BORN: 1925, Fort-de-France, Martinique
DIED: 1961, Bethesda, Maryland
NATIONALITY: Algerian, Martinican
Black Skins, White Masks (1952)
The Wretched of the Earth (1961)
Frantz Fanon. The Everett Collection
A political essayist from the Caribbean, Frantz Fanon is chiefly remembered for Les damnes de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961), a collection of prose denouncing colonialism and racism in the third world. Although his proposal of using violence to obtain political liberation met with heavy criticism, Fanon has been praised as a direct and learned critic of racial, economic, and political injustice in the former colonies of Europe.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Proud Martinican. Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 to a middle-class family in Fort-de-France, Martinique, a French colony in the West Indies. One of eight children, Fanon was a sensitive but difficult child who often got into fights with his peers. At school he learned to speak French, sing patriotic French songs, and read French literature and history. Like other Martinicans, he regarded himself as a Frenchman and grew up hearing that the ‘‘negroes’’ in Africa were ‘‘savages.’’ Starting in 1940, France was occupied by the German Nazis during World War II, and the French Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis. Martinique thus came under Vichy command, and the sudden presence of Vichy French sailors blockaded in Fort-de-France, Martinique by Allied forces caused racial tensions to flare. These experiences began to change Fanon’s vision of Europeans and of race relations.
He attended the Lycee Schoelcher in 1941, studying under Aime Cesaire, the great poet of Negritude, the Francophone celebration of the power and dignity of black African culture, and he quickly embraced Cesaire’s philosophy. over the next year, Fanon spent much of his time campaigning to get Cesaire elected as a member of the French National Assembly.
French general Charles de Gaulle led the Free France movement, urging his countrymen to resist the Nazi occupation. In 1943, inspired by de Gaulle, Fanon joined the French army, where he encountered blatant racism. Disillusioned by his growing awareness of what it means to be black in a white world, Fanon returned to Martinique in 1946.
Black Skins, White Masks. In May 1951, Fanon debuted as a published writer when ‘‘L’experience vecue du noir’’ (‘‘The Lived Experience of the Black’’), a chapter from Fanon’s book Peau noire, masque blancs (Black Skins, White Masks, 1952), appeared in the journal Esprit. The book is an essay collection, heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Jean-Paul Sartre, that examines black life in a white-dominated world. It is one of the founding texts in postcolonial studies and arguably Fanon’s most influential work. Criticizing attempts by blacks to hide their blackness under a ‘‘white mask,’’ Fanon seeks to expose what he views as the delusionary influence of white culture—its inability to define black identity as anything other than the negative image of European values and ideals.
The Algerian War. Having successfully completed his medical examinations, Fanon moved to French-controlled Algeria in 1953 to serve as the psychiatric director of Blida-Joinville Hospital. A year after his arrival, the Algerian War erupted, and Fanon quickly aligned himself with the pro-independence political group Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Fanon attended the first Congres des Ecrivains et Artistes Noirs (World Congress of Black Writers and Artists) in Paris in September 1956. Here he delivered his paper ‘‘Racisme et culture’’ (Racism and Culture), later published in Pour la revolution africaine.
By late 1956, Fanon was no longer able to accept his impartial role as a psychiatrist working for the French colonialists. He was also at some risk because of his clandestine support for the Algerians. His ‘‘Lettre a un Francais’’ (Letter to a Frenchman), first published in Pour la revolution africaine, poetically and disturbingly evokes his criticism of those who fled the violence in Algeria rather than become involved. In 1956 Fanon also resigned his position at the hospital, stating that it was useless to cure individuals only to send them back into a ‘‘sick’’ society. Psychiatric disorders were the direct result of societal oppression, Fanon believed, and therefore society must change before one can help individuals. After participating in a work stoppage with other doctors sympathetic to FLN, Fanon was expelled from Algeria in 1957.
In exile in Tunis, where he arrived in January 1957, Fanon resumed his psychiatric practice under the name Fares, and soon started work at the Htopital Charles- Nicolle, where he established the first psychiatric day clinic in Africa.
Fanon first became an international spokesperson for the FLN in 1958. Using the pseudonym Omar Ibrahim Fanon and claiming to be a native of Tunisia, he visited Rome in September 1958 and returned there in December, this time in transit to Accra, Ghana, as part of the FLN delegation to the All-African People’s Congress. In 1959, Fanon attended the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Rome, delivering a speech, ‘‘Fondements reciproques de la culture nationale et des luttes de liberation’’ (The Reciprocal Foundation of National Culture and Liberation Struggles), which was later published, with minor revisions, in Les Damnes de la terre. A little more than a month later, he traveled to Morocco to work on reorganizing medical services for revolutionary forces in Algeria.
