Frantz Fanon (20 Jul 1925 – 6 Dec 1961)
BIOGRAPHIES, 19 Jul 2021
Frantz Omar Fanon was a Martinique-born French psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory, and Marxism. As an intellectual, Fanon was a political radical, and an existentialist humanist concerning the psychopathology of colonization, and the human, social, and cultural consequences of decolonization.
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 Ngũgĩ 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
- Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967. Reprint of Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Points, 1952.
- Studies in a Dying Colonialism, or A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove, 1965. Reprint of L’an cinq de la revolution algerienne. Paris: F. Maspero, 1959.
- Toward the African Revolution. New York: Grove, 1967. Reprint of Pour la revolution africaine. Paris, 1964.
- The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1965. Reprint of Les damnes de la terre. Paris, 1961.
- 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.
Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask – http://www.newsreel.org/films/frantzfa.htm
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – TRANSCEND Media Service
Born on the island of Martinique under French colonial rule, Frantz Omar Fanon was one of the most important writers in black Atlantic theory in an age of anti-colonial liberation struggle. His work drew on a wide array of poetry, psychology, philosophy, and political theory, and its influence across the global South has been wide, deep, and enduring. In his lifetime, he published two key original works: Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs) in 1952 and The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre) in 1961. Collections of essays, A Dying Colonialism (L’an V de la révolution Algérienne 1959) and Toward the African Revolution (Pour la revolution Africaine), posthumously published in 1964, round out a portrait of a radical thinker in motion, moving from the Caribbean to Europe to North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa and transforming his thinking at each stop. The 2015 collection of his unpublished writings, Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté, will surely expand our understanding of the origins and intellectual context of Fanon’s thinking.
Fanon engaged the fundamental issues of his day: language, affect, sexuality, gender, race and racism, religion, social formation, time, and many others. His impact was immediate upon arrival in Algeria, where in 1953 he was appointed to a position in psychiatry at Bilda-Joinville Hospital. His participation in the Algerian revolutionary struggle shifted his thinking from theorizations of blackness to a wider, more ambitious theory of colonialism, anti-colonial struggle, and visions for a postcolonial culture and society. Fanon published in academic journals and revolutionary newspapers, translating his radical vision of anti-colonial struggle and decolonization for a variety of audiences and geographies, whether as a young academic in Paris, a member of the Algeria National Liberation Front (FLN), Ambassador to Ghana for the Algerian provisional government, or revolutionary participant at conferences across Africa. Following a diagnosis and short battle with leukemia, Fanon was transported to Bethesda, Maryland (arranged by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) for treatment and died at the National Institute for Health facility on December 6, 1961.
1. The Problem of Blackness
In 1952, Fanon published his first major work Black Skin, White Masks. Though just 27 at the time of its publication, the work displays incredible literacy in major intellectual trends of the time: psychoanalysis, existentialism, phenomenology, and dialectics, as well as, most prominently, the early Négritude movement and U.S. based critical race work in figures like Richard Wright. Modest in length, the book is notable for its enormous ambition, seeking to understand the foundations of anti-Black racism in the deepest recesses of consciousness and the social world. The book is Fanon’s major work on blackness. In fact, his focus shifts in the years following the publication of Black Skin, White Masks, moving away from blackness as a problem—perhaps the problem—of the modern world and toward a wider theory of the oppressed, colonialism, and revolutionary resistance to the reach of coloniality as a system. But that shift is unthinkable without Fanon’s early meditations on anti-Black racism. Fanon’s reflections on anti-Black racism and how it forms, then deforms, the subjectivity of white and Black people both, is crucial for understanding the multiple levels of colonial subjugation and the terms of its overcoming. There is something about anti-blackness as treated in Black Skin, White Masks that is a concrete, uncomplicated distillation of coloniality as such. Fanon’s first book, then, can be said to set out the basic structure of his anti- and de-colonial work, initially and emphatically in the terms of describing the effects and affects of anti-black racism.
