Monday, February 18, 2008

Profile: Dr. Frantz Fanon {1925 -- 1961}

Update: 2-18-2008

"I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world. My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values. There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men who search. I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introduction invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself."
~ Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, 1952

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon's relatively short life yielded two potent and influential statements of anti-colonial revolutionary thought, Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), works which have made Fanon a prominent contributor to postcolonial studies.

Fanon was born in 1925, to a middle-class family in the French colony of Martinique. He left Martinique in 1943, when he volunteered to fight with the Free French in World War II, and he remained in France after the war to study medicine and psychiatry on scholarship in Lyon. Here he began writing political essays and plays, and he married a Frenchwoman, Jose Duble. Before he left France, Fanon had already published his first analysis of the effects of racism and colonization, Black Skin, White Masks (BSWM), originally titled "An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks," in part based on his lectures and experiences in Lyon.

BSWM is part manifesto, part analysis; it both presents Fanon's personal experience as a black intellectual in a whitened world and elaborates the ways in which the colonizer/colonized relationship is normalized as psychology. Because of his schooling and cultural background, the young Fanon conceived of himself as French, and the disorientation he felt after his initial encounter with French racism decisively shaped his psychological theories about culture. Fanon inflects his medical and psychological practice with the understanding that racism generates harmful psychological constructs that both blind the black man to his subjection to a universalized white norm and alienate his consciousness. A racist culture prohibits psychological health in the black man.

For Fanon, being colonized by a language has larger implications for one's consciousness: "To speak . . . means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization" (17-18). Speaking French means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the French, which identifies blackness with evil and sin. In an attempt to escape the association of blackness with evil, the black man dons a white mask, or thinks of himself as a universal subject equally participating in a society that advocates an equality supposedly abstracted from personal appearance. Cultural values are internalized, or "epidermalized" into consciousness, creating a fundamental disjuncture between the black man's consciousness and his body. Under these conditions, the black man is necessarily alienated from himself.

Fanon insists, however, that the category "white" depends for its stability on its negation, "black." Neither exists without the other, and both come into being at the moment of imperial conquest. Thus, Fanon locates the historical point at which certain psychological formations became possible, and he provides an important analysis of how historically-bound cultural systems, such as the Orientalist discourse Edward Said describes, can perpetuate themselves as psychology. While Fanon charts the psychological oppression of black men, his book should not be taken as an accurate portrait of the oppression of black women under similar conditions. The work of feminists in postcolonial studies undercuts Fanon's simplistic and unsympathetic portrait of the black woman's complicity in colonization.

In 1953, Fanon became Head of the Psychiatry Department at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria, where he instituted reform in patient care and desegregated the wards. During his tenure in Blida, the war for Algerian independence broke out, and Fanon was horrified by the stories of torture his patients -- both French torturers and Algerian torture victims -- told him. The Algerian War consolidated Fanon's alienation from the French imperial viewpoint, and in 1956 he formally resigned his post with the French government to work for the Algerian cause. His letter of resignation encapsulates his theory of the psychology of colonial domination, and pronounces the colonial mission incompatible with ethical psychiatric practice: "If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization. . . . The events in Algeria are the logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralize a people" (Toward the African Revolution 53).

Following his resignation, Fanon fled to Tunisia and began working openly with the Algerian independence movement. In addition to seeing patients, Fanon wrote about the movement for a number of publications, including Sartre's Les Temps Modernes, Presence Africaine, and the FLN newspaper el Moudjahid; some of his work from this period was collected posthumously as Toward the African Revolution (1964). But Fanon's work for Algerian independence was not confined to writing. During his tenure as Ambassador to Ghana for the Provisional Algerian Government, he worked to establish a southern supply route for the Algerian army.