Fanon’s service in Morocco suddenly ended when he was injured in an incident variously described as an assassination attempt, a land-mine explosion, or an automobile accident. The back injury he sustained required treatment in Europe. After several weeks of treatment, Fanon returned to Tunis in August 1959 to attend a policy meeting of the FLN. That fall L’An V de la Revolution Algerienne appeared. Though it was not successful, it had a significant impact on French ‘‘third worldism,’’ in which disaffected youth rejected the policies of the old Left, instead viewing countries such as Algeria and Cuba as emerging humanitarian or socialist states that offered the true next step in revolution.
In February 1960, Fanon became the permanent representative of the Gouvernement Provisoire de la Republique Algerienne (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic) in Accra, recognized as the Algerian ambassador by the Ghana government although he did not have diplomatic status and was identified as Libyan on his passport. He met several leading figures in African independence movements and promoted the cause of Algerian independence among sub-Saharan African nations.
The Wretched of the Earth. In 1960, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia. Throughout spring and summer 1961, Fanon dictated to his wife Les damnes de la terre ( The Wretched of the Earth), which has been hailed as the manifesto of Third World revolution and the bible of black radical groups in the United States. The full text was complete in July 1961 when Fanon met French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Rome. A short time later, Sartre agreed to write the book’s preface. Fanon’s reputation as a literary and political figure rests on this third book. In this work he argued that political independence is the essential forerunner to genuine economic and social change. Convinced that Western countries had subjugated the third world to exploit its resources and its people, Fanon considered revolution the only feasible path to liberation. He therefore proposed that the ‘‘wretched of the earth,’’ the poorest of the poor, lead others in political liberation, and he advocated using violence to achieve this end.
A few weeks before Les damnes de la terre was published, Fanon suffered a serious relapse of leukemia. Arrangements were made to take him to the United States for treatment, although he initially opposed the idea. He underwent treatment but died of complications arising from pneumonia on December 6, 1961. His body was returned to Tunisia and buried across the battle lines on the Algerian frontier. His anonymous articles from El Moudjahid and other works were assembled with the help of his wife and published as Pour la revolution Africaine in 1964, while some of his psychiatric publications were gathered in a 1975 issue of the journal Information psychiatrique.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Fanon's famous contemporaries include:
Ahmed Ben Bella (1918—): One of the leaders in the Algerian War and the first president of Algeria after its independence from France; considered by many to be the father of the Algerian nation.
Aime Cesaire (1913—): Martinican poet and author, mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique's capital, and member of the French National Assembly; promoted a specific Martinican identity, separate from that of the French.
Fidel Castro (1926—): Prime minister of Cuba from 1959 to 2008; leader of the Cuban Revolution (1956-1959), which overthrew the government of dictator and general Fulgencio Batista in favor of a Marxist government.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): French author and philosopher known for The Second Sex, one of the formative books of the feminist movement.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): French existentialist who advocated the view that without God, people must develop their own sense of personal responsibility and meaning in life.
Works in Literary Context
The political climate of the early and mid-twentieth century ensured that a predominantly white culture would try to maintain its position in the world following the era of colonization. Blatant racism revealed itself in Europe through the dictatorships of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Combined with the socialist fervor that emerged in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, a virulent political ferment came into being that strongly influenced Fanon’s worldview.
In Black Skin, White Masks, according to New York Times Book Review writer Robert Coles, Fanon draws on his experiences with racism and on his background in philosophy and literature, particularly the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sartre, to examine black life in a white-dominated world and the black man’s futile attempt to hide his blackness under a ‘‘white mask.’’ Works cited throughout this book point to Fanon’s familiarity with African American novels, particularly works by Richard Wright and Chester Himes.
