Fanon, Frantz 1925–1961
Frantz Fanon 1925–1961
Writer, theorist, psychologist
When Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary tract The Wretched of the Earth appeared in the United States in 1965, it quickly became a bestseller. The book’s publisher called it the handbook for black revolution, and African-American militants and other young American leftists took its message to heart: a widely quoted statement attributed to two different leaders of the radical Black Panther group, Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael, held that “every brother on a rooftop can quote Fanon.” The Wretched of the Earth advocated the violent overthrow of the European and American colonial presence in Third World countries. “Violence,” Fanon wrote, “is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”
As the revolutionary ideology of the late 1960s and early 1970s faded, however, even the Algerian people on whose behalf Fanon worked for much of his adult life would forget his celebrity. Fanon’s extreme statements seemed outdated to young people seeking societal change, and conservative Western writers mentioned his name with either irritation or outright dismissal. Yet, even as many of the politically radical pronouncements of the 1960s had come to seem quaint or innocent, Fanon’s writings inspired a resurgence of interest in the 1990s and 2000s. Fanon, a psychiatrist, crossed disciplines in his life and his writings, always striving to make connections between his insights into the effects of racism and the concrete political steps that poor people needed to take to bring about change.
Fought for France in WWII
Fanon was born on July 20, 1925, in Fort-de-France on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a French colony. His parents were better off than most of the island’s African-descended population, which consisted largely of sugar-plantation workers, and he received a strongly French-oriented education. Fanon’s teachers emphasized that Martinique was part of France and that he should consider himself a Frenchman—yet he also became aware of racism early on, for it was clear that a black Frenchman did not have the same stature as a white Frenchman. “On that small island a cultural schizophrenia was born,” noted Chicago Sun-Times writer Hazel Rowley.
Fanon’s childhood was outwardly uneventful, but he had an intense temperament that showed itself as World War II broke out in 1939. In one of the few statements Fanon made about his own life, he wrote, according to the Independent’s Deborah Levy, that “I arrived in the world, anxious to extract meaning from things.” When he was 17, Fanon sneaked away from home and sailed to the Caribbean island of Dominica, scraping together the money for his adventure by selling clothing coupons that belonged to his father. From there, Fanon made his way to France and joined the guerrilla fighters who were resisting the occupying forces of Nazi Germany.
Fighting on the French side for much of the war, Fanon spent time in French-colonized Algeria, on Africa’s Mediterranean coast. The disparity in living standards
At a Glance…
Born on July 20, 1925, in Fort-de-France, Martinique; died on December 6, 1961, in Bethesda, MD; married Josie Duble, 1952 (died 1989); children: one son. Education: Studied medicine and psychiatry in Lyon, France, after World War II. Military Service: Served in Free French Army during World War II.
Career: Writer, 1952-61; Blida-Joinville Hospital, Blida, Algeria, head of services, 1953-56; Manouba Clinic and Neuropsychiatric Center Jour de Tunis, Tunisia, psychiatrist, 1957-59; All African Peoples’ Congress, participant, 1958; revolutionary polemicist, undercover agent, late 1950s; Algerian Provisional Government, ambassador to Ghana, 1960.
between Algeria’s European inhabitants and its native Arab population made an impression on Fanon, but the battle against German fascism remained uppermost in his mind. Fanon was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the French equivalent of the Purple Heart, for bravery during his service in the Free French forces. Yet Fanon experienced racism on an ongoing basis while serving in the military, even in France, where he noticed that white French women refused to dance with the black soldiers who had fought to liberate them. The hurts of Fanon’s childhood surfaced, and he recalled thinking, according to Declan Kiberd of the Irish Times, that “this isn’t your war. When whites kill each other, it’s a blessing for blacks.”
After the war’s end in 1945, Fanon won a scholarship to study medicine and psychiatry in the French city of Lyon. He was fascinated by the radical ideas of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and by African writers intent on freeing their countries from European colonialism and defining a new black identity. Fanon married a young French woman of similar convictions in 1952; the couple had one son, and they remained together as Fanon moved to Africa and became enmeshed in revolutionary struggle. Fanon’s wife Josie declined to discuss their marriage later on in her life.