While in Ghana, Fanon developed leukemia, and though encouraged by friends to rest, he refused. He completed his final and most fiery indictment of the colonial condition, The Wretched of the Earth, in 10 months, and the book was published by Jean-Paul Sartre in the year of his death. Fanon died at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he had sought treatment for his cancer, on December 6, 1961. At his request, his body was returned to Algeria and buried with honors by the Algerian National Army of Liberation.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon develops the Manichean perspective implicit in BSWM. To overcome the binary system in which black is bad and white is good, Fanon argues that an entirely new world must come into being. This utopian desire, to be absolutely free of the past, requires total revolution, "absolute violence" (37). Violence purifies, destroying not only the category of white, but that of black too. According to Fanon, true revolution in Africa can only come from the peasants, or "fellaheen." Putting peasants at the vanguard of the revolution reveals the influence of the FLN, who based their operations in the countryside, on Fanon's thinking. Furthermore, this emphasis on the rural underclass highlights Fanon's disgust with the greed and politicking of the comprador bourgeoisie in new African nations. The brand of nationalism espoused by these classes, and even by the urban proletariat, is insufficient for total revolution because such classes benefit from the economic structures of imperialism. Fanon claims that non-agrarian revolutions end when urban classes consolidate their own power, without remaking the entire system. In his faith in the African peasantry as well as his emphasis on language, Fanon anticipates the work of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, who finds revolutionary artistic power among the peasants.

Given Fanon's importance to postcolonial studies, the obituaries marking his death were small; the two inches of type offered by The New York Times and Le Monde inadequately describe his achievements and role. He has been influential in both leftist and anti-racist political movements, and all of his works were translated into English in the decade following his death. His work stands as an important influence on current postcolonial theorists, notably Homi Bhabha and Edward Said.

British director Isaac Julien's Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996) has recently been released by California Newsreel. Weaving together interviews with family members and friends, documentary footage, readings from Fanon's work, and dramatizations of crucial moments in his life, the film reveals not just the facts of Fanon's brief and remarkably eventful life but his long and tortuous journey as well. In the course of the film, critics Stuart Hall and Françoise Verges position Fanon's work in his own time and draw out its implications for our own.

Works by Frantz Fanon

Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967. Reprint of Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris, 1952.

Studies in a Dying Colonialism, or A Dying Colonialism. New York, 1965. Reprint of L'an cinq de la revolution algerienne. Paris, 1959.

The Wretched of the Earth. New York, 1965. Reprint of Les damnes de la terre. Paris, 1961.

Toward the African Revolution. New York, 1967. Reprint of Pour la revolution africaine. Paris, 1964.

Selected Criticism

Abel, Lionel. "Seven Heroes of the New Left." The New York Times Magazine 5 may 1968.

Bhabha, Homi. "Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative." The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 40-66.

de Beauvoir, Simone. Force of Circumstance. New York: Putnam, 1964.

Bergner, Gwen. "Who Is That Masked Woman? or, The Role of Gender in Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks." PMLA 110.1 (January 1995): 75-88.

Caute, David. Frantz Fanon. New York: The Viking Press, 1970.

Fuss, Diana. "Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification." Diacritics (Summer-Fall 1994): 20-42.

Gates, Henry Louis. "Critical Fanonism." Critical Inquiry 17 (1992): 457-470.

Geismar, Peter. Fanon. New York: The Dial Press, 1971.

Gendzier, Irene L. Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study. New York: Pantheon Books-Random House, 1973.

Gordon, Lewis R. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man. New York: Routledge, 1995.

"Homage to Frantz Fanon." Presence Africaine 12 (1962): 130-152. Ten writers, politicians and scholars contributed to this special section, including Aime Césaire and Nkrumah.

Memmi, Albert. "The Impossible Life of Frantz Fanon." Massachusetts Review (Winter 1973): 9-39.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 1993.

Seigel, J. E. "On Frantz Fanon." American Scholar (Winter 1968): 84-96.

"Remembering Fanon." New Formations 1 (Spring 1987): 118-135. Homi Bhabha, Stephan Feuchtwang and Barbara Harlow contributed to a special section remembering Fanon on the 25th anniversary of his death.

Links to Other Sites
Isaac Julien's Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
An Introduction to Fanon
Fanon and "National Culture"
Fanon on the national bourgeoisie and "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness"
Black Skin White Masks--Orality as both Domination and Resistance
Author: Author: Jennifer Poulos, Spring 1996

Links within this site

Postcolonial Studies at Emory

Introduction Authors Theorists Terms & Issues

(Image of an "Homme Carrefour" from Donald J. Cosentino's Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou [Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995].)