Works in Critical Context
Critics are divided over the significance and ethical value of Fanon’s writings. Albert Memmi, for example, argued that Fanon overestimated the leadership role of the Third World poor. Furthermore, he found Fanon’s theory of violence ‘‘disturbing and surprising for a psychiatrist.’’ Similarly, Lewis Coser regarded Fanon as an ‘‘apostle of violence’’ with an ‘‘evil and destructive’’ vision. In contrast, Dennis Forsythe proclaimed Fanon a ‘‘great symbolic hero’’ whose vision energized civil rights movements across the world. Emile Capouya also reminded Fanon’s critics that ‘‘violence is the essential feature of colonialism at all times; Fanon did not invent it.’’ According to Aime Cesaire, Fanon advocated violence in order to create a nonviolent world: ‘‘[Fanon’s] violence, and this is not paradoxical, was that of the nonviolent.’’ Conor Cruise O’Brien argues: ‘‘Violence is not, as Fanon often seems to suggest, a creation of colonialism. On the contrary, colonialism is a form of violence: a form developed by the most tightly organized and most effectively violent human societies... . In this respect, it seems to me that Fanon overrates the originality of colonialism.’’
According to Barbara Abrash, ‘‘The Wretched of the Earth is an analysis of racism and colonialism, and a prescription for revolutionary action by which colonized men may redeem their humanity.’’ Fanon firmly believed that violence was the only way to bring down an intolerable, oppressive society. Robert Coles, however, reflected that Fanon’s impact lies not only in his message but also in his sheer determination to deliver it, observing that since he is writing to awaken people, to inform them so that they will act, he makes no effort to be systematic, comprehensive, or even orderly. Quite the contrary, one feels a brilliant, vivid and hurt mind, walking the thin line that separates effective outrage from despair.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Foremost among the themes in Fanon's works is the passionate exploration of the interplay between racism and social justice. Here are some other titles that explore various aspects of social justice:
I, Rigoberta Menchiu (1983), a work of fiction by Rigoberta Menchu. This fictionalized memoir describes the situation of the indigenous Guatemalans during the Guatemalan Civil War and the brutal treatment they faced; the author won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 ''in recognition of her work for social justice and ethnocultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.''
Invisible Man (1952), a novel by Ralph Ellison. This classic American novel tells the tale of a young African American man and his search for identity in a world that bases everything on the color of one's skin.
Native Son (1940), a novel by Richard Wright. Another American classic, this tells the tragic story of a poor African American male who eventually fulfills the miserable expectations that society has imposed on him.
Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (2003), a nonfiction work by Robert J. C. Young. This book shows concrete examples of what it means to live in a postcolonial country, and how that is a stimulus to further political activity.
Untouchable (1935), a novel by Mulk Raj Anand. This novel tells the story of one day in the life of a man in the "untouchable" Indian caste, considered the lowest of the low in traditional Indian culture.
Responses to Literature
1. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about Malcolm X, a well-known leader in the civil rights movement in the United States who was criticized for urging black Americans to seize their rights ‘‘by any means necessary.’’ Malcolm X was influenced by Fanon’s work. What do you think Fanon would have thought of Malcolm? Would Fanon have been proud? What do they share in their social outlooks?
2. We often use stereotypical images as shorthand: ‘‘typical woman driver,’’ ‘‘acting white,’’ ‘‘talking black,’’ ‘‘that’s so gay.’’ Choose any stereotypereinforcing phrase that you or your friends or family commonly use. Research the actual facts behind it— for example, for ‘‘typical woman driver,’’ look up driving statistics; for ‘‘talking black,’’ research language use among different social classes and ethnic groups—and write an essay about your findings and your reactions to the phrase now that you have some more knowledge about its origins.
3. Revolutions usually, but not always, involve violence. Using your library’s resources and the Internet, research the Algerian War and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (now the nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Write an essay analyzing why one revolution involved violence and the other did not. What conditions led to the difference? Can you draw any overall conclusions?
Feuser, WillfTied F., ed. and trans. Frantz Fanon: Colonialism and Alienation; Concerning Frantz Fanon’s Political Theory. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.
Geismar, Peter. Fanon. New York: Dial, 1971.
Gibson, Nigel C. Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Polity Press, 2003.
Hansen, Emmanuel. Frantz Fanon: Social and Political Thought. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1977.
Onwuanibe, Richard C. A Critique of Revolutionary Humanism. St. Louis: W. H. Green, 1983.
Beckett, Paul A. ‘‘Algeria Versus Fanon: The Theory of Revolutionary Decolonization and the African Experience.’’ Western Political Quarterly 26 (March 1973): 5-27.
Bernasconi, Robert. ‘‘Sartre’s Gaze Returned: The Transforming of the Phenomenology of Racism.’’ Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 18 (1995): 201-221.
Fairchild, Halford F. ‘‘Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in Contemporary Perspective.’’ Journal of Black Studies 25 (December 1994): 191-199.
O’Brien, Conor Cruise. ‘‘The Neurosis of Colonialism.’’ The Nation, June 21, 1965: 674-676.