Post-Colonial Theory: Frantz Fanon

POST-COLONIAL THEORY

PART TWO:  FRANTZ FANON

Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Since the voyages of  Columbus, Europeans sought out the territories of the Other, claimed the dark skinned people for slaves, and exploited the resources of those alien “virgin” lands. There are two steps to imperialism: economic imperialism in terms of a trading relationship in which the Europeans dominated the indigenous peoples of South Asia, and Asia and the Middle East and colonialism, in which colonizers are sent to these subjugated territories to either conquer and control them and keep them safe for capitalism. In this dyad of economic exploitation, the Americas were a special case: a huge continental mass supposedly “empty” and “undeveloped” through the inability of the “inferior” natives to properly put the lands to good use offended the European sensibility. Territories left in their virgin state, unclaimed and untamed cried out to be tended and in the colonial era, colonization was a migration to a permanent new home. Colonial Americans, seeing vast spaces in need of cultivation, an undertaking that required cheap of free labor, followed the lead of the British, French, and Dutch and brought in captured Africans to build the new continent.

Elsewhere, the Europeans settled in outposts that were embedded within large already established robust often urban cultures, from Hong Kong to  Dubai to New Delhi. The outposts developed from trading stations to centers of conquest and rule, activities that were staffed by military and civilians shipped over from Europe. This ambiguous approach to colonialism in Africa and Asia brought a small but dominant population of Europeans into close contact with a large mass of the original inhabitants. As with American slavery, control could not be only physical–never could such a small number of people effectively control and subdue millions of human beings. As was pointed out in the last post on Albert Memmi, the problem of maintaining dominance was solved through establishing a psychological order of Master and Slave which was internalized by both the colonizer and the colonized alike.

Post-colonial writings have many points of beginning, both European and American, but among the most eloquent were the two books published by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1960), Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961).  Like Aime Cesaire, Fanon was Caribbean,  born in Martinique, one of France’s “possessions,” like Albert Memmi, he studied in France but in Lyon, practiced medicine in Algeria, next door to Tunisia, and like, Memmi experienced the end of colonialism in North Africa. Fanon’s books came out of his experiences with racism as a black man and the struggle for self-determination as the colonized. Like Memmi, he attracted that positive attention and patronage of Jean-Paul Sartre. After a short life and an all-too-short career, he contracted leukemia and went to Baltimore for treatment where he died in 1961 of cancer.  In his lifetime, Fanon was little noted but he would be long remembered for his anguished and emotional accounts of what it meant to be the Other. Algeria was the last major French colony to be relinquished to its “rightful owners,” after a long and bloody and repressive war.

After the war in which they absorbed a humiliating defeat and occupation, the French viewed  their former imperial empire from two perspectives–either the empire should be retained as a point of pride or, so as to not mimic the Nazis, the colonies should be set free. The French public was split, left and right, over the ethics of retaining a colony and the immorality of keeping a people in imperial bondage. The French were the colonizer and their dual positions were political ones, but Frantz Fanon viewed the struggle between Algeria and France as one of  racial and not  religious difference. This political contest between unequals was not just a cultural clash or a quarrel over aspirations but, on a deeper level, there  was also a psychotic confrontation between two wounded souls and maimed minds. Fanon sought to analyze the combatants as one would study a patient in need of help.

Educated in the French Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian tradition/s, Fanon asked “What does the Black man want?” He relied on Georg Hegel for his answer: the Black man wants to be recognized by the White man.  The problem is that the White man and the Black man are caught up in the master/slave relationship that is not mere theory but is an actual psychosis. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon wrote freely and expressively in his first book, while The Wretched of the Earth, with the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, is more measured and clinical, a theoretical critique. The early publication date of Black Skin, White Masks–1952–is remarkable, predating the rise of the Civil Rights movement in America and the wars of independence in North Africa. But this book is a shout of anger against the regime of colonialism, a form of rule that had outlived its usefulness. Fanon understood the power of the linguistic construction of opposites, the One and the Other, in which one term subordinates the other term and renders it inferior. The linguistic construction mirrored the domination of  the white man over the black man in the colonies and in America. Both sides, guilty and innocent, are trapped in a sick relationship.

