Frantz Fanon (d. 1961) was a psychoanalyst and philosopher who wrote at length about the social legacy of colonialism and its impact on black lives.
Fanon was born in 1925 on the small island and French colony of Martinique that he later left to fight in the Second World War. Fanon later studied psychiatry in Lyon, France, and had a great interest in philosophy, particularly the philosophical ideas of phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty. It seems that Fanon’s encountering of racism while in France motivated his writing on the topic and he later moved to Algeria (also a French colony) where he supported the Algerian independence movement. Although Fanon had a commitment to revolution, he was yet capable of compassion and a deep reverence for life. The feminist, existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote of Fanon in 1961,
“Though an advocate of violence, he was horrified by it; when he described the mutilations inflicted on the Congolese by the Belgians or by the Portuguese on the Angolans, his expression would betray anguish, but it did so less when he talked about the terrible reckonings implied by the Algerian Revolution” (1).
According to Victor Olorunsola and Ramakris Vaitheswaran, “the liberation of all men from the constraints of privilege as well as servitude which can be said to be the essence of Fanon’s message” (2). It has been Fanon’s “colonizer-colonized” relationship that has been his most significant contribution to revolution and social analysis, especially for later post-colonial thinkers such as Edward Said. Perhaps Fanon’s central idea is that blackness came with a severe disadvantage in colonized nations where to be accepted as a human being one was required to be white. This means that blacks needed to themselves become whites; as Fanon stated, “for the black man there is only one destiny”, which is to “be like the white man.” The problem ultimately traced back to how colonial cultures equated blackness with inferiority and how this, in turn, motivated the colonized peoples to want to escape their blackness or inferiority. Accepted by blacks was the superiority of colonial culture that he must aspire to become. However, such attempts would always fail because no matter what the black person does, he can never change the color of his skin; he will never be accepted as white. To Fanon, this mentality not only avoided blacks overcoming the injustices and prejudices they faced, but it also asserted the “unarguable superiority” of whiteness. What it meant to be black was a creation of racist European thought, which led Fanon to view the black man’s soul as the white man’s artifact. Fanon in his life underwent a so-called “psychic death” by rejecting the white man’s projection of his being as a black man in order to search for his own identity.
In the Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon represents the colonial system as it was imposed on Asia and Africa by the West as one of violence. He maintained that the counter-violence of the colonized was not only an inevitable response but also one that was necessary. The black man can, in his view, use total violence to affirm his own identity and emerge as a man. Fanon writes that “At the level of individuals, violence 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.” Olorunsola and Vaitheswaran say that to Fanon, revolution meant regeneration in that it reasserted the membership of the colonized man within the human family by providing a method whereby that membership can be realized. Fanon’s revolutionary temperament thus spoke of a passionate belief in man and the search for a cure to the cancer of exploitation, racism, and hatred.
Reflecting on Fanon’s ideas, some readers have wondered whether violence is an inevitable feature of revolution. Although violence may, under extreme circumstances, be inescapable and necessary, to accept this is still different from accepting the inevitability, necessity, and rightness of violence under all circumstances in the national liberation struggle (3). There is also always the chance of a threat from the processes of revolutionary war itself. Revolutionary war can tend to concentrate political and military power in the hands of a few, especially in those who are a part of the elitist group that organizes the revolution. After all, leaders having led the revolution would require great unselfishness to deny themselves political power if the revolution is successful. History shows, moreover, that being a revolutionary leader does not make one a successful country leader or president. Revolutionary parties or groups do not necessarily make for a good government and in many cases have perpetuated grave injustices themselves. However, although Fanon was often a cold analyst sometimes lacking sentimentality, “Whether one agrees with him or not, one cannot remain unmoved by his great humanism.”
1. Simone de Beauvoir quoted by Charif Quellel. 1970. “Franz Fanon and Colonized Man.” Africa Today 17(1):8-11.
2. Olorunsola, Victor., and Vaitheswaran, Ramakris. 1970. “Reflections Prompted by Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”: A Review Essay.” The Journal of Developing Areas 5(1):123-126. p. ?
3. Charif Quellel. 1970. Ibid. p. 9-10.
Buckingham, Will., Burnham, Douglas., Hill, Clive., King, Peter., Marenbon, John., and Weeks, Marcus. 2018. The Little Book of Philosophy. Penguin Random House. p. 188-189.