Frantz Fanon: An Overview

Frantz Fanon: an Introduction
Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

His revolutionary ambitions cut short by leukemia in 1961, psychoanalyst and philosopher Frantz Fanon had by the time of his death amassed a body of critical work that today establishes his position as a leading theoretician of (among other issues) black consciousness and identity, nationalism and its failings, colonial rule and the inherently "violent" task of decolonization, language as an index of power, miscegenation, and the objectification of the performative black body. Fanon's burgeoning popularity and influence on more recent post-colonial readings of black liberation and nationalism perhaps serve as an index of his centrality to the movement for Algierian self-determination in the 1950's that shaped (and, in turn, was shaped by) his diverse career as a political activist and critic. Born on the island of Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought with the allied forces against Nazi Germany in Europe during the second World War and afterwards studied psychiatry in France, where he published his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks). While practicing medicine in Antilles in northern Africa during the French-Algerian war, Fanon actively supported and organized a resistance to French colonialism by authoring two books outlining an insurgent Third World uprising: L'An V de la revolution algerienne (A Dying colonialism or Year Five of the Algerian Revolution), and Les Damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth).

As Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renee T. White suggest in their introduction to Fanon: a Critical Reader, Fanon's critical trajectory spans across the political and academic disciplines of philosophy, psychiatry, social science, and literature. Rather like the writings of C.L.R. James -- a Trinidadian Marxist whose critical scope ranged from cultural critiques of cricket and Shakespeare to political polemics engaging Lenin and Trotsky -- Frantz Fanon's contributions must be contextualized historically; unlike many of today's postcolonial critics, in other words, Fanon's contribution to current understandings of nationalism and decolonization emerged during and not after the exegencies of colonial rule. In other words, it's important to contextualize Fanon's vehement (and perhaps both ethnocentric and reductive) advocacy of anticolonialism against his participation in the Algierian struggle for self-determination -- a moment of social transformation that preceded the emergence of the poststructuralist lessons of the 1960s and 1970s that underwrite the projects of so many postcolonial critics today.

Fanon: "National Culture"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

In "On National Culture," an essay collected in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon foregrounds the following paradox: "national identity," while vital to the emergence of a Third World revolution, paradoxically limits such efforts at liberation because it re-inscribes an essentialist, totalizing, fetishized, often middle-class specific understanding of "nation" rather than encouraging a nuanced articulation of an oppressed people's cultural heterogeneity across class lines. In other words, although the concept of "nation" unfairly characterizes colonized subjects as historically unified in their primitiveness or exoticness, the term's promise of solidarity and unity often proves helpful nonetheless in their attempts at political amelioration. Fanon encourages a materialist conceptualization of the nation that is based not so much on collective cultural traditions or ancestor-worship as political agency and the collective attempt to dismantle the economic foundations of colonial rule. Colonialism, as Fanon argues, not only physically disarms the colonized subject but robs her of a "pre-colonial" cultural heritage. And yet, if colonialism in this sense galvanizes the native intellectual to "renew contact once more with the oldest and most pre-colonial spring of life of their people," Fanon is careful to point out that these attempts at recovering national continuity throughout history are often contrived and ultimately self-defeating. "I am ready to concede," he admits, "that on the plane of factual being the past existence of an Aztec civilization does not change anything very much in the diet of the Mexican peasant of today." In the passage below, Fanon explains that "national identity" only carries meaning insofar as it reflects the combined revolutionary efforts of an oppressed people aiming at collective liberation:

A national culture is not a folklore, not an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people's true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. (233)

Fanon: Black Skin White Masks--Orality as both Domination and Resistance

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Itself an assemblage of angry polemic and experiental, mytho-poetic personal vignettes, Frantz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks situates language and the body at the center of the black predicament of marginalization, pathologization, and servitude. "A man who has a language," Fanon suggests, "consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language." Foreshadowing somewhat Michel Foucault's coupling of knowledge and power, Fanon argues that language becomes an index of both cultural difference and power imbalance. "What we are getting at becomes plain: Mastery of language affords remarkable power" (18) In the context of the French-Algierian war, Fanon laments the fact that the French language assumed a certain privilege over the "jabber" of native dialects. The native bourgeoisie, as Fanon argues, undermines the workings of revolution by covetting the agency or subjectivity ensured by the ability to speak the language of the colonial bourgeoisie. "We are trying to understand," Fanon asks, "why the Antilles Negro is so fond of speaking French" (27). To Fanon the assimilation and valorization of the french language underscores the native intellectual's complicity with the "mother" country that uses language as a discursive instrument to subordinate colonized subjects and legitimate its comparative privilege.

