend, New Haven based anthropologist Matthew O’Malley, reminded me of this anniversary a few days ago. I spoke to him from the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris, where I am, in bored desperation and fleeting contentment, finishing a dissertation chapter on Genet’s theatrical and political essays. After our discussion, Matthew texts me, “your real life depends on the BPP,” citing the luminous final line of Genet’s May Day speech.

While Bobby Seale’s life in 1970 depended on the political pressure of broad-based support, Genet understood that the Panthers’ imaginary of revolt offered white intellectuals something realer than their own segregated lives of material comfort. As opposed to a congratulatory sense of being on the right side of History, the Panther’s proposed the reality of a “poetic negation,” and possibly, a true revolutionary feeling. For Genet, the Panthers “put into play an entire affectivity that we lack,” which arises not from their Blackness, but from they’re having “been banished and outlawed for four centuries.” Like in many of Genet’s pro-Panther writings, the May Day Speech does not drive home the justice represented by the Panther’s revolution, but instead points to the metaphysical poverty of white radical good conscience. Writing a few months later of George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, Genet remarks, “if certain details of this work seem immoral to you, it is because the work as a whole denies your morality, because poetry contains both the possibility of a revolutionary morality and what appears to contradict it.” Neither poetry nor revolt, nor even perhaps revolution, is made for the “good.” It is their cursedness and their negativity, which disclose, according to Genet, the possibility for an “entirely different human adventure.”

Appearing in English first in the Panther’s brochure, “Here and Now For Bobby Seale (Essays by Jean Genet),” the May Day Speech was later published with a preface by City Lights in the summer of 1970. Many of the texts written by Genet for the BPP, including this one, did not appear in French until Albert Dichy’s 1990 collection, L’ennemi déclaré [The Declared Enemy], published them for the first time. The untimeliness of the texts in French is significant, if only because Genet’s use of the Panther’s political categories would seem entirely alien in the French political universe of the 1970s. The concepts “white” and “Black,” as politicized terms, continue to scandalize French republican universalists, for whom the notion of race is equated with racism, even today. Genet’s almost prophetic grasp of what would become current modes of navigating inter-racial political coalition has bestowed upon the poet another aura of sainthood than the one bequeathed to him by Sartre, one of uncompromising white ally-ship. On both sides of the Atlantic, for anti-capitalist queers and for anti-imperialists, the set of gestures that compose Genet’s solidarity with Third World revolutionaries has given him a special historical status.

But as I have written about elsewhere, Genet was not, by today’s standards, an uncomplicated white ally, especially where political and sexual matters intersected. Kadji Amin’s work charts the peregrinations of racial fetishism in Genet’s early novels and discusses the way scholars have justified Genet’s sexual exoticism as a path to political solidarity. As Todd Shepard discusses in his recent book, Genet’s comments stating that he supported Algerian independence due to his sexual relations with Arabs would become a clarion call for activists in the FHAR and proof that Gays and Arabs could find common ground through cruising. While similar positions (equating inter-racial sex with coalitional politics) would flood the gay Left in the early 1970s in France, Genet’s at-times-cruel love for young Arab men is only obscurely understood in relation to his activism. Edward Said asked if Genet’s “love of handsomely dark young men…amounts to a kind of overturned or exploded Orientalism.” But nothing has stopped generations of North African writers and artists, then and since, from evoking the power of Genet’s person in their own work. Queer Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa has written widely on Genet’s “Moroccan sainthood,” while French-Algerian political intellectual Houria Bouteldja discusses Genet’s legacy in her 2016 book Whites, Jews and Us. Genet’s links to the Black Panther Boston Chapter and the International Section in Algiers is the subject of Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili’s new film, Twenty-Two Hours and her recent exhibition text, “Radical Ally.” In light of Genet’s continued relevance for anti-racist politics and despite the imperfections of his example, it seems that we inhabit the future of complex solidarities that Genet’s work and person sought to enunciate.