Completing his psychiatric training, Fanon wrote his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs, in 1952. It was ignored at the time, but after Fanon’s death it was hailed as a masterpiece of psychology that investigated how racism induced black people to emulate their oppressors. The book was translated into English as Black Skin, White Masks, and was published in 1967. The book exerted a great influence over U.S. promoters of the idea of black consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, and it remains, along with The Wretched of the Earth, one of Fanon’s most widely read works.
Tired of living in France and feeling trapped by the stereotyping he experienced from Europeans he encountered, in 1953 Fanon accepted a post as the head of a government psychiatric hospital in the Algerian town of Blida, a suburb of the capital of Algiers. Here, Fanon began to feel an increasing kinship with Algeria’s urban Arab poor. Applying group therapy methods pioneered by French psychoanalyst François Tosquelles, Fanon, an atheist and foreigner who did not speak Arabic, began to win the trust of Arab and Islamic patients whom other French doctors had sent away.
In 1954, Algerians revolted against their French overlords. Although other African countries gained independence without bloodshed during this period, France responded to the Algerian insurrection with brutal repression that included widespread instances of torture and physical abuse. These events touched off the final stage in Fanon’s political radicalization, and he began secretly helping the rebel Front de la Liberation Nationale or FLN. Fanon received death threats from the French and their sympathizers, but his resolve only strengthened. In the words of writer Aimé Cesaire, quoted by Levy in the Independent: “He chose. He became Algerian. Lived, fought and died Algerian.” Yet Fanon, as a government-employed psychiatrist, also had to treat French troops, and he is not known to have betrayed his personal patients to the rebel cause.
Early in 1957, the French colonial government exiled Fanon to newly independent Tunisia. The move may have lengthened his life, for Fanon had become ensnarled in factional conflicts inside the Algerian rebel movement, and one of his closest friends had been murdered. Fanon pursued an activist life in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, and his fame spread. Speaking on behalf of African independence movements, he traveled around the continent. He served an ambassador for the Algerian rebel movement’s provisional government, traveling to Ghana for the All-African Peoples’ Conference of 1958 and circulating through the French colonies and former colonies of West Africa. Fanon founded a magazine called Moudjahid in Tunis and became more and more prolific as a writer himself.
His 1959 book L’an cinq de la révolution algérienne was a series of essays that expounded on his ideas about a new Africa free from colonial rule and called for armed resistance to French power. Another group of Fanon essays of the period was collected after his death and published as Pour la révolution africaine. Not an armchair philosopher, Fanon put his ideas into practice and worked to aid Algerian resistance fighters. He was wounded near the Tunisian-Algerian border in 1957 and survived several attempts on his life.
Fanon undertook a 1,200-mile intelligence-gathering trip from Mali to the Algerian border in 1960, reporting back to his comrades-in-arms on French troop deployments. By the time he arrived back in Tunis, he was seriously ill, and soon he was diagnosed with leukemia. Fanon foresaw his approaching death and worked furiously on what would be his final book, Les damnes de la terre, published in English as The Wretched of the Earth. Its unbridled call-to-arms style may have been partly rooted in the fact that Fanon, who could not type, dictated the book onto tape; it has the rhythms of incendiary speech rather than written prose.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon called for a violent revolution on the part of the world’s dispossessed peoples. He was not an orthodox Marxist, in that he saw no need for a revolutionary vanguard of the Communist sort; instead, he believed, revolution should arise spontaneously among the poor of the Third World themselves, from “the wretched of the earth.” The political independence sought by Algeria and other African countries was in Fanon’s opinion only a first step toward the overturning of Western exploitation in a wide range of human activities. Fanon’s ideas aroused controversy, but some observers pointed out that his calls for violence should be seen in the context of the violence he had already witnessed and experienced in Algeria.
Fanon sought treatment for his illness in the Soviet Union. In 1961, possibly aided by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officers intent on learning what he knew about leftist revolutionary movements, he checked into a National Institute of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. There, at the heart of Western power, he completed The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon died on December 6, 1961, in Bethesda. He did not live long enough to see Algeria gain independence from France. Lionized by 1960s radicals, Fanon was less well regarded as revolutionary ideas fell out of favor with European and American intellectuals. A film biography, Frantz Fanon: White Skin, Black Mask and a new print biography, David Macey’s Frantz Fanon: A Life, testify to continuing interest in one of the twentieth century’s most unusual figures and most gifted revolutionary writers.