And yet, in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin suggest the possibility that "orality" empowers the colonial subject with a mode of resistance. As they argue in the passage below, despite the subordination of "oral traditions" in Western modernity, spoken performances often reject the discursive subordination as a result not only of colonization but academic conceptualizations of colonization:

In 'modern' societies the oral and the performative continues to exist alongside the written but is largely ignored or relegated to the condition of pretext in many accounts, represented as only the beginning or origin of the written. Yet in many postcolonial societies oral, performative events may be the principle present and modern means of continuity for the pre-colonial culture and may also be the tools by which the dominant social institutions and discourses can be subverted or repositioned, shown that is to be constructions naturalised within a hierarchised politics of difference. (322)

How, as Randall Bass asks in terms of Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, might these competing notions of "orality" bear upon the function of language and utterance in liturature? With regards to Fanon's investment in the Algiers-France conflict, how might depictions of language articulate themselves in relation to each other along the lines of race and gender? Consider Camus, for instance, not forgetting Gide or Genet -- all of whom might be considered to challenge, in different ways, the status quo that shapes colonial dominance and coercion in Algierian literature.

Fanon: "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

As Neil Lazarus suggests in his Resistance in African Literature, one of Fanon's most telling theoretical contributions is his insistence on what he terms the "pitfalls of national consciousness." Nationalism, as Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, often fails at achieving liberation across class boundaries because its aspirations are primarily those of the colonized bourgeoisie--a privileged middle class who perhaps seeks to defeat the prevailing colonial rule only to usurp its place of dominance and surveillance over the working-class "lumpenproletariat." Fanon's work -- which predates postructuralist understandings of deconstruction that emerged in the last 1960's -- nonetheless resembles Derrida's work in that it points out that the problems with characterizing colonialism as a binary opposition of colonizer and colonized. Instead, as Fanon would suggest, colonialism may only be understood as a complicated network of complicities and internal power imbalances between factions within the broader categories of colonizer and colonized--not least, of course, the way in which nationalist leaders often replicate the systems of coercion and domination that shape colonial rule. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon blames the failings of nationalism on the "intellectual laziness of the middle class" (149). The native bourgeoisie rises to power only insofar as it seeks to replicate the bourgeoisie of the "mother country" that sustains colonial rule. In the following passage, Fanon suggests that the opportunist native bourgeoisie mistakenly attempts to survey and control the colonized masses to the same extent as the colonial bourgeoisie it attempts to displace:

The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace. In its narcissism, the national middle class is easily convinced that it can advantageously replace the middle class of the mother country. But that same independence which literally drives it into a corner will give rise within its ranks to catastrophic reactions, and will oblige it to send out frenzied appeals for help to the former mother country. (149)

One consequence of the native bourgeoisie's economic dependence upon the colonial bourgeoisie is the problem of representation--specifically the relationship between leader and led that so often serves ironically as a synechdoche for the relationship between colonizer and colonized. Notice, in other words, how the power struggle ostensibly between colonized subjects and empire gets displaced upon power relationships within the colonized body politic itself! An important point of comparison here is C.L.R James, the Trinidadian Marxist whose The Black Jacobins documents the San Domingo revolution--an entirely proletarian uprising--that followed closely upon the French revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Toussaint L'ouveture, the heroic leader of that pathbreaking model for Third World revolution, nonetheless encountered a post-independence questioning of his seemingly self-serving political ambitions and his inadequate consideration of the interests of the newly independent proletariat. In accordance with James, then, Fanon suggests in The Wretched of the Earth the ways in which intellectual leaders often betray the national working-class:

Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty, and national dignity. but as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete form the needs of the people in what touches bread, land, and the restoration of the country to the sacred hands of the people, the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns which constitutes the national bourgeoisie. (166)

Frantz Fanon's diagnosis
`Fanon did not prescribe violence. He diagnosed it'
Oct. 23, 2006. 03:14 PM

As a young man growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, I considered Third World Books on Bathurst St. a shrine to which I made weekly pilgrimages.

