How can African American criticism be used to criticize Graham Greene's novel The Comedians, using what was happening in the United States during the time that Greene wrote the novel, and the...

How can African American criticism be used to criticize Graham Greene's novel The Comedians, using what was happening in the United States during the time that Greene wrote the novel, and the African American perspective.

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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A novel the plot of which takes place primarily in the Caribbean island-nation of Haiti (which actually shares an island with the Dominican Republic to the west) and was written during the turbulent period of the 1960s, when decolonization was still winding down and the legacy of Western imperialism was very much being felt across the less-developed world, Graham Greene’s The Comedians cannot help but evoke reactions from all sides of the political debate.  Greene himself, a former journalist and intelligence officer for his native Britain, was famously left-wing in his own political outlook, and was a vocal critic of American foreign policy in the post-World War II era.  The perfect storm of factors, therefore, existed for the publication of The Comedians, and the novel definitely struck a chord with liberal critics.  As a critic for the New York Times wrote at the time of the novel’s publication:

“In The Comedians, despair is there, despair at the death of the good Communist doctor and the would-be-good confidence trickster, Major Jones; despair at evil triumphant, sustained by dollar-aid from the U.S.A. And even Gogool is there (or her near-relatives) when the narrator attends a voodoo ceremony in the hills.” [http://www.nytimes.com/1966/01/23/books/greene66-comedians.html]

This, however, is a reflection of the Anglo-Saxon experience.  The perspective of those of African descent, including African Americans, had lacked a voice until, in 2003, a group of black film critics, authors, and others involved in journalism and the arts banded together to form the African American Film Critics Association.  The AAFCA, as one of the founding members noted, was created out of a shared interest in advancing works born of the African experience, to give a greater voice to black artists and critics, and to ensure that the African American perspective was represented:

“Mindful of our shared concerns – regarding the failure of the film industry to promote images and themed stories from the African Diaspora – we agreed to organize a collective of Black film critics, in response to this pervasive issue.”

As noted, this perspective, as a formal expression of African American heritage, did not exist when Greene’s novel was published in 1966.  Certainly, blacks had informed opinions on novels like The Comedians, but their role in the mainstream press with respect to the field of film criticism was very limited, and their influence on the entertainment industry negligible – a legacy of the histories of slavery and segregation.  One can really only speculate, therefore, as to what that perspective would be with respect to The Comedians.  Again, Greene’s politics swung heavily to the left, and he was very critical of American foreign policy, which he viewed as naïve and destructive (somewhat ignoring his own country’s considerable role in creating much of the world’s problems to begin with).  The brutal dictatorship of real-life Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was, fairly or not, viewed by many as an indirect consequence of the history of Western imperialism, and the U.S. military interventions in Haiti during the 1990s, while benevolent in intent, would have likely been viewed by the British author, who died several years before the 1994 invasion, as indicative of U.S. imperial bumbling.  In this, he would have likely found common ground with many among the African American community, who correctly recognize the connections between the slave trade of the past and contemporary socioeconomic problems that continue to plague that community.  African American criticism would certainly agree with the assessment that European and/or American intervention in the Caribbean, or Latin America, Africa, or Southeast Asia would constitute yet another manifestation of Western imperialist aggression against non-white peoples. 

At the time The Comedians was written and published, the civil rights movement in the United States was reaching its peak.  Brown v. The Board of Education had occurred in 1954, but discrimination against blacks, and economic policies that were widely viewed among African Americans as prejudicial, continued to be the subject of considerable domestic debate and increasing turmoil in the United States, and within that context, Greene’s novel would have struck a chord.  Greene’s characters, especially Misters Brown and Smith, represent both the venality and idiocy inherent in American foreign policy, and the condescending approach of the well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve Mr. Smith would be a familiar visage to many African Americans.  With the war in Vietnam escalating, and the perception of disproportionate numbers of young blacks being drafted and sent to fight in Southeast Asia, the symbolism in Greene’s novel would have been very popular among African Americans.  That no data exists illustrating the number of blacks who read The Comedians, or who saw the film adapted from the novel, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions.  The theme of Greene’s story, however, would undoubtedly have been well-received.

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