Frantz Fanon is probably the most well-known activist and theorist of the anticolonial independence movements of the post–World War II period. His ideas on colonialism, antiblack racism, and the struggle for freedom have had a huge influence around the world and have been central to theories of violence and postcolonialism.
Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1925 to middle-class parents. At the time of Fanon's childhood and adolescence, Martinique was a colony of France, but its status was changed in 1946 when it became one of the French Overseas Departments. Fanon was educated at the prestigious Lycée Schoelcher where he was taught by the poet Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of the negritude movement, which aimed to reappraise black culture in a positive light. Fanon was deeply indebted to Césaire throughout his life but disagreed with the ideas of negritude as a way of challenging racism. During World War II, Fanon joined the Free French Forces and fought against fascism in Morocco, Algeria, and France where he received the Croix de Guerre medal in 1944. After a brief return to Martinique after the war, where he obtained his baccalaureate, he went back to France in 1946 to study medicine and psychiatry in Lyon.
During this time, Fanon's engagement with the theories of Hegelianism, phenomenology, existentialism, and psychoanalysis, coupled with his increasing awareness of French metropolitan racism, led to the writing and publication of his first book Black Skin, White Masks ( 1967). In this book, Fanon employs an eclectic range of theory to show how colonialism alienates the colonized from their sense of self. He is particularly influenced by the concepts employed by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his analysis of anti-Semitism in his book Anti-Semite and Jew ( 1995). Fanon adopts Sartre's understanding of the way in which the Jew is defined negatively by the racist gaze of the anti-Semite and transfers it to the colonial situation. He describes an incident on a train in France when a young white boy, on seeing the black Fanon, says to his mother “Mummy, look at the Negro! I'm frightened.” This moment dramatizes the process by which blackness is objectified and demonized in a white world. The imposition of this white mask on the black skin operates unconsciously to produce fear and anxiety on the part of the white boy (Negrophobia) and a shattering of the sense of self on the part of the black man as he sees himself, and especially his own body, through the phobic gaze of the other.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon takes Western theory and shows its limitations when applied to the colonial context. Despite adopting Sartre's model of racism and alienation, he demonstrates how Sartre's existential version of being devalues blackness; he borrows from Freud but says that psychoanalysis cannot be applied uncritically to the Caribbean; he reappraises Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's master-slave dialectic and his theory of recognition to show how they are founded on a Western understanding of the workings of history. The book can be read as a dramatization of the clash between two conflicting aspects of Fanon's upbringing: the Western intellectual tradition of defining the human central to his education and the lived experience of a young black man in a situation of colonial rule. The text often goes off on tangents, and its exploration of sexual desire frequently betrays Fanon's own patriarchal assumptions. However, it is a fascinating exploration—through a strange blend of literary, psychoanalytic, philosophical, and sociological analysis—of the ways in which colonialism not only exploits people economically but through its imposition of a racialized ideology, alienates them in cultural, psychical, and somatic ways as well and distorts their most profound desires and fears. Only through understanding the unconscious ways in which colonialism dehumanizes its victims can the colonized hope to find true freedom and authenticity.
It was not until he had qualified as a psychiatrist in 1953 and after a brief spell in Normandy, had taken up a post at the Blida-Joinville psychiatric hospital in Algeria that Fanon's ideas on colonialism and liberation became more radical. The Algerian war of independence started in 1954, and Fanon became increasingly aware of the effects of colonialism on the economic and social structures of the country and on the psychic lives of ordinary Algerians. The disorders of his patients, he concluded, were not simply clinical but due, in large part, to colonial oppression. Hence, clinical remedies were no solution to the problem; only liberation from colonial oppression could reintegrate damaged selves and reinvent exploited nations. He consequently resigned his post in Blida in 1956, explaining in his famous “Letter to the Resident Minister” the reasons for his refusal to work for a state that had reduced the status of Algeria to that of “absolute depersonalization” and “systematic dehumanization.” By this time, Fanon had already joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), the revolutionary movement struggling for independence from French colonial rule, and started writing for its newspaper El Moudjahid (The Warrior). Following his resignation from his post in Blida, he was expelled from Algeria and went to Tunis where he continued to work as a psychiatrist and also became an editor for El Moudjahid. Using the example of the Algerian uprising as his permanent model, he now committed himself to the political struggle to rid the Third World of its Western masters.
Many of Fanon's writings of these years, including his letter of resignation from Blida, were collected after his death and published posthumously as Toward the African Revolution ( 1970). However, his two other books, A Dying Colonialism ( 1970) and The Wretched of the Earth ( 1966) constitute his major works outlining a revolutionary program for liberation. In A Dying Colonialism, Fanon explores different aspects of the Algerian situation to demonstrate how a revolutionary national consciousness must be constructed as a necessary precursor for the struggle for national liberation. In his essay on the veil, Fanon shows how the European fantasy to remove the head covering from the Algerian woman and discover her secret (a sexualized metaphor for the rape of the country as a whole) is challenged by the refusal of the Algerian woman to reveal herself to the occupier. This refusal constitutes a significant act of resistance and helps to develop a revolutionary consciousness for the war of independence from colonial rule. (For a cinematic portrayal of this process, see Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, 1965.) Fanon's analysis of the Algerian woman's subversion of the controlling gaze of the European man recalls his advocacy of a subversion of the colonial objectification of the black body in Black Skin, White Masks. In the other essays in A Dying Colonialism, Fanon shows how other features of Algerian society under colonial rule—the radio, the Algerian family, the imposition of Western medical science, and the presence of Algeria's European minority—must similarly be challenged and transformed from tools of colonial propaganda, control, and oppression to a means of forging a historical consciousness of liberation and the unification of subjected peoples. Demystification, deobjectification, transformation, and reappropriation are a fundamental part of what Fanon terms the historical dynamism of the struggle for independence.