Fanon also paralleled the writing of his contemporary, Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “colonizer” and the “colonized”, in appropriate Structuralist language. Fanon dealt with language and pointed out that when the black man speaks the language of the white man, the black man assumes the culture and the civilization of his oppressor. The conqueror has no interest in the culture of the conquered who are considered in need of civilizing. As a result of the civilizing mission the mask of imperialism, colonized people have been stripped of their own languages and, without their own culture, they lived with inferiority complex. The colonized individual is faced with the “superior” culture that dominates her and is “elevated” above “jungle status” only to the extent that he adopts the mother country’s standards, from language to learning.

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization,” he wrote. The black man who approaches the white world and attempts to fit in–to learn French, to be educated in France, to live in France–becomes “white” only to his black friends but remains irredeemably “black” among white people.  Like W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon writes of what DuBois called “two-ness,” or the sense of being caught between cultures, a state that Fanon called “two dimensions” or “self-division” or what DuBois called “double consciousness.”  This self-division is the result of colonialism and subjugation by the colonizer. The result is a psychotic break that is a recognizable mental illness.

Descended from slaves captured in African to work the plantations of the Caribbean, Fanon writes of the mental state of “the modern Negro” as a “clinical study.”  “The black man becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.”  “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.”  The black man wants only to break through this “seal” which is the white belief in white superiority to show the richness of black culture and African intellect.  In other words, the black man/slave wants recognition form the white man/master.  The black man has only one way out of his inferiority and that escape route is through the white world.  The result of this contact or impact of whitening is that the black man is radically changed into what Fanon refereed as an “absolute mutation” with the result of “ego-withdrawal” or “restriction” or a renunciation of authenticity to avoid the pain.

The accommodation of the black man to the white man brings no rewards, only alienation, and this alienation or de-humanization, is the object of Fanon’s study. Writing in the early fifties and early sixties, Fanon could see no way out for either of the parties. “The Negro is enslaved by his inferiority, the white man is enslaved by his superiority”.  The neurotic withdrawal of the black man is a defense mechanism and the Negro become abnormal due to the trauma of his encounter with white culture.  Desiring the approval of the white man, the black man becomes impaired in his development and becomes one sided.  In his deeply felt book, Fanon explains, more eloquently than any Hegelian variation on the One and the Other, what it is like to be judged negatively on the color of one’s skin. Fanon combined psychoanalysis and Marxism, understanding that colonized people were traumatized and could never create their own cultures unless they were truly liberated. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon described the process of “decolonization,”

Decolonization, which sets out to change the oder of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder..Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. The first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the xpoloiatiaonof the native by he settler–was carried on by dine of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the nataive are old acquaitances. 

Fanon was a warrior and a healer.  He actually fought against fascism in the Second World War and was disgusted with the racism of the Allies. The American military was shamefully segregated and racist elements at home in Washington D. C. plotted to prevent soldiers of color from voting in federalized elections. The British military, as well as the Free French, kept their colonials carefully separate. After the war, even the French Communist Party supported the continuation of colonialism, perhaps because to be a colonial power would still mean something to the nation’s prestige. It was his disgust that led Fanon to participate as a revolutionary in the Algerian uprising against their French masters.  Fanon also participated, as a teacher, in what we would term terrorist activities.  Indeed, modern terrorism has as one of its beginning moments, the war in Algeria. Fanon realized, however, that the revolutionaries were like any other revolutionary power: essentially bourgeois and wanting only to take over power from the French and to maintain the class and religious oppressions that the French had set up. As he stated, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”

Today, Algeria is a fundamentalist Muslim country, a far cry from Fanon’s Marxism vision of equality, even for women.  The new interest in Fanon, for the uninitiated, can be dated back to 1995 London conference organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts.  The book published in relation to an exhibition of the same name, Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire is an interesting example of how a writer—Fanon—has been re-contextualized and depoliticized and appropriated for contemporary purposes. The difficulty for the post-colonial writer lies in the famous opposition between the Colonizer and the Colonized, set up in a book of the same name by Fanon’s contemporary, Albert Memmi. To speak and to be heard, it is necessary to speak “in the master’s voice” and thus lose the specificity of one’s own heritage, one’s own voice.  Fanon is an interesting writer because his voice was not blunted by accommodation or co-option. Although he died decades before the literary écriture feminine movement in France, Fanon, like Luce Irigaray, was an early disrupter of the politeness of university French. Fanon concluded,

I should  constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com

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