Frantz Fanon. A figure that has, to a large degree, faded into the mists of time.
He was, of course, a Martinican psychiatrist and author who later went on to join the FLN in the Algerian insurgency.
I recently read one of his books ‘Black Skin, White Masks‘ and I must say, it’s one of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read. Beautifully written in prose, scrupulously honest and with a theme that you simply won’t find elsewhere.
Some background before we discuss.
The French were proud throughout the 20th century of their ability to assimilate blacks – this in contrast to, say, the US, where black people were seen as second-class citizens. However, Fanon claimed that the process of assimilation was far more painful than was commonly supposed. He claimed that if one was to live as an ‘assimilated’ black in France, one would have to deny the very fact that one was black.
He writes of how people would try to assure him that he wasn’t one of ‘them’ – the ‘savages’ – but one of ‘us’ – a Frenchman. He writes of how alienating this is for the assimilated black. The book pulls no punches – he writes of how both black men and black women in France at the time avoid each other and aspire to marry whites. ‘To get some whiteness in their lives,’ he writes.
This ‘mask’ of ‘whiteness’ leaves a void at the heart of every black person living assimilated in France, a void that Fanon – the psychiatrist – compares to mental illness.
After writing the book Fanon wandered from place to place in search of a solution to his problem. Eventually he found himself working in an Algerian mental institution. Here he heard first-hand of the brutalities that were taking place outside the asylum walls. The French, while they may have been very civil when it came to assimilation, were particularly brutal colonisers – and they tortured and killed those Algerians that hadn’t been assimilated at will and in the most brutal of ways.
In the unassimilated Algerians – who, Fanon claimed, the French saw as ‘dirty Arabs’ – Fanon saw a reflection of the black man whom he had been writing about. In the Algerian he saw a person without a home – alienated and oppressed in their own native country. Yet unlike the assimilated blacks of Martinique, these people had… well… nothing; nothing but their bare lives.
In this Fanon saw promise. In these people, with nothing to lose, with no identity, Fanon saw the potential of a New Man – more specifically, Fanon saw the colonial equivalent of Marx’s proletariat; people who also had no fixed identity, who also moved from place to place always under the gaze of their oppressor – and, most importantly, who had nothing left to lose but their chains.
Naturally, Fanon joined the FLN and helped fight the coloniser. Until he died an early death from leukemia.
Fanon left behind a new idea – or, at least, an idea that hadn’t been fully articulated before. In the identityless colonial subject Fanon saw a primordial violence. These people had no voice and their only way to communicate was through direct violence – ‘acting out‘ in the psychobabble. Yet Fanon saw this ‘acting out’ as a positive and liberating articulation of their struggle. He thought that it would cleanse and heal the psychic wounds of colonialism – giving the colonial subjects their dignity once more, which they could then use to construct a new national identity.
This was in direct contrast to what Fanon’s psychiatric training would have taught him. There he would have learnt that ‘acting out’ was, in fact, a dangerous manifestation of a failure to communicate… one that could end in self-harm, murder or suicide. Yet, for some reason Fanon saw this as liberating.
This was an idea that would gain traction with many groups; sometimes directly – as in the case of the Islamists – sometimes indirectly – as in the case of Pol Pot and the Red Army Faction.
Yet, for all this I cannot help but think that Fanon’s work raises extremely important questions. One’s that are ostensibly raised by contemporary cultural studies – but are watered down, whitewashed and, indeed, masked in the process. Fanon’s argument is violent and uncompromising; his solution was no such thing – but for all that, I still think that he poses the problem correctly.
Here’s a film on Fanon that was made in the 1990s and named after the aforementioned book ‘Black Skin, White Masks‘. The acting is of a very high standard and I was struck that the cultural theorist Stuart Lee – who I regard as usually trading in sterilised platitudes – frontally and honestly engages with Fanon’s work. That alone, is worth the price of admission.
(I’d also recommend checking out Adam Curtis’ film ‘The Power of Nightmares‘ on how these ideas were taken up by the Islamists – as well as reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s short but beautifully written and powerful preface to Fanon’s most famous book ‘The Wretched of the Earth‘).
Black Skin, White Masks