Relevant and Thought-Provoking: Frantz Fanon would be 92 this Year.
The phenomenon of colonization nowadays seems as odd as it used to be commonplace in 18th and 19th century Africa and Asia. The idea of breaking it apart was already a challenge; the idea of doing so violently, using direct action was extremist. Today, Frantz Fanon stands on the right side of history, even if his methods are still a matter of heated debate. But the current configuration of the world confirms that his ideas remain valid.
“Why am I writing this book? ...my answer is that there are too many idiots on this earth. And now that I've said it, I have to prove it.”
This line is in the introduction of Black Skin, White Masks, which was intended as a doctoral dissertation that was rejected for being too controversial. Fanon was a leading theorist in the mid 20th century on the topics of racism, (anti)colonialism, civil rights and black consciousness. He argued that everyone was part of the colonial dialectic and that no one was beyond the structures of colonialism.
Frantz Fanon was born 92 years ago in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. Back then the world was recovering from the First World War, which had devastated Europe. The economy was picking up and Martinique was becoming an important port for trade between the United States and Europe.
The global map was shaped by the colonialism that took a formal hold of Africa during the 19th century. The French had ruled Martinique since the 17th century. Fanon grew in this context, when the West, meaning the United States and Western Europe, especially England and France, established a physical and ideological dominion over most of Africa and Asia, with a few colonies in the Caribbean.
During the Second World War Fanon joined the Gaullist forces opposing the Vichy regime. Despite fighting alongside French soldiers, he noticed how blacks were always relegated to a second place by their own government. He went on to study psychiatry in France, studying the relation between culture and the human psyche. During this time he worked on one of his seminal books, Black Skin, White Masks.
In 1953 he went to Algeria and joined the National Liberation Front supporting their claim for independence. He then saw the use of violence as the only viable mean towards decolonization. He wrote extensively on this in The Wretched of the Earth, published shortly before his death and immediately banned in France upon publication.
Fanon died of leukemia in 1961 when he was just 36, at a time when African countries were acquiring their independence at an accelerated pace, but he did not witness the independence of Algeria, nor that of Martinique, which remains still today part of the French Republic.
Using Western paradigms of reason and science, he set off to establish what the nature of the colonizer was, what the motivations and justifications were and how this affected the psyche of the colonized. Because, after all, colonialism and racism were two topics that went hand in hand due to established patterns.
Whites, according to Fanon, had an urge to prove that their colonization was not unfounded, that they were modernizing and liberating the colonial subjects. In doing so, they objectified the colonized as instruments for their own historical narratives, masking their spoiling and theft of land and culture.
Colonization created in black people a desire to invert the colonial order. Not to destroy it, but to take the place of the white colonizers. Fanon noted the desire of certain black men and women to conquer, or even marry, a member of the upper white class. This was both a mode of social advancement and a symbolic conquest of the white colonizers, yet again inverting the table by not undoing the colonial system. He criticized such modes because they did not liberate blacks from the colonial dialectic, but rather, entangled them in it, therefore perpetuating colonial systems.
Despite his rational approach, Fanon continued to encounter challenges to his claims by the white intelligentsia: history, politics and philosophy belonged to the white world. Many still supported eugenics. This led him to conclude that blacks and those colonized in general, did not fit into the narratives created by whites, and that therefore this was evidence of the subhuman nature of the colonized in the eyes of whites. He then advocated for a total break with European ideas and that the colonized would carve their own new way. This break could only happen with violence. Violence that would “cleanse” the colonial subjects from their past, that would create common links and struggles among the people, providing them agency and legitimizing their claim to nationhood.
In the 21st century the colonial struggle may seem anachronistic, as well as Fanon’s desire for a third alternative to development.
Nevertheless, in the brilliant foreword to The Wretched of the Earth, Homi Bhabha argues that Fanon’s ideas are still relevant in the context of post colonialism, aid development and capitalism. The ethical questions that Fanon raised in response to colonialism can also be contextualized in the current globalization: who is rich and who is poor, how do goods flow from the periphery into the center, how does someone’s accumulation force another into poverty, what are the local patterns of domination within countries, the existence and extent of national sovereignty… Had Fanon lived longer, he would have probably by now studied the effects of the United States’ cultural hegemony over the psyche of former colonies. And even though Fanon did not provide an answer to these questions, being a psychiatrist he gave the diagnosis that serves as basis for any current and future action.
The main allure and aversion that Fanon provokes is that he locates everyone on the line between colonizers and colonized. Each of his readers has to stand somewhere within the spectrum, and as such, is ascribed with the historical legacy of their race, and a responsibility towards the world and its systems of domination. Some may feel they are being ascribed certain roles or stereotypes, but the conscious reader will find that the emancipation of the individual can only happen through achieving communal freedom.