Peau noire, masques blancs, Editions du Seul, 1952; published as Black Skin, White Masks, Grove, 1967.
L’An V de la révolution algerienne, F. Maspero, 1959; published as A Dying Colonialism, Grove, 1967.
Les Damnes de la terre, F. Maspero, 1961; published as The Wretched of the Earth, Grove, 1965.
Pour la révolution africaine: Ecrits politiques, F. Maspero, 1964; published as Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays, Monthly Review Press, 1967.
Gordon, Lewis R., et al., eds. and trans., Fanon: A Critical Reader, Blackwell, 1996.
Macey, David, Frantz Fanon: A Life, Picador, 2001.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 22, 2001, p. 16.
Independent (London, England), November 18, 2000, p. 10.
Irish Times, January 20, 2001, p. 74.
New York Times, September 2, 2001, Section 7, p. 11.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), September 5, 1997, p. L30.
Washington Post, July 8, 2001, p. T9.
“Frantz Fanon,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet.BioRC (February 16, 2004).
Julien, Isaac, dir., Frantz Fanon: White Skin, Black Mask (film), Normal Films, 1996.
—James M. Manheim
Fanon, Frantz 1925-1961
A psychiatrist, a revolutionary, and a leading theorist of the Algerian national liberation struggle, Frantz Fanon was born on June 20, 1925, on the island of Martinique. He studied medicine in France and specialized in psychiatry. In 1953 Fanon began working as a psychiatrist at the Blida Psychiatric Hospital in Algiers, Algeria, where he supported the Algerian struggle against French colonialism. Fanon’s dedication to this cause led to his expulsion from Algeria by the French authorities at the end of 1956. To continue his fight, Fanon moved to Tunis, Tunisia. In 1961 he fell ill with leukemia, and received treatment in the Soviet Union and later in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died on December 6, 1961.
Fanon played an instrumental role in the theorization of colonial desire, the dynamics of oppression, and the consequences of blackness. Among the sociohistorical and political issues that influenced his work and intellectual quest are the colonial history of Martinique, the manifestations of racism in France and in French colonial medicine, and the intricacies of the Algerian struggle. His work also shows, among other things, the influence of existentialist philosophy and the négritude movement. Fanon’s thought, in turn, inspired a number of liberation movements and civil rights struggles.
Fanon’s concerns are intimately linked to the history of Martinique, and more specifically to its experience of slavery and colonialism. Such concerns are reflected in his exploration of the power dynamics in the colonial world and the characteristics of two mutually constitutive “types”: the colonizer and the colonized. Not only does Fanon probe the nature of these two categories in The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre, 1961), but he also examines the elements and associations that contribute to, and result from, the establishment of this binary. In his analysis of the effects of colonialism on both colonizers and colonized, Fanon presents this institution as a system of exploitative oppression based on forms of psychological conditioning leading to the production of resentment and to the propagation of violence. This violence originates in the colonial movement and results from the colonizers’ attempts to destroy “native social forms … and systems of reference of … [native] economy, the customs of dress and external life” (Fanon  1963, p. 40). This issue is important to note since many critics who claim that Fanon advocated the use of violence forget that violence is inherent to the colonizers’ strategies of oppression.
Throughout his analysis of the psychology of the Negro in Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs, 1952), Fanon insists on the necessity of perceiving blackness as a “lived experience,” shaped not only by the gaze of whiteness but also by a state of alienation resulting from economic injustices and the “epidermalization” of the condition of inferiority (Fanon  1967, p. 11). In this book based on his observation of the condition of the Negro in the Antilles, Fanon also underlines the role that language plays in shaping the interactions within the black community on the one hand and between black people and their fellow white people on the other. Such a role is highlighted by Fanon’s affirmation that “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other” (Fanon  1967, p. 17). In this context, language reflects and shapes the self through the transmission of a specific worldview. Advocating the need of black people to achieve liberation from their psychoexistential complex, Black Skin, White Masks also probes how gender interacts with “color” to produce specific power-based structures informing the interaction between women of color and white men, as well as men of color and white women.