The French writer’s dicey comments on the Algerian war were made in 1965, a year before his play, Les Paravents [The Screens], would be the object of far-right demonstrations and physical attacks. The neo-fascist group Occident demonstrated inside and outside of the theater almost every night of the play’s spring run at the Odéon. Right-wing veterans of lost colonialist wars, close to the fascist terrorist group OAS, wrote a communiqué regarding the play, which stages a guerrilla war by Arab villagers against the French Army. Calling Les Paravents an insult to their service, they described Genet as a “notorious pederast” and “a prostitute of all the slums of Europe.” Inside the theater, fascist activists parachuted from the balconies, threw glass bottles, rotten eggs, and dead rats onto the stage, initiated fistfights with the actors and lit smoke bombs in the center aisle. They particularly disliked a scene in which a dead soldier is lifted on the farts of his comrades into the afterlife. Outside, fascists and antifascists squared off, with the former chanting, “Genet Faggot,” “Genet to the Stake,” and the latter protecting the freedom of expression in the midst of the same police force that drowned hundreds of Algerians in the Seine five years earlier.

This moment is widely considered part of Genet’s pre-political phase, before his rallying to leftist students during the events of May 1968. Indeed Genet’s image of the Algerian revolution cannot be said to promote the nationalist project, as the play’s protagonist, Saïd, ultimately betrays his comrades and is subsequently executed. Whether a real transformation in Genet’s politics can be said to have taken place is a question that has concerned many scholars of his late works. There is no consensus on what precisely changed for Genet between his 1966 pleas to anti-colonialist director Roger Blin to not “leftisize” [gauchiser] his theater and his 1970-1971 stay in the Jordanian forest with the fedayeen of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Because of the mystery around this change in politics, Genet’s clandestine arrival in the United States to support the ongoing campaigns of the Black Panthers in the spring of 1970 has the dimensions of a mischievous mission, despite the seriousness with which he conducted himself. Citing his play The Blacks, Connie Matthews had asked Genet to organize support for the Panthers in Paris. He agreed, but said he’d rather to go America, and left for Québec the next day. Because he was, for a second time, refused an entry visa to the US, Genet passed through the Canadian border, distracting the agent by singing the Marseillaise and showing him his friend Jack Maglia’s passport twice. In a later interview, Genet claimed that getting through the northern border illegally was “very easy.” From here, the poet would begin two months of travelling with the BBP, giving speeches and raising funds, largely in order to bring the white intellectual Left over to the Panthers’ side by speaking on coastal college campuses. The last event of his tour was the May Day demonstrations in New Haven. In a New York Times piece from the day of the events, John Darnton writes, “Charles R. Garry, the party’s general counsel, described the relationship between Mr. Genet and the Panthers this way: “He idolizes them. And they think he’s outa’ sight.”

Genet’s May Day speech, the most famous of his public events in the States, was pronounced at around 4 p.m. before a crowd of twenty-five thousand who assembled themselves on the grasses of the New Haven Green opposite Yale’s Old Campus. It was the first day of demonstrations for the release of the Panthers’ National Chairman, Bobby Seale, jailed in New Haven for his alleged involvement in the murder of Alex Rackley. After reading several lines of his text in French, Genet gave the floor to the Panther’s Minister of Information, Elbert Howard, who read the entirety of the speech in English. An improbable duo, Genet must have appeared especially small next to “Big Man” Howard. He was wearing the jacket, shirt, and pair of trousers gifted to him, according to Angela Davis, by a Black shop-owner in Los Angeles who was so moved by Genet’s helping the Panthers that he offered him the outfit on the house. Having received a summons from immigration services the night before, Genet’s appearance at the event was not promoted to the press. In fact, Genet opens his speech by saying “I must begin with an explanation of my presence in the United States,” noting that despite having entered the country through “unconventional circumstances,” he had moved freely without being disturbed. Genet explains that his way of life “is that of a vagabond and not of a revolutionary” citing the differences between his own freedom of movement and that of the Panthers. He goes on to describe two examples of racism he witnessed personally, in which the authorities ignored him while his Black comrades suffered repression. In the longest section of the speech, Genet discusses the new forms of solidarity that he believes are possible between whites and Blacks in America, and the difficulties involved in convincing white people of their necessity. In my crumpled black and white photocopies of the original brochure, graced with collaged images of Genet and Panther leaders, Genet writes:

It is quite true that Blacks and whites have a gulf of 400 years of contempt to bridge. There was a so-called superiority on the side of the whites, but the whites did not suspect that they were being observed, in silence it is true, but all the more closely observed. Today, the Blacks have drawn from this silent observation a profound knowledge of the white man, and the converse is not the case.

