Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon

Essayist
(1925 – 1961)

frantz_fanonA political essayist from the Caribbean, Frantz Fanon is chiefly remembered for Les damne´s 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.

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 Lyce´e Schoelcher in 1941, studying under Aime´ Ce´saire, the great poet of Ne´gritude, the Francophone celebration of the power and dignity of black African culture, and he quickly embraced Ce´saire’s philosophy. Over the next year, Fanon spent much of his time campaigning to get Ce´saire 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

Peau noire, masque blancsIn May 1951, Fanon debuted as a published writer when ‘‘L’expe´rience ve´cue 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 Frenchcontrolled 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 Congre`s 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 re´volution 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 Français’’ (Letter to a Frenchman), first published in Pour la re´volution 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 Hoˆpital 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 re´ciproques de la culture nationale et des luttes de libe´ration’’ (The Reciprocal Foundation of National Culture and Liberation Struggles), which was later published, with minor revisions, in Les Damne´s 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 Re´volution Alge´rienne 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 Re´publique Alge´rienne (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 damne´s 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 damne´s 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 re´volution Africaine in 1964, while some of his psychiatric publications were gathered in a 1975 issue of the journal Information psychiatrique.

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.

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