Chapter Twelve – Frantz Fanon
1925 – 1961
“It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is simply because it was in more than one way becoming impossible for him to breathe.” (Black Skin/White Masks)
Franz Fanon was the first person from a colonized country whose own, original social theories were subsequently accepted by and within the white, Western academy. Fanon’s ideas exposing and exploring the negative psychological effects of colonization pre-date and in many ways establish the basis for decolonial theory and the intersection of Marxism and post-colonial studies.
With Fanon, we witness a major shift in the perspective of cultural and social studies called the post-colonial turn. Until that point, the colonized subject was approached by European authors as an object of analysis and appeared within the European intellectual imagination primarily as a victim. Fanon, as the first post-colonial subject speaking in the Western academy, reflects on his own position and explores what it implies and means for him. Fanon was also highly influential over many of his contemporaries, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Marxism, Lacan, and Aimé Césaire. His political legacy includes Steven Biko in South Africa, Che Guevara in Cuba, the Black Panthers, and Paolo Freire.
- Born in 1925 on the Caribbean Island of Martinique, a former French colony.
- In high school, he studies with Aimé Césaire, a leading author of the Negritude and non-aligned movements.
- Leaves Martinique in 1943 to fight in the Second World War; studies psychiatry at the University of Leon, where he is exposed to Marxist and existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sarte.
- Authored plays and political essays.
- Married a white Frenchwoman, writes about his position, in his own words as “a Black man fucking a white woman”.
- Appointed head of the Psychiatry Department in Algeria, where he de-segregated the psychiatric wards and practiced socio-therapy to reconnect patients to their own cultural backgrounds.
- Practicing in Algeria, he witnessed the devastating mental health effects of police torture and violence for Arab people.
- Fanon realized that through this violence French colonizers tried to obliterate the humanity of the Algerians. You can physically remove the French colonizer from Algeria, but the colonizer remains inside you.
- Became an early supporter of the Algerian resistance, joined the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in 1954. He wrote books and pamphlets supporting the FLN and the revolutionary anti-colonial struggle.
- Appointed ambassador to Ghana by the Provisional Algerian Army. In this role, Fanon established a crucial Southern supply route for arms, a decisive advantage in the war effort.
Death in the United States
- Fanon fell ill with leukemia shortly after completing “The Wretched of the Earth”. He was transferred to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland, where he died shortly after his arrival.
- Fanon’s body was returned to Algeria, where he was buried with honors by the Algerian National Army of Liberation.
- Less than a year later, the FLN finally secured Algerian independence from the French.
The Algerian Revolution (1954-1957)
- Algeria was a French colony since 18341-1962. Today 90% of the population is Muslim.
- In the 1950s, they started a Guerrilla War through the FLN (National Liberation Front)
- In 1962, the FLN won independence, overcoming brutalities, torture, massacres and other atrocities at the hands of the French.
- The world-renowned film “The Battle of Algiers” recounts the events of the Algerian War of Independence in the capital city of Algiers.
- The Algerian government constituted an important part of the non-aligned movement, those who would not take sides in the Cold War, refusing to position themselves as client states of either the United States and the Soviet Union.
- In 1988, the Spring of Algiers ends single party rule. The government responds by massacring 300 citizens.
- In 1989, a new constitution is adopted, over 50 political parties are freed along with the press.
- In 1999, the Islamic Salvation Front wins the election, which is subsequently cancelled by the Army.
- From 1999-2009, the Algerian government is in a state of civil war with armed religious conservatives.
- From 2007 until present, religious conservative armed groups remain active in public life.
The trajectory from the Algerian Revolution to the development of an oppressive regime raises important questions about the power, state violence, post-colonization, racism, and the nature of revolution itself. How is it that many revolutionary movements in the Third World — so full of the promise and hope of liberation for people oppressed by western powers —become oppressive regimes themselves?
Part of the answer lies in the huge economic problems created by the economic isolation of non-aligned countries by both the USA and Soviet Union. Instead of allowing for decentralized, autonomous economic activities such as at the neighborhood level, non-aligned governments chose to centralize and consolidate power.
Black Skin / White Masks
In “Black Skin/White Masks,” Fanon develops a psychoanalytic paradigm to explain the consequences of colonialism and racialized subjectivity, also using elements of Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology. The main thesis is that white cultural values get “under the skin”. As the Black man incorporates cultural values that are not his own (in Fanon’s language), he is alienated from himself. “Black” in this case encompasses not merely one’s appearance, but also one’s language and speech. Being Black, or being a person of color, including your speech, affects how people view and understand you, your intelligence, your subjectivity, and your status as a human being in the world.
