Fanon, Frantz (1925–1961)

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FANON, FRANTZ (1925–1961)


Writer, psychiatrist, and revolutionary.

Frantz Fanon was born a French citizen on the West Indies island of Martinique. He fought for the Free French Forces during World War II, took his medical training in Paris, and practiced psychiatry. His training and his life offered Fanon the evidence and the terms for grappling with some of the most important problems of his time. What made him a radical was his certainty that political analysis, by leading to the diagnosis of social problems, could help popular revolt to produce fundamental change. Fanon's work remains of scholarly and political interest primarily because of his efforts to identify the foundations of what he termed "Manichean thinking": how terms such as native and colonizer or white and black came to confine people in polarized relationships. His aim was to open possibilities for more complex, and more fully human, understanding.

Fanon was born on 25 July 1925 to a family whose racial background, economic position, comfort with the French language, and embrace of French culture led local society to identify as white. The arrival in Martinique of French troops in 1940, sent by the collaborationist Vichy state, disrupted this local economy of race. Yet even the troops' crude assertion that skin color rather than culture was the primary marker of race did not fully prepare Fanon for how color defined him, first in the Free French Forces and then as a medical student in the French metropolis. His encounters with the certainty among the common people and among the elite that blacks could not be French because they were different from whites inspired the work he presented as his doctoral thesis, which appeared in 1952 as Black Skin, White Masks.

In his analysis of racism, Fanon insists that it arises historically, in specific times and places, and that it now had systematic effects. He argued that in the current context it had become the most visible aspect of an interlocking network of economic, military, and political organizing structures because of the centrality of colonialism, which directly depended on racism. Fanon's novel focus was on how colonialism as a system controlled people's psychological options. He claimed that the colonial situation enabled disdain to determine white conceptions of blacks to such a degree that blacks struggled simply to be recognized as an "Other," as comparable to the white "Self." Because no dialectical relationship was possible, colonial racism wreaked psychological havoc on both blacks and whites. Steeped in Freudian assumptions though not himself a psychoanalyst, Fanon focused on sexual desire and the complications of sexual and gender identities in order to understand how colonial racism structured individuals. In his reading, the type of racist dynamic that colonialism had produced made it necessary for blacks to engage in struggle against both their own desire to be recognized as white and against the colonizers.

During the year he spent as the head of a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, Fanon came to see that Algeria's independence struggle offered revolutionary possibilities. In 1956 he moved to Tunis, where the men leading that fight had set up their headquarters. He continued to practice psychiatry, but also taught, wrote for the official newspaper, and advised the leaders of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN; National liberation front), which he later represented as ambassador to Ghana. Drawing on his understanding of what revolutionary action could mean, Fanon published his final book in 1961. His goal in The Wretched of the Earth was to provide an ideological roadmap that would allow colonized peoples to benefit from the cascading series of decolonizations. His prescriptions sought to avoid the dangers inherent in any struggle that took place at a national level and, in addition, to allow the revolt against colonial racism's "thingification" of the colonized to succeed. In his preface to Fanon's book, Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed that "the Third World finds itself and speaks to itself through his voice." Because it offered a convincing alternative to Marxism's privileging of the proletariat and of class relations, the book immediately became a touchstone for New Left radicals in Western Europe and the United States.

Like his other wartime writings, The Wretched of the Earth emphasizes that violence lies at the foundation of the colonial relationship. Western colonialism, rather than take responsibility for its use of violence, created racial groups as a schematic overlay to explain relations of domination, which recast the violent maintenance of the colonizers' control as a natural relationship of superior to inferior. In his final works, Fanon argued that only violence by the colonized could both destroy the colonial system and set the stage to move beyond the destructive effects of the colonizer/colonized dyad. Despite his cogent recognition of the dangers of embracing violence, Fanon is often vilified for his supposed celebration of revolutionary violence. He died of leukemia in 1961 at the age of thirty-six.

See alsoAlgerian War; Colonialism; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Primary Sources

Fanon, Frantz. Studies in a Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York, 1965. Translation of L'an V de la révolution algérienne.

——. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York, 1967. Translation of Peau noire, masques blancs.

——. Toward the African Revolution, Political Essays. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York, 1967. Translation of Pour la révolution africaine. Écrits politiques.

——. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York, 1968. Translation of Les damnés de la terre.

Secondary Sources

Cherki, Alice. Frantz Fanon: Portrait. Paris, 2000.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Critical Fanonism." Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (Spring 1991): 457–471.

Gendzier, Irene L. Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study. New York, 1973.

Macey, David. Frantz Fanon: A Biography. New York, 2001.

Sekyi-Otu, Ato. Fanon's Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Sharpley-Whiting, Denean T. Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminism. Lanham, Md., 1997.

Todd Shepard