In these formative years, I, like so many other young men and women who frequented the store, was exposed to writers and thinkers — Audre Lourde, Claude McKay, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cheikh Anta Diop, C.L.R. James — and a range of ideas such as Pan-Africanism, socialism, Third Worldism, and anti-imperialism. Third World Books was the site of lively, and, at times, heated debate. We were imagining and crafting the world anew, and our tools were the books that graced the store's shelves.

Sadly, the bookstore no longer exists. It expired with Leonard Johnston, or Lennie, as we affectionately called him, who, along with his wife, Gwendolyn Johnston, was not only the proprietor but also the heart and soul of a remarkable institution.

It was Lennie who first exposed me to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The Martinican clinical psychiatrist literally wrote the book on his deathbed as his body teemed with an excess of leucocytes. At the time, he was actively engaged in the Algerian liberation struggle, serving as the Front de libération nationale's (FLN) ambassador to Ghana. The FLN was at the forefront of Algeria's gruelling battle against French colonialism. Fanon had earned the respect of the FLN during his tenure as chef de médecin at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria in the mid-1950s. He put his life at risk by publicly denouncing the horrors of French colonialism in Algeria and treating FLN fedayin who had been tortured by the French.

In retrospect, Fanon's destiny appears to have been tied to Algeria from the beginning. As a medical student specializing in clinical psychiatry in France in the 1950s, he treated impoverished Algerians, leading him to sarcastically remark, "If the standard of living made available to North Africans in France is higher than the one he was accustomed to at home, then there is a good deal to be done in his country, in that `other France.'"

He had also trained for combat in Algeria as a soldier in the French army during World War II. It was during this first visit to Algeria that Fanon encountered the virus of racism that seems to have eluded him in Martinique. White French troops were separated from black West Indians, who were supposed to be French citizens. Black African soldiers were also segregated from French troops, as were Arab Africans, whom the French reviled and treated like pariahs on their own soil. Fanon lived this experience at the very moment that the French army set out to confront German fascism, with its notions of racial purity. The irony of this situation was not lost on him.

The war undoubtedly shaped Fanon's understanding of violence. Fanon entered the war as an adolescent; its endless carnage served as his rite of passage to adulthood. It shook him to the core and purged him of the idealism he harboured when he joined the Free French Force.

Violence profoundly touched Fanon at a pivotal moment in his life. So it is not surprising that he would take it up as a theme in his writing. Since the 1961 publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon has been at the centre of a storm of controversy, most of which is based on the first chapter of the book, entitled "On Violence."

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Fanon is generally read too literally when, as York University professor Ato Sekyi-Otu and others have argued, he should be read, at least in part, in a literary way. Fanon's vivid and dramatic prose was influenced by the literary style of the Martinican poet and statesman Aimé Césaire. The French surrealist poet André Breton described Césaire's 1939 poem "Return to My Native Land" as "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of all time." In the poem, Césaire declared:

my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against

the clamour of the day

my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water

on the dead eye of the earth

my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral

it plunges into the red flesh of the soil

it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky

it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience

Césaire taught Fanon at the Lycée Schoelcher in Martinique, and his compelling, highly emotive manipulation of the French language left a lasting impression on his student. At times, Fanon appears to be making a statement when in actual fact he is either describing a situation, as it exists, or making a dramatic claim, only to recant it in another section, as if he were writing scenes in a play.

In a February 2002 National Post column, "Frantz Fanon: A Poisonous Thinker Who Refuses to Die," writer Robert Fulford claimed that "it was Fanon who brought into modern culture the idea that violence can heal the spiritually wounded," and that Fanon "argued that violence was necessary to Third World peoples not just as a way to win their liberty but, even more, because it would cure the inferiority complex that had been created by the teachings of white men."

He also informed us that The Wretched of Earth "went into six editions in Arabic," scandalously insinuating a relationship between Arabness and violence. Fulford is sorely misguided, if not disingenuous. He perpetuates the image of Fanon as an apostle of violence. But to label Fanon as an avatar of violence is as presumptuous as labelling Fulford as a pacifist.

