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Commentary: Jean Genet, the Black Panthers and the PLO

This past weekend I had the good fortune of being able to see Jean Genet's play The Blacks: A Clown Show as it was put on by Urgent Theater, a new group that plans on producing shows with particularly salient themes for the Duke public.

Wow, what a show! Directors Amy Eason and Mary Adkins surely deserve our utmost thanks for bringing such a thought-provoking performance to the Duke audience. All plays were followed by a discussion between actors and the audience. The reaction of audience members to the unsettling play on the themes of race and power was met with attempts by producers and actors to explain the message behind the confrontational approach of its author. However, instead of going through the plays numerous themes, of which racism is only one, I would like to discuss the playwright himself, and the incredibly unique and inspiring life he led.

Jean Genet (1910-1986) grew up in France's orphanages after his mother abandoned him at seven months. His early life in France included thievery and pimping, landing him in jail on numerous occasions. It was while in prison that he first began to write the poems and plays that would later attract the attention of literary giants such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He is famous for his life as a homosexual, a playwright and a radical political militant, allying with movements around the world. "Obviously, I am drawn to peoples in revolt," he said, "because I myself have the need to call the whole of society into question."

Over winter break I purchased one of his books as a Christmas gift for my sister. The book, Prisoner of Love, was recommended to me by a friend who described it as Genet's brilliant account of the time he spent throughout the 1970s with the Black Panthers in the U.S. and the Palestinian resistance fighters based in Jordan and Lebanon. Genet found immediate sympathy with the Palestinian cause as yet another example of a people forced to become strangers in their own land. There were obvious parallels for Genet between the Algerian anti-colonial struggle for independence and the revolutionary movement of Palestinian refugees seeking to reclaim their historic land of Palestine. He even denounced his new fan Sartre for supporting Israel, saying "He (Sartre) is a bit of a coward for fear that his friends in Paris might accuse him of anti-Semitism if he ever said anything in support of Palestinian rights."

But Genet's attraction to the Palestinian cause went beyond mere solidarity with an oppressed people. What intrigued him about the Palestinians concerned their construction of a resilient and resistant identity. In Prisoner of Love, Genet notes that for the Palestinian resistance fighters, being Palestinian came before the religious identity of Christian or Muslim. To be Palestinian in the 1970s was to question the overall structure and institutional base of society as a whole, to make alliances with all those in the world attempting to resist oppression of all kinds and to fight from exile for a land that would most likely never be seen. It was this understanding of the power behind the ability to produce resistant identities that sparked Genet's other love affair with The Black Panther Party.

At Sunday's panel discussion on the play someone from the audience asked if anyone thought it possible for us to be self-creative, to forge an identity based on race or other categories that are defined not by an outward imposition, but on our own terms. For me, this is precisely what Genet captures in his writing on the Black Panthers, and especially in his description of their adoption of slogans such as "Black is Beautiful."

The Panthers chose not to stop short by simply analyzing 'the powers that be.' According to Genet, for the Panthers it was equally important to believe that another world was possible, a world where we would not limit our political action to a defense of who we are, but rather, where we would invest in attempts to actualize who we want to become. On the effects of the Panther era, Genet writes, "The Blacks were no longer seen as submissive people whose rights had to be defended for them, but determined fighters, impulsive and unpredictable but ready to fight to the death for a movement that was part of the struggle of their race all over the world."

Through such an analysis, Genet avoided an essentialist understanding of race and national identity. It was just such a stance that allowed him to say, "The Day the Palestinians become institutionalized, I will no longer be by their side." Today, the apparatus of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) no longer reaches out in an attempt to question society from the bottom up, rather, it seeks to be that "institutionalized" apparatus that Genet had so feared.

Beyond the immense corruption within the PLO, it has also ceased to be that organization that once fought for autonomy and a better global society alongside thousands of other marginalized peoples throughout the world. It seems evident that the current structures of power, including the Israeli imposition of daily desperation upon Palestinian life, have birthed a PLO that lacks the revolutionary fervor that once attempted to question the whole of society and produce a necessarily Palestinian identity that stood for something greater than another nation-state ready to take its place beside 200 other pawns at the United Nations, while today's political game is being played across town at the IMF, World Bank and WTO.

The cause of the Palestinian people is today more just than ever. But today we must understand that what the Palestinian people have come to symbolize is the desperation of an entire generation of humanity, who through policies of neoliberal globalization has been exiled from their homes and from their ability to make and remake themselves.

We must understand, as Genet did in the past, that today when we say, "Palestine must exist!" we are really saying, "Another world must exist!"

Yousuf Al-bulushi is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Tuesday.


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