It is therefore up to the whites to endeavor [entreprendre, in the original, translation modified from “understand”] an understanding of the Blacks, and, I repeat, this can be done only in a delicacy of relations, when the Blacks and whites decide upon a political action in commons—as revolutionaries.

Up till now, the Blacks found among white men only two means of expression: brutal domination, or a distant rather contemptuous paternalism. Another way must but found.

In clarifying his proposal for a new “quality in relations,” Genet suggests at length that white radicals “do away with symbols and with symbolic gestures,” which he sees as a “substitution of a revolutionary action.” This reflection involves not the typical dichotomy of idealist and materialist approaches, but concerns the difference between an action that “nourish[es] itself on familiar examples” and “real actions of irreversible power” which Genet defines as always radically novel, imbued with the “freshness of a new beginning, a new world.” This position is consistent with Genet’s criticism of political art from the 1950s onward; nothing is as depressing to him as the second-time-farce style gestures of the traditional Left. Writing on engaged theater in 1960, Genet asserts: “Certain poets of our times submit themselves to a curious operation: they sing of the People, Freedom, Revolution, etc., which, precisely by being sung, are dashed out and nailed to some abstract sky where they appear as the desolate stars of grotesque constellations.” This context informs Genet’s condemnation of “theatrical and futile manifestations” in his May Day Speech, and appears as a timely reminder of the consequences of that famous bourgeois obsession with appearing to be always on the side of the good in both art and politics. In Les Paravents, one of Genet’s Arab villagers declaims that even if “the sun falls in gold rain upon their world,” one ought to keep a little pile of shit or mud in a corner somewhere and protect it. This little pile of shit represents the smudge of negativity that keeps the poet or revolutionary from upholding their own desperate goodness at the expense of the new and uncertain world of human acts and relations.

In drawing parallels between the Dreyfus Affair in France and the trials of the Panthers, Genet nears the end of the May Day Speech with a discussion of American fascism, which he describes as a word that is “hard for the whites to accept.” These comments are particularly striking in an era of ascendant authoritarianism and neo-fascist politics in the United States. In light of these developments, we might concur with Genet’s New Haven remarks that “the whites are afraid of freedom. It is too strong a drink for them.” Indeed the scale and specific qualities of freedom that Third World politics proposed have not failed to disinterest, if not frighten, white America for decades. Having perhaps entered a new period, in which few progressives would deny that the US conducts itself as a fascistic and imperialist nation, I wonder if it is again possible to revisit anti-racist projects that were once imagined on the scale of the world. One of the Panthers’ defining gestures was to understand themselves as internally colonized subjects, not more or less subjugated than other colonized peoples across other continents, but united with them through the same modes of survival and combat. Genet’s speech invites us to seriously consider the lessons learned in the era of Bandung and the Tricontinental and to return to a conviction that American radicals should be looking to the revolutionary Global South in order to reimagine social life, instead of making of themselves some sort of cosmological center of world politics.

In Genet’s final call to action, he asks white intellectuals to follow the directives of the BPP, even if this means “desert[ing] your universities” in order to support Bobby Seale. In a time of recession, which promises to be even more hostile to radical intellectuals, this call to desertion is one among many of the experiments in political inheritance that Genet’s example conjures. His desire to “destroy all the habitual reasons for living in order to discover others,” as recounted in his Thief’s Journal, reminds us to promote mischief in our intellectual comportments, the kind that existentially threatens “good student”-type university meritocrats. More pressing however, is the experiment that Genet’s May Day Speech generates in the form of a question, a question which we cannot but feel as our own today: how will the whites, through the elaboration of solidarity and the relinquishment of power, destroy racism and salvage love?

Jackqueline Frost

Jackqueline Frost is an intellectual historian and poet from Lafayette, Louisiana living in Paris, France, where she is a visiting researcher at Université Paris 8. Her current project explores how militant writers poetically engaged notions of time and history in order to grasp the plural temporalities of politics in the era of fascist aggression and national liberation. Articles on figures such as Aimé Césaire, Jean Genet, and Daniel Guérin have appeared or are forthcoming in The Global South, The Bulletin of Francophone Postcolonial Studies, Historical Materialism, and Third Text.