Among Fanon’s other significant contributions is the theorization of the role of the “native intellectual” in addressing the specific needs of struggles for justice in his or her country. Fanon also highlighted the role of the native intellectual in negotiating the problems pertaining to the conceptualization of national consciousness and resulting from the gap between the educated classes and the underprivileged masses. This negotiation is crucial in shaping ways of “acting back” and strategies of resistance described in The Wretched of the Earth.
Continuing his examination of the struggle against colonialism, Fanon analyzed the specific case of the Algerian liberation struggle, detailing its contexts and components in A Dying Colonialism (L’An V de la révolution algérienne, 1959). This book, which explores the conflict between old values, transitional identifications, and the new Algerian nationalism, details the elements contributing to the formation of an alternative sense of national identity in Algerian society. A Dying Colonialism examines such issues through the discussion of the shifting symbolism of the Algerian women’s veil; the relationship between resistance to the radio and the Algerians’ desire to preserve social stability and traditional sociability; and the trauma resulting from changes in traditional family structure and the forced separation of family members. In this book, Fanon also shows how medical knowledge functions as a tool of power; more specifically, he argues that medicine can be seen, in certain situations, as an extension of the colonizer’s control over the colonized society.
An equal concern with unmasking the mechanisms and networks of power in its various forms and local as well as global dimensions permeates Fanon’s Toward the African Revolution (Pour la révolution africaine, 1964). This book is a collection of essays, notes, and articles, most of which were published in El Moudjahid (roughly translated as “the militant”), the underground newspaper of the Algerian National Liberation Front. A number of these writings probe the connection between French strategies in the Algerian War and the international scene in the United States and Europe. These works also examine the interdependence of individual liberation, anticolonial struggles, and the birth of national consciousness; the Algerian revolution and other liberation struggles in Africa and the Caribbean; and the end of colonialism and the resulting racism among the proletariat in the colonizing countries.
Throughout his life and career, Fanon probed the complexity of the colonial encounter and its aftermath. To account for its multilayered nature, he drew on a number of disciplines, including medicine, sociology, psychiatry, and literature, in a humanistic gesture reflecting his uncompromising dedication to the cause of the oppressed.
SEE ALSO Blackness; Caribbean, The; Colonialism; Empire; Imperialism; Liberation; Neocolonialism; Psychology; Racism; Slavery; Violence, Frantz Fanon on; Whiteness
Fanon, Frantz.  1967 Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove.
Fanon, Frantz.  1965. A Dying Colonialism. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove.
Fanon, Frantz.  1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove.
Fanon, Frantz.  1967. Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove.
Alessandrini, Anthony C., ed. 1999. Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1991. Critical Fanonism. Critical Inquiry 17: 457–470.
Gendzier, Irene L. 1973. Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study. New York: Pantheon.
Gibson, Nigel C., ed. 1999. Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue. Amherst, NY: Humanity.
Gordon, Lewis R. 1995. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York and London: Routledge.
Gordon, Lewis R., ed. 1996. Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge.
Gordon, Lewis R., T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White, eds. 1996. Fanon: A Critical Reader. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Macey, David. 2000. Frantz Fanon: A Biography. London: Granta.
Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. 1998. Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
BORN: 1925, Fort-de-France, Martinique
DIED: 1961, Bethesda, Maryland
NATIONALITY: Algerian, Martinican
Black Skins, White Masks (1952)
The Wretched of the Earth (1961)
A political essayist from the Caribbean, Frantz Fanon is chiefly remembered for Les damnés 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 Lycée Schoelcher in 1941, studying under Aimé Césaire, the great poet of Négritude, the Francophone celebration of the power and dignity of black African culture, and he quickly embraced Césaire's philosophy. Over the next year, Fanon spent much of his time campaigning to get Césaire 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'expérience vécue 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 Congrès 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 révolution 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 à un Français” (Letter to a Frenchman), first published in Pour la révolution 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 Hôpital 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 réciproques de la culture nationale et des luttes de libération” (The Reciprocal Foundation of National Culture and Liberation Struggles), which was later published, with minor revisions, in Les Damnés 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 Révolution Algérienne 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 République Algérienne (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 damnésde 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 damnés 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 révolution 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.
