Study Guide

The Blacks

by Jean Genet

The Blacks Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

By means of ironic inversion, Jean Genet expresses his theme of the perennial necessity of opposing the human predisposition to prejudice and oppression. Among the ironies of The Blacks is the fact that this protest against the white world was itself written by a white. Genet’s ability to identify with victims of prejudice owed much to his own identity as an orphan, a homosexual, and a convict. Genet’s rage and frustration at prejudice and oppression are not effusively and indiscriminately expressed; they are contained within highly disciplined art and channeled through humor, understanding, and inversion. Inversion in The Blacks takes many forms. For example, the blacks, in playing fools for the whites, actually play the whites for fools. The stereotype of the black man’s sexual obsession with white women is transformed into a cyclic ritual involving the stereotype; the blacks, by existentially making the stereotype their own, deprive the whites of it. The stereotype of whites clowning in blackface is inverted, as blacks wear whiteface; a further twist to this inversion is Bobo’s daubing of Village’s face with black shoe polish when she decides that he, in his role of rapist-murderer, looks too pale.

Of great significance is the inversion by which the blacks, in their dispensation of justice, follow the white linearity of trial and execution, while the whites surrender this linearity to the blacks when they permit themselves to be executed as part of the black cyclic ritual. They thereby deprive the blacks of the opportunity to make victimization solely their own domain. The white “line” intersects the circle of the main play, with its emphasis upon interracial jealousy, and the circle of the outside play, with its message of civilization’s inevitably prolonged racial conflict.

The physical and moral victory of the whites is offset, in Genet’s vision, by the metaphysical superiority of the blacks, whose cyclicity is infinite, whereas the linearity of the whites is delimited: A circle is axiomatically infinite, but a line can be only hypothetically construed as infinite. Infinity is given to the blacks; the whites have the constant burden of proving that their line is without end.