Much of the hullabaloo stems from passages such as the following: "At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction." At a cursory reading, the passage appears to be a promotion of violence as cathartic release. But at a closer read, Fanon's language is very specific. The words "At the level of individuals" are crucial: Fanon is sharing his first-hand observations as a clinical psychiatrist. He was treating Algerian patients who were engaged in a life-and-death struggle against French settlers who had killed, brutalized, and maimed Algerian women and men. For some of them, violence was a cathartic act. Under these conditions, should we be surprised that, in absence of an impartial judiciary, police force, or any other official institutions willing to defend the rights of Algerians, some of them should take matters into their own hands?

In a chapter of The Wretched of the Earth entitled "Colonial War and Mental Disorders," Fanon describes a series of clinical cases. One involved two Algerian brothers who had murdered their European friend. They had both lost family members at the hands of the French and appear to have killed the friend simply because he himself was French. Naturally, Fanon did not condone the arbitrary killing by the brothers. But as a psychiatrist, he sought to understand why they did it. He concluded that, like so many of his other patients, the brothers were afflicted with "psychiatric phenomena entailing disorders" that were directly linked to their colonial condition. In other words, random violence was not normal behaviour. Fanon did not prescribe violence. He diagnosed it and sought to explain it.

`Violence ... frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction'

Frantz Fanon


He cringed at wanton acts of violence and, despite his medical training, is said to have had a strong aversion to the sight of blood. And yet he could not ignore Algeria's reality, or that of any other society where the colonizer used violence to subvert and repress the life chances of those they colonized. It is puzzling how such a common feature of colonial society has been so controversial. Violence and colonialism go hand-in-hand. Violence is not only used to subjugate colonized peoples; it conditions their very existence because it is held in reserve, for when the "the natives get out of hand."

And just as the Americans used cannons and gunpowder to throw off the yoke of British colonialism, so too do les damnés de la terre reserve that very same right when other avenues to freedom have been blocked. This is what Fanon means when he writes of the colonized "practice of violence and... his plan for freedom." Context is always important. Who today questions whether the Vietnamese were justified in taking up arms, to use violence, in the face of the U.S. bombs that rained down on their villages, killing and maiming tens of thousands of innocent civilians?

But there is another reason to carefully read Fanon. Most of the violence that Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth is fratricidal — Algerians unleashing their pent-up anguish and frustration upon one another, largely because they feel powerless to lash out against their oppressor. At a time when "black-on-black" violence routinely dominates the headlines (does "white-on-white" crime exist?), Fanon reminds us that alienation, poverty, and marginalization are responsible for many of the social and psychological ills of our time. And while it might be too formulaic to ascribe a simple cause-effect relationship to all social problems, there is no doubt that the fratricide that continues to clip so many lives in North America and Europe is directly related to high unemployment, diminished life chances, and the profound sense of social estrangement so many young people feel.

This picture is clear enough in metropolitan centres like Toronto and Montreal, or cities like London and Glasgow. Scotland's brutal orgies of "booze and blades" among rival gangs of white youth recently led the United Nations to designate it the most violent country in the "developed" world. It is also one of Europe's poorest countries: A quarter of Scotland's children live in poverty and are dependent on government assistance.

Fulford believes that Fanon "has receded into history," but this point could not be further from the truth. Fanon continues to resonate with the oppressed and dispossessed of the world. He has been the subject of at least two films, with another one soon to be released by Danny Glover's company, Louverture Films. His ideas are studied in departments of philosophy and political science, and in post-colonial and cultural studies programs, all over the world. His influence in the field of psychiatry and psychology is growing, and a steady flow of Fanon biographies and anthologies suggests that, despite the tremendous impact of his writing in the 1960s and 1970s, we are only now beginning to understand the breadth and depth of his ideas.

When Fulford suggested that Fanon's ideas stubbornly evade death, he is right. Like a festering wound that refuses to heal, the inequalities that Fanon so vividly denounced are still with us today. Like Lennie, who played his part in wiping the fog from our eyes, the ghost of Fanon continues to haunt us, not as a spooky apparition but as one who challenges us to imagine that another world is possible, and to concretely commit ourselves to bringing that world into being.

David Austin is a Montreal writer and community worker. His two-part radio documentary on Frantz Fanon airs on CBC's Ideas Wednesday, Oct. 25 and Wednesday, Nov. 1 at 9 p.m.

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