The Wretched of the Earth, probably Fanon's most famous text, became the manifesto for revolutionary struggle against colonialism in the period of postwar decolonization. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Algerian war of independence had entered its critical stage, and Fanon had by now adopted an uncompromising position. In the book, he argues that because colonialism has constructed a Manichaean racialized order founded on violence—dividing the settler irrevocably from the native—it can only be defeated through a reverse Manichaeism that will itself be founded on violence. In his preface to the book, Sartre calls this, “The moment of the boomerang” when the colonized wreak their revenge. As Fanon says, the end of colonialism will “only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists.” He conceives of violence as a cleansing force in this struggle that will destroy the two zones created by colonialism and prepare the people for a new start (a tabula rasa).
However, although the text became known especially for its advocacy of violent revolution, in fact the major part of it deals not with violence, but the dangers to avoid for any independence movement to ensure the successful development of a national consciousness and creation of a unified people. Fanon warns against the rise of a new national bourgeoisie that would simply re-form the colonial order instead of removing it. He explains how the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West diverts attention from the real struggle for independence for colonized peoples. He explains how old hostilities between traditional religious communities and the more modern secular aspirations of city-dwellers threaten the unity essential for a successful movement of liberation. He proclaims that the construction of a national consciousness must be founded on the consciousness of social and political needs, hence allying socialist and nationalist principles in the movement for independence. He uses his scientific training to demonstrate, once again, how neuroses are often a consequence of colonial oppression, hence historically rather than biologically determined. Finally (and most prophetically, as we can see with hindsight), he warns against the cult of the leader that will derail the will of the collectivity.
Like previous works, The Wretched of the Earth makes use of different Western theories and transforms them in order to propose a radical program for national liberation and the creation of a new “Man.” Fanon engages once more with Hegel's notion of the unfolding of history to demonstrate how this theory is conceived in western terms and must be reformulated to take account of the historical dynamism of non-Western peoples. Similarly, he explains how, in the colonial context, it is race rather than class that is the main cause of the compartmentalization of spaces so that Marxist analysis must be stretched to understand inequality in colonized lands. Sartre's theories of being and authenticity are again reappraised through the eyes of the colonized, while previous challenges to Western universalism—the foremost of which is the negritude movement—are dismissed as proposing essentialist myths about black culture (“a national culture is not a folklore,” as Fanon says) which do little to eradicate the source of oppression itself. Yet Fanon's ideas are sometimes contradictory and his views on the new humanity to emerge from the failed Western version frequently seem to be founded on blind faith rather than a coherent program for revolution.
The Wretched of the Earth is the culmination of Fanon's ideas on liberation for colonized peoples that he had expressed in numerous articles in previous years and disseminated in his role as ambassador to Ghana in Accra in 1960 (on behalf of the provisional government of Algeria before independence) and as roving ambassador in other Third World countries for pan-African unity (see for example, “This Africa to Come” in Toward the African Revolution). Fanon wrote the book during a period of remission from the leukemia that he had contracted in 1960. He died in December 1961 in the United States at the age of thirty-six, shortly after the completion of The Wretched of the Earth and only a few months before Algeria gained its independence from France. According to his dying wish, he was buried in Algeria six days after his death.
Fanon's ideas have had a far greater influence after his death than they ever had during his lifetime. During the 1960s, Fanon's message of violent revolution struck a chord with other anti-imperialist liberation movements of the time, although his influence in Africa was not as extensive as it proved to be in the United States where he acquired cult status for black activists in the Black Power movement. Since the 1980s, with the development of cultural studies and postcolonial theory in American and British universities, Fanon has been invoked as one of the most significant anti-imperialist thinkers of our time (although he has had very little recognition in France). Interestingly, it is not so much Fanon the theorist of violent revolution who is championed today as Fanon the theorist of racial ideology. Hence, The Wretched of the Earth has been gradually replaced as the seminal work by Black Skin, White Masks as the perspective on Fanon has steadily shifted from the political theorist to the cultural analyst.
A balanced view of Fanon would consider both perspectives as, for Fanon himself, they are profoundly interconnected. Decisive political action leading to liberation from oppression can only follow from analysis of the complex ways in which racialized colonial ideology inhabits popular culture and penetrates the unconscious of every individual (see for example “Racism and Culture” in Toward the African Revolution). Fanon was one of the first theorists of what we might call the decolonization of the mind (a process that is far from completion today). He was also one of the first to explore the tangled relationships between race, gender, sexual desire, and power. In a more general sense, Fanon's life and work mark a watershed in modern history: the limitations of the Western project of civilization, progress, and humanity are cruelly exposed when measured against the violent and dehumanizing history of colonialism. Fanon announces the backlash against Western hubris and the rise of new voices in the postwar period. His theories were sometimes confused, his obsession with the effects of colonial history all-consuming, and his version of liberation politics extreme. Yet no matter how utopian it seems, his dream of a new humanity, freed from the divisions of racial stereotyping, remains an inspiring vision for the postcolonial world.
See also Alienation; Black Power; Empire and Political Thought; Ethnicity and Political Thought; Freud and Social Theory; Gandhi, Mohandas (Mahatma); Globalization; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Psychoanalysis and Political Thought; Race and Racism; Revolution; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Terrorism; Twentieth-Century Political Thought; War and Political Thought
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