Fanon’s method in Black Skin, White Masks is a complicated question and one of the more interesting bits of scholarly discussion. The primary approach in the text is existential-phenomenological, something borne out in the rich, textured personal narratives that seize upon the essential structures of the narrativized event of anti-blackness, and also indicated in the title of the fifth chapter—L’experience vécu (experience vécu translates the key phenomenological notion of Erlebnis, properly rendered in the Richard Philcox translation as “lived-experience”). Lewis Gordon’s work on Fanon has argued for the centrality of existentialism and existential framing of key questions across his oeuvre, especially in Gordon’s early work Fanon and the Crisis of European Humanity (1995) and recently in What Fanon Said (2015).
The influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty also lends credence to the phenomenological characterization, but Fanon’s sustained engagement with the Négritude movement, psychoanalysis, Hegelian thought, and Marxism (something evidenced most clearly in later works and documented in Reiland Rabaka’s multi-volume interpretation of Fanon, Négritude, and revolutionary Africana theory) opens up the question of methodology to any number of interpretations and remains one of the more engaging areas of Fanon-interpretation. Homi Bhabha’s innovation as a reader of Fanon has been to draw out the post-structuralist dimensions of his thought, thereby weaving Fanonian themes into contemporary postcolonial theorizations of hybridity, language, subjectivity, and time. We see much the same in Anthony Alessandrini’s provocative book on Fanon and cultural studies, Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics (2014), which puts Fanonian thinking in dialogue with Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Jamaica Kincaid, and Paul Gilroy, among others. In the end, Fanon is a unique thinker who blends personal narrative and political strategizing with heady social theory and numerous philosophical twists and turns.
The introduction to Black Skin, White Masks contains key conclusions and foundational pieces of analysis summed up Fanon’s simple declaration: that Black people are locked in blackness and white people are locked in whiteness. As well, Fanon offers a sketch of the relationship between ontology and sociological structures, asserting that the latter generate the former, which, in turn, lock subjectivities into their racial categories. The chapters that follow are in many ways a long, sustained argument for these assertions, venturing into questions of language, sexuality, embodiment, and dialectics. Perhaps most importantly, Fanon’s opening gambit introduces the central concept of the zone of non-being. The zone of non-being is the “hell”, as Fanon puts it, of blackness honestly confronted with its condition in an anti-Black world.
The anti-Black world, the only world we know, hides this non-being to the extent that it ascribes a place and role to abject blackness. But the truth is the zone of non-being. In an interesting and crucial twist, Fanon, in the Introduction, does not describe descent into this zone as nihilism or despair. Rather, he counters with a vision of subjectivity as “a yes that vibrates to cosmic harmonies” (1952 [2008: 2]). Descent into the zone of non-being produces this yes and its revolutionary power, revolutionary precisely because the anti-Black world cannot contain or sustain the affirmation of Black life as life, as being, as having a claim on the world. This claim and this yes is the positivity of what becomes political violence in Fanon’s later work.
Across the core chapters of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon draws together the existential experience of racialized subjectivity and the calculative logic of colonial rule. For Fanon, and this is critically important, colonialism is a total project. It is a project that does not leave any part of the human person and its reality untouched. This is no more evident than in the opening chapter to Black Skin, White Masks on language. Fanon’s reflections on language, racism, and colonialism begin with a wide claim: to speak a language is to participate in a world, to adopt a civilization. The claim reflects in many ways the philosophical milieu of mid-century French and German philosophy, which in phenomenology, existentialism, and hermeneutics explore the very same claim—that language, subjectivity, and reality are entangled as a matter of essence, not confusion or indistinction. But the colonial situation makes this all the more complicated. If speaking a language means participating in a world and adopting a civilization, then the language of the colonized, a language imposed by centuries of colonial domination and dedicated to the elimination or abjection of other expressive forms, speaks the world of the colonizer.
To speak as the colonized is therefore to participate in one’s own oppression and to reflect the very structures of your alienation in everything from vocabulary to syntax to intonation. It is true that many Afro-Caribbeans speak pidgin and creole as part of everyday life. But Fanon, in a claim that does not age well in Caribbean theory, measures pidgin and creole expression against French, arguing that Afro-Caribbean speaking, in those registers, is a fallen, impoverished version of