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 Aimé Césaire, 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.
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.
Aimé Césaire (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.
Responses to Literature
- 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?
- We often use stereotypical images as shorthand: “typical woman driver,” “acting white,” “talking black,” “that's so gay.” Choose any stereotype-reinforcing 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.
- 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?
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 Menchú (1983), a work of fiction by Rigoberta Menchú. 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 non-fiction work by Robert J. C. Young. This book shows concrete examples of what it means to live in a post-colonial 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.
Feuser, Willfried 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.
July 20, 1925
December 6, 1961
Frantz Fanon was born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. His father was a customs clerk, and his mother supplemented the family's income by running a variety store out of their home. There were eight children in this middle-class black family—four boys and four girls. Fanon attended the island's lycée, where he studied with the influential Négritude poet Aimé Césaire (1913–), who said that it was both beautiful and good to be black. It was during these years that the Nazi-controlled Vichy government of France (1940–1944) sent five thousand raucous white sailors to Martinique. Fanon escaped to the island of Dominica in 1943, where he joined the French Resistance and fought in North Africa and Europe. He returned to Martinique after the war with two decorations for bravery and the conviction that racism was a problem of European civilization in general, not only Vichy France. He then went to Paris to study dentistry, but he instead chose to study psychiatry in Lyon. It was there that he met and married Marie-Josèphe (Josie) Dublé, a Marxist journalist, with whom he had a son. (He also had a daughter from a previous, short-lived relationship with a Martiniquan woman.) Fanon earned his medical degree in 1951, and the following year he received his license to serve as director of any psychiatric ward in the French-speaking world. In 1953 he accepted a post as the director of psychiatry at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria.
Fanon's psychiatric practice is legendary. He implemented a system of humanistic therapy, the success of which his fellow physicians attributed to his energy and charisma. Everything changed, however, at the advent of the Algerian War (1954–1962). Fanon secretly joined the Algerian rebels, the Front des Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front, or FLN), at the outset, but he resigned from his post in 1956 and made his membership in the FLN public. He became an outlaw in France and its colonies, which led to several attempts on his life over the next three years. Yet he managed to remain active as a medical researcher and writer, while serving as a negotiator for the FLN. By 1960 his health had deteriorated considerably, and he was diagnosed with leukemia. He went to the Soviet Union in search of treatment, but the Soviet physicians informed him that the best treatment was in the United States, in Bethesda, Maryland. After planning some projects and completing his last book, Les damnés de la terre (The wretched of the earth, 1961) he went to Bethesda, where he was detained for ten days without treatment by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He developed pneumonia and died on December 6, 1961.
Fanon completed three books in his lifetime. His first, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black skin, white masks, 1952) offers his sociogenic theory of racial identity and oppression. This theory foregrounds contemporary theories of the role of society in the development of racial identity and prejudices. In this book, Fanon argues that mainstream psychology cannot alleviate the alienation of black people because it offers no livable model of a normal black adult. He urges people in colonized nations to fight against oppressive social systems and become questioning, critical human beings.
L'an v de la révolution algérienne (Year five of the Algerian revolution, translated into English as Studies in a Dying Colonialism, 1959), Fanon's second book, defends his view that colonized people must seize their freedom. His main point is that fighting for national independence awakens new ways of living in the world of colonized people. This means changing traditions, developing new relationships with technology (the radio), medicine, the family, and former white settlers.
The theme of seizing freedom returns in Fanon's most famous work, The Wretched of the Earth. Colonized people, he contends, face either demanding but not seizing their freedom and being welcomed by their colonizers as "nonviolent," or fighting for their freedom and being called "violent" by their opposition. He advocates the latter, arguing for the therapeutic value of violence. He also criticizes third world elites for propping themselves up as mediators with the old regimes and creating a neocolonial condition in which they become its new pillagers rather than building up their nation. The new struggle, then, is to fight this elite in the hope of achieving a genuine post-colonial society. Fanon closes the book with a call to build up the nation's material infrastructure (its roads, reservoirs, hospitals, and schools), and he asks colonized people to develop new ways of knowing and understanding themselves as human beings, to "shed our skin and set afoot a new humanity" (Fanon, 1961/1991; quotation translated by Lewis R. Gordon).
