Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Remembering Frantz Fanon

Reviewed by David Tresilian

Frantz Fanon, Portrait [Frantz Fanon: A Portrait], Alice Cherki, Paris: Seuil, 2000. pp315

Widely noticed and in general very well received in France, Alice Cherki's Frantz Fanon: A Portrait, a biographical essay, would be welcome if only because it draws attention to this Martiniquan-born, French psychiatrist turned Algerian and Third World revolutionary who died in 1961, some 40 years ago. While in the United States, as Cherki notes, Fanon's two best-known works, Peau noire, masques blancs [Black Skin, White Masks] and Les damnés de la terre [The Wretched of the Earth] were adopted as works of reference in the 1960s by the Black Power movement and have now been accorded canonical status in universities across the country, in France their author has slipped into obscurity. Meanwhile in Algeria a recent poll revealed that younger people imagined Fanon to have been a former French colonial governor of the country, something strikingly at odds with his true role as prophet of Algerian independence and, together with his friend and collaborator Kwame Nkrumah, first president of independent Ghana, of African self-determination. In this context it is certainly worth asking what is living and what is now dead in Fanon's thought, and in a lengthy final section Cherki's book attempts just this.

Her book, however, does much more than just draw attention to this writer who still has ample power to disturb and to inspire. It also significantly contextualises and fills in Fanon's thought, supplying fascinating background detail to the composition of his books and reconstructing the professional environment in which he worked, first in metropolitan France and then as Head of Department at a psychiatric hospital in Blida in what was then French Algeria between 1954 and 1956. Cherki, who is herself a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with previous books on Lacan to her credit, was an intern in the Psychiatry department Fanon ran in Blida, and she later went on to join him in Tunisia after he had resigned from his post in protest at the escalating violence and torture that marked the Algerian War. Following his expulsion from Algeria by the French authorities, Fanon went on to take up a post on the pro-independence Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid while continuing to practice psychiatry at a hospital in Tunis. A further interest of Cherki's book, therefore, is the author's capacity as a witness, allowing her to give a sense of what Fanon was like in private beyond the glare of publicity that his role as theorist of Third World revolution and as spokesman for the FLN, the Algerian independence movement that took power in the country following French withdrawal in 1962, gave him. In this way, we get some sense of Fanon's reading, friendships, professional commitments and private loves and interests.

It should be said, however, that one does not get the impression that Cherki knew Fanon particularly well, since this kind of personal material, so valuable in fleshing out a biography or portrait, in her book is still a little sparse. But perhaps the truth is that, as the author notes, few people knew this restless, driven individual very well, since Fanon himself would not allow it. Even those who thought they did know him well later found themselves to have been mistaken, and Cherki gives details of many broken friendships. But in any case there was very little time to get to know Fanon, for he died tragically young of leukemia at the age of only 36, and as soon as he heard the diagnosis, Cherki says, Fanon worked against the clock to finish his major work on decolonisation, self-determination and cultural refoundation, The Wretched of the Earth, which appeared with a Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1961 a few weeks before its author's death.

Frantz Fanon was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique, in the French West Indies in 1925. A brilliant pupil, taught at High School by Aimé Césaire, poet, dramatist, and author of Discours sur le colonialisme, which was later a work of reference for Fanon and for many others, Fanon was thus only 15 when the collapse of France before fascist invasion brought the population of Martinique, like those of other French territories overseas, to a crossroads in their own history. At first occupied by pro-Vichy forces, from 1943 on the island was under the control of the Free French, and in 1944, Fanon, aged 19, volunteered to join French forces in North Africa as part of the effort to rid Europe of German fascism. He was, Cherki says, quite clear in his mind about the necessity of this, despite the argument put forward by some of his countrymen that events in Europe were of little consequence for life in Martinique. "We are all concerned, whether white, black or yellow, when man's dignity and liberty is at stake," he said, and this conviction stayed with Fanon, informing all his subsequent writings. These are suffused with indignation at the offence to human dignity and liberty offered by European colonialism in North and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in his native Caribbean.


President de Gaulle mingles with ordinary Algerians in Algiers, 1960, from Century, Bruce Bernard, London:Phaidon, 1999
From North Africa, Fanon was transferred to fight in Eastern France, being decorated for his pains. He was, however, profoundly shocked at the racism and contempt he and others were shown in this war of liberation, so much so that when victory came, those troops from North Africa, Senegal and the West Indies "who had fought for equality and for fraternity found themselves alone and treated with contempt." Cherki quotes from a letter Fanon wrote to his mother Eléonore Fanon at this time, which was found, carefully preserved, among the latter's things following her death in 1981. In this letter Fanon writes that "I left Fort-de-France a year ago, for what? To defend an obsolete idea....I doubt everything, even myself. Nothing here justifies this hasty decision to make myself the defender of the interests of the owners when they themselves mock them." Was Fanon speaking from experience when he wrote a few years later in Peau noire, masques blancs that "something new comes into the world" when the colonised answers back to European condescension? "Monsieur, je ne suis nullement votre brave," he wrote [Sorry Sir, I'm not your brave little chap].

