Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

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The story is about an African American male expatriate who finds personal and career success in a foreign country. It shows his fears about returning to the United States after many years. He is concerned about the reception facing his interracial family, and wonders about his ability to continue his career in the United States. Examples of prejudice that he and his father experienced lace the story, giving credence to the narrator’s apprehensions for his son.

The narrator is at the crux of many conflicts. He is an African American male living in Paris with an adopted language and culture. He has a white wife and mulatto son whom he loves, yet he fears for their safety. He wonders whether his successful career as a singer and actor can continue, and he debates the merits of being famous. Finally, he questions his place in French society because of France’s colonial war in Algeria and his personal relationships with many poor North Africans.

At the center of the narrator’s concerns is the question of color. Much of the story relates in telling detail, subtle and blatant forms of racism experienced or witnessed by the narrator. The narrator has not been able to express all of his anger. When he was asked to play a disturbed mulatto from Martinique in Vidal’s film, he faltered. It was only after Vidal confronted him about his own repressed hatred of racism that he was able to perform the role with the passion it deserved.

The narrator is caught between his freedom and success in Paris and his past, marred by racism, which he is again about to confront. Using the flashback episode as an example of what he expects on his return, the narrator details the horrible feelings of helplessness and hatred generated by racist behavior. His family in the United States experienced prejudice firsthand and it damaged them forever. His father’s and sister’s lives were destroyed by racism, and the narrator escaped to France to avoid the same fate. Now famous, he must come to terms with his expatriate status, and find a way for his son to live without the same scars of racism.

The narrator also doubts that his identity as a black actor and singer has any validity in the United States. Having become famous in France for singing the blues, he fears ridicule in his own country, which often denigrates black creations. Coupled with this fear of failure is his suspicion of success. Fame has brought recognition, but not peace. The final section of the story deals with this conflict when the narrator is confronted by the African American tourists and finds himself absorbed into their circle. When Boona is accused of stealing, the narrator is caught between commitment to his fellow countryman and loyalty to his old, but less than honest, friend. A similar conflict is expressed in his loyalty to the French, which is strained by their colonial war. The story ends without resolution.