Finally, a collection of essays that includes his very prescient "Racism and Culture" was compiled and edited by his widow, Marie-Josèphe Fanon, and published in English in 1967 as Toward the African Revolution. Fanon's four books have been an influential legacy that continues to grow, though the author died when he was only thirty-six years of age. Leaders of the Black Panthers in the United States called The Wretched of the Earth "the textbook of the Revolution." The field of postcolonial studies has benefited significantly from his critique of colonialism, and his discussion of race and colonialism in the Caribbean has made him one of the most influential thinkers on contemporary Caribbean culture and society.
Fanon, Frantz. Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
Fanon, Frantz. Studies in a Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965.
Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African revolution: Political essays. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markman. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Fanon, Frantz. Les damnés de la terre. Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Paris: François Maspero, 1961; reprint, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1991.
Gibson, Nigel C. Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003.
Gibson, Nigel C., ed. Rethinking Fanon. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1999.
Gordon, Lewis R. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Gordon, Lewis R., T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White, eds. Fanon: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Sekyi-Out, Ato. Fanon's Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Zahar, Renate. Frantz Fanon: Colonialism and Alienation. Translated by Willfried F. Feuser. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.
lewis r. gordon (2005)
Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), political theorist, was born in Martinique. He studied medicine in France after World War II, became a psychiatrist, and served in a government hospital in Algeria. In 1956 he resigned from French government service and joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), becoming first an editor of the party’s journal and then, under the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, an ambassador to Ghana and a special envoy to the Congo. When he died in Bethesda, Maryland, of leukemia, he had established a reputation as the leading ideologist of the Algerian revolution. Subsequently, he came to be regarded as a major theorist of anticolonial-ism. His last work, The Wretched of the Earth(1961), is the clearest extant statement of this ideology.
Fanon began as a psychiatrist. He argued that neuroses can be understood and treated only if they are related to the cultural situation that gives rise to them, what he called their “sociogenesis.” For Fanon, the crucial aspect of a social structure is the extent to which it creates institutions that fulfill men’s needs. He maintained that “a society which forces its members to desperate solutions is a nonviable society, which must be replaced” (Pour la révolution africaine, p. 61).
Fanon argued that in the eyes of most men the fundamental conflict of the contemporary world is the race conflict: Black men and white men constitute two hostile camps. He was very clear that the source of this conflict, as of all conflicts, is oppression–in this case, a racial oppression which masks the oppression of capitalism and colonialism. “It is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates negritude” ( 1965, p. 47). Rooted in a tradition of universalistic rationalism, Fanon nevertheless rejected the French idea and policy of assimilation which, he felt, could never transcend paternalism and which tended to justify continued oppression. He defended the wearing of the veil by Algerian women as a symbol of nationalist opposition but thought that the veil would disappear after the success of the fundamental revolution against the colonizers.
Fanon sought ways for the colonized to purge themselves of the degrading effects of colonialism. For an individual or a group, the primary symptom of the fact that it has not attained human status is that it asks–indeed, appeals–for magnanimity. Rights can only be had if they are taken by purgative acts of violence. In a situation of collective denial of rights, there must be “collective catharsis.” Violence is the means to this catharsis.
Fanon believed that renewal is not easy. It requires violence, which frees the individual from the mental deformities imposed by colonialism and creates the possibility of renewal. Politicization can then follow; for to politicize is to awaken the mind to the world. Thus, self-consciousness will be the guarantee of cultural openness. The liberation of the oppressed individual from the apathy that has been encouraged in him–Fanon spoke of the “cultural mummification of colonialism”-is the only possible basis of true liberation.
Neither this individual liberation nor real decolonization can be achieved without violence. Violence is “in the atmosphere” and is constantly giving rise to spontaneous outbursts of violent protest. This spontaneity is a great source of strength, placing pressure on the inherently reluctant leadership of protest movements. But it is also dangerous, because it is neither disciplined nor farsighted. Successful revolution requires the proper balance of spontaneity and self-control.