“Black Skin/White Masks” becomes a central text in contemporary postcolonial studies. Feminists have criticized Fanon’s analysis for painting a simplistic and vilifying portrait of Black and colonized women complicit in colonization, failing to account for colonized women’s agency.
Main Concept: A New Humanism
Fanon advances “humanism” redefined as the end of the white, male subject. Humanism, the idea that we are all one people and that all human beings are equal, is a central concept in liberalism and thus ends up embedded in colonialism.
Historically, humanism has been used to colonize people of color, reinforcing the colonial supposition that certain people are unable to achieve a fuller humanity because they are weighed down by backward culture, religions, and so forth.
Fanon calls for a “new humanism” predicated upon a formal repudiation of the degraded European form, as European humanists “never stop talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the World” (The Wretched of the Earth). Fanon’s call, in other words, is to humanize humanism. In “The Wretched of the Earth”, he writes:
“I am a man, and in this sense the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass. Face to face with the white man, the Negro has a past to legitimate, a vengeance to exact; face to face with the Negro, the contemporary white man feels the need to recall the times of cannibalism.” (225)
When the Black man looks at the white man, he feels the need to take revenge over the fact that this white man views him as a cannibal. He also writes:
“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: that of demanding human behavior from the other” (229)
“I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.” (230)
“The Negro is not. Any more than the white man” (231)
Nowadays, Fanon’s project has been replaced by the acknowledgement that our social positionality and embodied experiences — as being Black, white, a woman, queer, etc. — are inextricable from our interactions with others.
Gayatri Spivak writes that there is an affinity between the imperialist subject — the person of color presented as needy, in need of colonization — and the subject of humanism. That Black subject, lacking in humanity, and the subject in need of enlightenment to humanism, are one in the same.
Main Concept: Racism
Fanon defines racism a way to establish who is human and not-human and therefore reproduce structures of domination that are useful for imperialist practices. Postcolonial scholar Ramon Grosfoguel describes this conception in the following way:
“Racism is a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority over the line of what is human, that has been politically produced and reproduced as a structure of domination over centuries by the imperialist, Eurocentric, Christian-centric, capitalist, patriarchal, modern colonial system.”
In other words, Fanon’s take on racism is open and allows for different expressions of racism, including expressions based not only on skin color, but on language, culture, and religion. For example, if we bomb Iran and say that we are bombing them because they are such brutal criminals, that their only interest is to hurt white American people because white Americans are free — that’s a way of coding racism. The implication is that we must kill human beings to preserve the more-human humans: white Americans. It is also using Eurocentrism by using European experiences and values to measure and judge others, rather than their own.
For Fanon, racism is the way all of this achieved. Capitalism is only able to develop in Europe because of the resources stolen through massacres, famines, and wars from people living in colonized places.
Main Concept: Zones of being and non-being
“There is a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.” (8)
Subjects located above the human line live in what Fanon calls the “being zone”. Meanwhile, subjects that considered below this line live in the zone of non-being.
From this division of being and nonbeing, one can understand that, for example, gender or sexual oppressions are lived differently in two zones. We can talk about, being white, but also white women. Both zones are non-homogeneous and stratified (Grosfoguel).
Language as a tool of colonization
There is a hierarchy of languages. The Black person speaks an “inferior” French, called Creole, which is denied the respect of designation as a distinct language.
“A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.” (18)
In a world where a dialect is considered the mere variation of a central, standard and correct “language”, Black speech variations like Creole are portrayed as “dialects”, rather as authentic languages, which “express and imply” worlds of their own.
Hierarchies also exist through language. White people assume a Creole or “dialect”-speaking, or non-native speaker are simple-minded because they don’t have the same skills in the particular language of the colonizer. For example, Native American children being forced not to speak their language in the schools which were designed to kill the “indian” in them. In the Antilles, “The language spoken officially is French; teachers keep a close watch over the children to make sure they do not use Creole.” (228)
Main Concept: Alienation
Pursues a different conception of alienation than Marx, explores racism as a factor of alienation. For the extremely oppressed, life itself is struggle. Regardless of whether that fight is successful or not, by fighting itself, you reaffirm your life and existence.
“I do not carry innocence to the point of believing that appeals to reason or to respect for human dignity can alter reality. For the Negro who works on a sugar plantation in Le Robert, there is only one solution: to fight. He will embark on this struggle and he will pursue it, not as the result of a Marxist or idealistic analysis but quite simply because he cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a battle against exploitation, misery, and hunger.”
“The Black man wants to be like the white man. For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white. Long ago, the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence.” (228)
The only way this problem can be eliminated is by destroying the white man, that is destroying the designations of “black” and “white” and moving toward a new humanism.