This book, published in 1952, was intended to record the experience of a "black man plunged into a dominant white world sure of its supremacy" as well as to "describe this condition in the hope of going beyond it", as François Maspero noted in the French newspaper Le Monde recently in an extended commentary on Fanon. (Maspero, a young man in the early 1950s, was a friend of Fanon's and acted as his publisher.) It was, however, intended above all to describe what Fanon, drawing on the work of Césaire, as well as on that of the French psychiatrist Octave Mannoni and on that of his early intellectual guides Jean-Paul Sartre and fellow philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, saw as "the colonial situation," a kind of limiting existential frame, born of colonialism, in which human potential was stunted, or deformed into a "double narcissism." In this fatal space, comprehending the European and the extra-European world, "the white was imprisoned in his whiteness and the black in his blackness," Fanon wrote, each playing out a fixed role in the face of the other. The point was to break out of this colonial situation, and by so doing end the continuing human tragedy it gave rise to for those on both sides of the divide.

Arriving in Algeria after medical studies in Lyon, and apparently following a failed attempt to submit White Skin, Black Masks as a doctoral thesis (eventually submitting a thesis on, roughly, Mental Problems and Psychiatric Syndromes in Hereditary Spinocerebral Degeneration: A Case of Friedrich's Disease instead), Fanon was thus attuned to the daily injustice of colonialism. At Blida he found not only a society sharply divided into colonisers and colonised such as he had already described, but also a European psychiatric discourse that ascribed a primitive mental development to the native population of the country. Cherki describes this as a doctrine that saw in the North African a "genetically fixed immaturity in cerebral development," quoting from a medical textbook of the time to the effect that "these primitives neither can nor should share in the progress offered by European civilisation." Unsurprisingly, Fanon never really fitted in at Blida. Instead, he devoted his time to analysing the colonial situation at work in the country that had produced such a bizarre doctrine, distorting both European and Algerian civilisation as it did so. He became convinced that the only way to break such a framework was to work for Algerian independence and self-determination, in this way becoming a powerful voice in favour first of Algerian and then of general African decolonisation.

Frantz Fanon
"The object is to make possible a healthy form of meeting between black and white....to make people aware of the possibilities that they have forbidden themselves and of the passivity they have shown in various situations ... and instead to face the world."
Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Masks

When discussing Fanon, it seems important to remember why for him decolonisation and the self-determination of the then colonised world was the burning issue of the day. Without it, he thought, and without the "new humanism" that it would bring in its train when all could look upon all as equals, the world would continue to be divided into opposing camps regarding each other with suspicion and with fear. In such a general situation, local attempts at self-valorization were doomed, since they were carried out in the shadow of the domination of the greater part of the world by the smaller. "It was not," he wrote at the end of Black Skin, White Masks, "because they had discovered their true culture that the population of Indo-China revolted [against French rule]; it was because .... it had become impossible for them to breath." Self-discovery comes with freedom, Fanon thought, in this way giving voice to the hopes of the time and becoming, by so doing, the prophet and inspiration for the struggles of millions in the decade that followed.

Maspero concludes his article on Fanon by noting that many of these hopes, which made up the general currency of the 1960s, have not been fulfilled. What, then, should be retained from Fanon's thought, which was so urgently addressed to the struggles of its time? Cherki, for her part, leaves this question open, writing that Fanon's writings, urgent, animated and full of lively illustration as they are, have scarcely lost their power to inspire and citing their continuing influence in the United States. However Fanon's was always a utopian voice, she says, repeating the criticism that Fanon, neither Muslim nor Arab and not speaking Arabic, may have misunderstood certain aspects of Algeria, his adopted country, and the one in which he is now buried. Nevertheless, Fanon's criticisms of certain aspects of the political struggle in which he was caught up and for which he acted as spokesmen seem scarcely to have aged. Indeed, one contributor to a conference on Fanon held in Brazzaville (Congo) a quarter century after Fanon's death spoke of the continuing relevance of Fanon's ideas in today's Africa, particularly with regard to his views on the importance of fashioning a genuine national culture, being one that neither adopted a white mask, as Fanon put it, nor descended into ethnocentrism.

One final virtue of Cherki's fascinating book, which is likely to send the reader back to its subject's works with renewed admiration, is the stress it lays on Fanon the professional, Fanon the psychiatrist deeply influenced by the existentialism of Sartre. One can hardly fail to notice the latter's influence in Black Skin, White Masks of course, where it plays like a continual refrain. Perhaps Fanon's originality, along with his continuing influence, is likely to lie in his having extended Sartrean humanism beyond the confines of Saint Germain-des-Prés in Paris and used it as a frame within which to view the process of decolonisation. For "the object," he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, "is to make possible a healthy form of meeting between black and white....to make people aware of the possibilities that they have forbidden themselves and of the passivity they have shown in various situations ... and instead to face the world."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
   Top of page
Front Page