Nationalist movements in the contemporary world have been the principal vehicle of decolonization. However, for Fanon they are an uncertain instrument because they tend to be led by the urban middle classes and because they ignore, insofar as they can, the peasantry. But only the peasantry in the underdeveloped world is really revolutionary, for only it has nothing to lose. The urban proletariat, by contrast, is a privileged group which tends to look down upon the peasants. The chief characteristic of the urban nationalist elite is that its anticolonialism goes hand in hand with its spirit of accommodation. Its propensity to compromise, combined with the peasants’ often premature acceptance of concessions, constitutes the chief danger to the anticolonialist revolution.
Fanon saw the colonial powers and their agents as following a policy of making minimal concessions which are intended to undermine the unity of the oppressed classes. He analyzed the guided steps to independence in much of Asia and Africa in these terms. Under pressure, the colonial powers cede authority to each national bourgeoisie, thus effectively in most cases creating new allies. The single-party systems of the “third world”-the underdeveloped world–have been “dictatorships of the bourgeoisie.”
The struggle for national liberation of colonial countries can, according to Fanon, be understood only in the context of the struggle of the “third world” for full equality and self-realization. Fanon drew on Hegel and Marx for his analysis of the underlying contradictions of the capitalist world. He followed Sorel and Lenin in their emphasis on the necessity of organized violence to polarize society. And he drew on a modified version of Freud’s theories for his analysis of how changes in the social structure lead to shifts in the personality structure, which in turn determine the possibilities of political action.
Fanon sought to go beyond nationalism to the world revolution of the colonized against the colonizers. He considered the attainment of national sovereignty to be insufficient. Fundamental emancipation of the once-colonial peoples can come about, according to Fanon, through their participation in this world-wide revolution. He thought that a “new man” must be created and that only through the reawakened self-consciousness of the oppressed peoples can a true international consciousness be created and man’s humanity be established.
1952 Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Seuil.
(1959) 1965 Studies in a Dying Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press. → First published as ’an V de la révolution africaine.
Pour la révolution africaine: Ecrits politiques. Paris: Mas-pero, 1964.
Isaacs, Harold R. 1965 Portrait of a Revolutionary. Commentary40, no. 1 : 67–71. → An insightful discussion of Fanon.
Fanon, Frantz (1925-1961)
FANON, FRANTZ (1925-1961)
Frantz Fanon was born on July 20, 1925, in Fort-de-France on the Caribbean island of Martinique and died on December 6, 1961, in Washington, D.C. He is best known for his work in fighting against colonization.
Fanon was the son of a native Martiniquan father (the descendant of slaves and a member of the island's middle-class community), and a French (Alsace) mother (herself the daughter of a mixed marriage). Between 1939 and 1943 he studied at the Lycée Schoelcher, where he was taught by Aimé César, a poet who helped destroy the image of the African created by European colonization. In 1943, then a young man, Fanon became a dissident and agitated against representatives of the Vichy regime in the Antilles. He traveled to the island of Dominica to rally the free French forces in the Caribbean. In 1944 he fought on the European front. Wounded near the Swiss border, he received a citation for his courage, signed by Colonel Raoul Salan, whom he would later fight against in Algeria.
After receiving his baccalaureate at the special session of March 1946, he went to Lyon, France, to study medicine (1946-1951). After a brief stay in Martinique at the end of 1951, he returned to Lyon to specialize in psychiatry under the direction of Professor Tosquelles. There he met Octave Mannoni. The two men became friends, but Fanon was highly critical of Mannoni's Psychologie de la Colonisation (Psychology of colonization). He became a psychiatrist in June 1953. In 1954 he was appointed to a post in Blida, Algeria. He saw patients during the day and, at night, participated in the struggle for Algerian independence. He was expelled from Algeria in January 1957. At the end of the summer of 1958, Fanon settled in Tunis to resume his double life. He died in 1961 from leukemia.
