Jean Genet, a French Writer Standing with the Black Panthers

Fifty-five years ago, Jean Genet arrived in Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention. In 1968 and again in 1970, the former thief and pariah, who was raised in foster homes and became one of the greatest French novelists and playwrights of the 20th century, secretly visited America to defend the civil rights movement.
Jean Genet at a Black Panther demonstration on the Yale campus, May 1, 1970. © Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

Jean Genet preferred the term vagrant to revolutionary. He wrote to corrupt the enemy’s language from within and spent his whole life in hotel rooms with only a few paltry suitcases to his name. He was already an internationally renowned writer – particularly for his theater – when he arrived in the United States for the first time. Between 1961 and 1964, his play The Blacks, which invited Black people to throw off the shackles of cultural colonization, triumphed throughout its off-Broadway run.

In late August 1968, after supporting the May protests in Paris, Genet was invited be men’s magazine Esquire to cover the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. His visa was refused by the American consulate due to his criminal record, his homosexuality, and his supposed affiliation to the Communist Party, yet he managed to slip across the Canadian border in a car with baffling ease. Esquire, which had also commissioned an article from William Burroughs, accepted Genet’s conditions and allowed him to write about the Vietnam War.

After the hope inspired by the civil rights movement, the political context at the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency had grown tense with increasing numbers of soldiers – mostly Black and poor – sent to fight. The writer arrived in Chicago on August 20 and was welcomed by Burroughs and Terry Southern, the screenwriter for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, who introduced him to Allen Ginsberg, a great admirer of his poetry. From August 26 through 29, Genet attended the student demonstrations alongside the Yippies (members of the Youth International Party) and harangued the crowds with Burroughs at Lincoln Park and Grant Park. 

A sit-in in Chicago: Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Terry Southern, August 1968.
Jean Genet’s article on the National Democratic Convention in Chicago ran in the November 1968 issue of Esquire. © Hearst Communications

Infuriated by the subsequent police brutality and the use of batons and tear gas, the French writer drew a parallel between the repression of White pacifists and the oppression Blacks had endured for 150 years. A series of violent clashes ended with the arrest and trial of the Chicago Seven, who were accused of conspiring against the federal government, and of Bobby Seale, one of the cofounders of the Black Panther Party. Genet’s article for Esquire sparked a scandal, not so much for its condemnation of the violence perpetrated by the American government, but because he praised the police officers’ muscular thighs!

Political Stirrings

This initial experience of America led to an intense period of activism defined by a commitment to helping Black Americans, and later Palestinians. This was then followed by an existential and artistic crisis. Devastated by the suicide of his lover, Abdallah, Genet stopped writing between 1964 and 1967. In 1968, driven by political stirrings, his writing returned with a bang in the form of articles and manifestos. On February 25, 1970, he was contacted in Paris by two representatives of the Black Panthers, whose top leaders were in prison. The writer was won over by their Marxist positions and offered to travel to the United States, where the Nixon administration pursued them mercilessly. Genet, who was investigated by the FBI, flew once again to Canada and crossed the U.S. border without a visa.

Jean Genet at Yale with Elbert “Big Man” Howard, cofounder of the Black Panther Party and the group’s deputy minister of information, May 1, 1970. © David Fenton/Getty Images

A tour of some fifteen universities ensued. Genet called for the release of Bobby Seale, who was accused of kidnapping and murder, and refused to answer any questions about his theatrical writing. He met Angela Davis at UCLA and attended an event in support of George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo, three Black men accused of killing a White guard at Soledad Prison in California. The tour ended on May 1 on the Yale campus where Genet spoke before a crowd of 25,000 people representing the full spectrum of the revolutionary left. Escorted by “Big Man,” the Panthers’ deputy minister of information who acted as an amateur interpreter, Genet wore a trucker jacket and gave a now famous speech, later released under the title May Day Speech by City Lights, the iconic Beat Generation publishing house. Summoned by the immigration services the very next day, he quickly boarded a plane for Montreal.

The Racism of the American Administration

Invited to Rio in June and July 1970, he wrote the introduction for Soledad Brother, a collection of George Jackson’s prison letters. “Every young American Black who writes is trying to find himself and test himself and sometimes, at the very center of his being, in his own heart, discovers a White man he must annihilate,” he wrote. In July 1971, Genet and James Baldwin launched an appeal signed by Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Derrida, and others, attacking “the racist legal system of the Nixon administration,” and protesting the “increasingly brutal repression carried out by the American government against the Black movement,” while demanding “the immediate liberation of all political detainees.”

Jean Genet and Angela Davis in Los Angeles, 1970. © Robert Carl Cohen
Jean Genet and James Baldwin at a press conference in 1971, speaking in defense of Black Panther George Jackson.

In 1986, two weeks before he died, Genet entrusted his lawyer, Roland Dumas, with two suitcases containing a jumble of handwritten and typed drafts, hotel bills, and prescriptions for sleeping pills. Recently donated to the Institute for Contemporary Publishing Archives, these papers shine a fresh light on the period. As well as May Day Speech and Cahier de Rapport, a book about the Black Panthers, the documents include posters and notes in which Genet explained his close relationship with the Black activists. “This is the only revolutionary movement that accepted me as I am,” he wrote. “Thanks to them, I am enjoying defying the American colossus. After defying the White, bourgeois order through my books and theater, I am now defying it through direct writing and personally delivered presentations.”

As Albert Dichy analyzes in Les valises de Jean Genet (2020), “everything is interlocked, indissociable, literature and life, politics and writing,” his personal history and that of Black people, which Genet compares in his posthumous book Prisoner of Love (1986), to ‟characters on the white page of America.”

Article published in the April 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.