“The Wretched of the Earth,” “Black Skin, White Masks,” “A Dying Colonialism” and “Toward the African Revolution” are four major literary works by Frantz Fanon, and they have been called the “bibles of the decolonization movement.” He was one of the pre-eminent theorists of the anti-colonialist movements in the 20th century. Fanon was born in Martinique (an island in the West Indies, colonized by the French), in 1925, the same year as Minister Malcolm X. (His writing juxtaposed his life’s work philosophically between Marcus Garvey and Mohandas Gandhi on one hand, and Minister Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the other). Though he was labeled a “theorist,” his pioneering studies of the psychological impact of racism on Black people were not theories; they were borne out of his experiences as a victim of colonialism.
Fanon grew up in Martinique, the descendants of African slaves who worked on the island’s sugar plantations. He received a conventional colonial education at the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort-de-France; Aime Cesaire (a fellow Martinican, poet and politician, who inspired Fanon but whose concept of Negritude—that a person’s status depended on his/her economical and social position—Fanon rejected) was one of his teachers. By that definition, Negritude would foster a caste-like system which was also adamantly rejected by Gandhi in India as a colonial (British) tool used as a method of controlling the colonized. Fanon traveled to other Caribbean islands where he discovered rampant oppression—a bastion of colonialism.
Cesaire’s “Discours sur le Colonialisme” introduced Fanon’s first book and Fanon’s writings became commonplace among fellow anti-colonialists in the West Indies including C.L.R. James, Dr. Eric Williams and Edouard Glissant. Also it is important to note that all of Fanon’s writings were originally done in French, his first language (and though France, and indeed Europe, had colonized an inordinate share of the world’s peoples of color), his books had to be translated into the languages of other indigenous peoples of the colonized world to whom Fanon had intended to be the recipients.
Leaving Martinique as a teenager, Fanon went to France where he studied medicine and psychiatry from 1945 to 1950. He received his degree from the University of Lyons and passed his “Medicat de Hopitaux Psychiatrique” in 1953. He participated in the guerilla struggle against supporters of a pro-Nazi faction of the French government and got his first glimpse of metropolitan racism. Then he took a position at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, a French colony in Africa, and became involved in the Resistance Movement of the Algerian Civil War. While fighting for the Resistance, Fanon began searching for his own identity in a white colonial environment which led to him studying the dynamics of racism and its effects on the individual.
Out of that experience—a Black man, searching for himself in a White world—he wrote “Peau Noire, Masques Blancs” (“Black Skin, White Masks”) originally published in France, in 1952; it was Fanon’s first published work. “It should be read by every Black man with a desire to understand himself and the forces which conspire against him,” said Floyd McKissick, an American civil rights activist and attorney. It represented the philosophy of the state of being Black and the warping of the “Negro” psyche by a “superior” White culture, and the effect of colonial subjugation on the human psyche. For though Fanon was an intelligent Black man, with a French education, he was rejected in France by the (White) French because of his skin color.
In 1996, in a film entitled “Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask,” Fanon was placed at the center of contemporary discussions around post-colonial identity which was reinforced by his scholarly approach in the following statement: “though color does not define character, it often describes the oppressors.” He of course, was referring to White people as the oppressor of non-Whites worldwide—in Southern and Eastern Asia, South America, North America, the Caribbean and particularly Africa.
About the film, world-renowned professor, Angela Davis of the University of California, Santa Cruz stated, “Visually stunning and intellectually provocative, Isaac Julien’s (the director) film is an eloquent and complex exploration of the life and legacy of this (20th) century’s most compelling theorist of racism and colonialism.” And even though he was Black, Fanon’s psychological identity of the impact of colonial oppression is used beyond the white racism dynamic of Black people. One Chinese scholar stated that in China, and in the Chinese Diaspora, those who are victimized by the European culture and values are called “bananas—yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
The duration of his most prolific years as a writer, coincided with several other like-minded individuals who were fighting against the same oppressors and the system of oppression about which he was writing, in a different way. Fanon believed that violent revolution was the only means of ending colonial repression and the cultural trauma it wrought. He stated, “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.” Fanon surmised that the ensuing counter-violence did not carry the same justification as the initial violence the oppressors inflicted on the oppressed peoples. Some of his contemporaries violently (sic) disagreed. And though they were sometimes in close physical proximity—and ideologically—they never met, their language differences notwithstanding. While serving as ambassador-at-large for the “Gouvernement Provisoire Algerien,” the Algerian Resistance Movement’ provisional government, Fanon attended the All-African Peoples’ Conference of 1958 in Ghana. (There he may have crossed paths with Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Banda and Jomo Kenyatta). He realized that the great bulk of Africa had been carved out arbitrarily to the detriment of the indigenous African peoples by European colonialists/imperialists, namely: Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Many scholars, including Fanon, who have studied colonialism and its devastating effects, have concluded that racism and White supremacy are wedded to oppression; they are like three peas in a pod. Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, a psychiatrist, wrote the following, about three decades after Fanon died: “The system of racism (White supremacy) utilizes deceit and violence, indeed by any means necessary, to achieve its ultimate goal objective of white genetic survival and to prevent white genetic annihilation of planet earth.”
Fanon’s other masterpiece, “Les Damnes de la Terre” (“The Wretched of the Earth”), appeared to have been written in anger, justified anger, and based on what he had learned and extrapolated from his continuing experiences. It has been described as a brilliant examination of the role of violence in effecting brutal historical changes by colonial oppressors and of its simultaneous use as a handbook of revolutionary practice and social reorganization. It had reportedly been required reading for revolutionary movements in Latin America and the United States especially during the 60s and the 70s, including the Black Panther Party, and as standard text in several universities. The following statement was written in the English version of the paperback text beneath the title: ‘The handbook for the Black Revolution that is changing the shape of the world.’
Next was L’An Cinq de la Revolution Algerienne” (1959), literally “The Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution,” was published as “A Dying Colonialism” in 1967. In it, Fanon called for armed resistance to French occupation, as a colonial power, and he described how the Algerians re-embraced some of their ancient cultural patterns that were derided by their oppressors, in order to add fervor and justify their resistance. By that time, he had become a “marked man” and several attempts were made on his life.
His final work was “Pour la Revolution Africaine” published/
translated “Toward the African Revolution” was Fanon’s endearing manifesto to all oppressed peoples on the innate psychology of their condition and the way to empowerment necessary for their liberation and ultimately their survival. It crystallized all his former literary works in essays and letters, and summed them up as a lasting legacy.
A prolific writer who lived a “short” 36 years, Fanon left a body of literary work, unmatched by his contemporaries, that serves as a guiding light of revolutionary ideals. It is amazing that he found time for a family. Fanon married Josie Duble in 1952 and they had one son. While traveling during his final years, he developed leukemia. Following treatment in Moscow, he returned to Tunisia—where he had been living—and there he finished “The Wretched of the Earth” which was also published after his death. He spent his final days at a military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died on December 6, 1961, reportedly under an assumed name.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.