He developed an interest in psychoanalysis fairly early in his career; he speaks of it in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1967a), published when he was twenty-seven. His attitude is that of a colonized subject who, disappointed by racism, grows skeptical of European universalism. Yet he began this work with the following statement: "Only a psychoanalytic interpretation of the black problem can reveal the emotional anomalies responsible for the resulting complexes." Fanon saw Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Gustav Jung as more or less the same. His form of psychoanalysis is more of a social therapy based on liberation than of a talking cure.
His ideas, as represented in his books—Studies in a Dying Colonialism (1965a), The Wretched of the Earth (1965a), and Toward the African Revolution (1967b)—can be summarized as follows: There is a specific pathology associated with colonization. The core of the emotional disturbances affecting black people is an inferiority complex, in the Adlerian sense. The Oedipus complex does not occur in families from the Antilles. The unconscious, as described by Jung, is collective. Analysis of the social-historical development of the individual must take precedence over any other approach. Freud, Jung, and Adler were not thinking about black people when they formulated their theories. He rejected the idea of determinism, believing that humankind was abandoned to its own fate.
He was unable to overcome his resistance to psychoanalysis at the time of his premature death at the age of thirty-six.
See also: Martinique; North African countries.
Cherki, Alice. (2000). Frantz Fanon, portrait. Paris: Seuil.
Fanon, Frantz. (1965a). Studies in a dying colonialism (Haakon Chevalier, Trans.). New York: Monthly Review Press. (Original work published 1958)
——. (1967a). Black skin, white masks (Charles Lam Markmann, Trans.). New York: Grove Press. (Original work published 1952)
——. (1967b). Toward the African revolution: Political essays (Haakon Chevalier, Trans.). New York: Grove Press. (Original work published 1964)
The Algerian political theorist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) analyzed the nature of racism and colonialism and developed a theory of violent anticolonialist struggle.
Frantz Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique. He volunteered for the French army during World War II, and then, after being released from military service, he went to France, where he studied medicine and psychiatry from 1945 to 1950. In 1953 he was appointed head of the psychiatric department of a government hospital in Algeria, then a French territory. As a black man searching for his own identity in a white colonial culture, he experienced racism; as a psychiatrist, he studied the dynamics of racism and its effects on the individual.
In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon examined the social and psychological processes by which the white colonizers alienated the black natives from any indigenous black culture; he showed that blacks were made to feel inferior because of their color and thus strove to emulate white culture and society. Fanon hoped that the old myths of superiority would be abandoned so that a real equality and integration could be achieved.
Alienated from the dominant French culture, except for that represented by such radicals as the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, Fanon deeply identified with Algeria's revolutionary struggle for independence. He had secretly aided the rebels from 1954 to 1956, when he resigned from the hospital post to openly work for the Algerian revolutionaries' National Liberation Front (FLN) in Tunis. He worked on the revolutionaries' newspaper, becoming one of the leading ideologists of the revolution, and developed a theory of anticolonial struggle in the "third world."
Using Marxist, psychoanalytic, and sociological analysis, Fanon summed up his views in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), arguing that only a thorough, truly socialist revolution carried out by the oppressed peasantry (the wretched of the earth) could bring justice to the colonized. He believed that the revolution could only be carried out by violent armed conflict; only revolutionary violence could completely break the psychological and physical shackles of a racist colonialism. Violence would regenerate and unite the population by a "collective catharsis;" out of this violence a new, humane man would arise and create a new culture. Through all this Fanon stressed the need to reject Europe and its culture and accomplish the revolution alone.
Fanon, the antiracist and revolutionary prophet, never saw the end result of the process he described: full independence of his adopted Algeria. In 1960 he served as ambassador to Ghana for the Algerian provisional government, but it was soon discovered that he had leukemia. After treatment in the Soviet Union, he went to the United States to seek further treatment but died there in 1961.
Peter Geismar, Fanon (1971), is a useful biography. David Caute, Fanon (1970), is not a full biography but a study of Fanon's ideas. Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961; trans. 1965) has an interesting introduction by Jean Paul Sartre. For a concise background of Algeria see Richard M. Brace, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia (1964).
Bulhan, Hussein Abdilahi., Frantz Fanon and the psychology of oppression, New York: Plenum Press, 1985.
Gendzier, Irene L., Frantz Fano, London: Panaf Books, 1975. □