Frantz Fanon, voice of the oppressed

The separation between the oppressors and the oppressed. The dehumanization of the native. The white conditioning of the Negro. These problems raised by the black psychiatrist and intellectual made fundamental contributions in the first half of the last century and are still relevant today.

It was a thunder strike in the post-war sky. In 1952, Black Skin, White Masks1, a “psychoanalytical interpretation of the black problem”, appeared. The introduction proclaims: “I propose nothing short of the liberation of the man of colour from himself. We shall go very slowly, for there are two camps: the white and the black.”

The author, Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), was simultaneously psychiatrist, essayist and political militant besides the National Liberation Front of Algeria, partaking the same vision for independence2. He was Martinican and among a group of black intellectuals, whose influence France found threatening, even when theirs were common experiences. Fanon was a radical anti-colonialist. His writings were strongly literary and rhetorical. He questioned history and encouraged contemporary reflections and debates, only to be forgotten and minimized3.

The “two camps” evoked by Fanon is not only an opposition between two skin colours, but also an antinomy between “oppressors” and “oppressed”. In his view, “either a society is racist or it is not” and “colonial racism is no different from other racisms.” It is when he tries to explain a key idea and expose a scandal that his poetic and rhetorical prose unfolds. Besides, for him, the liberation of the native means rejecting this interdicted world and embracing the “self” denied by the colonizer, who sees him as disorganised and docile: “The native is a being hemmed in; apartheid is simply one form of the division into compartments of the colonial world. The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in his place and not overstep its limits. Hence the dreams of the colonial subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me. During colonization the colonized subject frees himself night after night between nine in the evening and six in the morning.” Paul Nizam once wrote: “So long as people are not complete and free and not walk with their own feet on the lands that belong to them, they will dream at night.”4 Bourgeois oppression in 1933, colonial oppression in 1952.

A passionate libel

Black Skin, White Masks introduces us to the black universe conditioned systematically by the white master. It transmits passionately the heritage – despite the divergences – of the representatives of Negritude and of “Black Orpheus”5, by Jean-Paul Sartre, in metaphorical and analytical sequences of expressions for corporal and visual effects. Fanon examines the body, saying: “The first version of this book was dictated, walking around like an orator improvising, the rhythm of the body in movement, the whisper of the voice reciting the style,”6 However, reality surpasses metaphor: “From the first white glance, he felt the weight of his melanin.” Centuries of slavery and colonialism determined a foreign gaze that is difficult if not impossible to undo: “When people like me, they like me in spite of my colour. When they dislike me; they point out that it isn’t because of my colour. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle.”

Racism is also in the negro label, with coloured ancestral connotation, that became evidence, almost essence: “Blackness, darkness, shadow, shades, night, the labyrinths of the earth, abysmal depths, blacken someone’s reputation; and, the other side the bright look of innocence, the white dove of peace, magical, heavenly light.” Speech cannot purge these connotations, which also appear in religion: “Sin is black just as virtue is white.” The analysis was not new by then, but, from one work to the other, Fanon went further. His last book, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)7, shows that the “compartmentalization” of a colonial and racist society produces, necessarily, a racist language: “At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native.” Put differently, as Jean-Paul Sartre denounces during the Algerian War8, the colonial system creates a “sub-human”.

Fanon continues: “Or to speak plainly, [this Manicheism] turns him into an animal. In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of the yellow man’s reptilian motions, of the stink of the native quarter, of breeding swarms, of foulness, of spawn, of gesticulations… Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun, that vegetative rhythm of life – all this forms part of the colonial vocabulary.” It is worth mentioning that they have not disappeared completely from our latitudes, as we are reminded by the song Le bruit et l’odeur [The noise and the smell]9 (1995), by the group Zebda.

The “dehumanization” of the native justifies the treatment they receive: “Discipline, dress, dominate and pacify are the expressions most frequently used by the colonizers in occupied territories.” The Algerian War is no more than the paradoxical continuation of a system based on violence and contempt. As such, the introduction to L’an V de la révolution algérienne [Year five of the Algerian Revolution]10 (1959) stresses that, from the beginning of the war, “French [colonialism] did not rule out any radicalism: be it terror or torture.”

They erred in their calculation: “The repressions, far from calling a halt to the forward rush of national consciousness, urge it on,” analyses Fanon. “For if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settler’s, his glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me, and his voice no longer turns me into stone. I am no longer on tenterhooks in his presence; in fact, I don’t give a damn for him. Not only does his presence no longer trouble me, but I am already preparing such efficient ambushes for him that soon there will be no way out but that of flight.” Immersed in the struggle for independence, psychic liberation leads to victory over fear.

Violence of the word

Under what conditions will this struggle unfold? The Wretched of the Earth puts forward: “Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” This is because violence breeds violence, and when the oppressor invades the smallest portion of a territory, it is difficult to maintain peace: “Every statue, whether of Faidherbe or Lyautey, of Bugeaud or Sergeant Blandan – all these conquistadors perched on colonial soil do not cease from proclaiming one and the same thing: ‘We are here by the force of bayonets….’.” It is evident the response of the oppressed, tremendous for other countries under others’ commands. Fanon justifies violence? Not in all movements: “we condemn, with pain in our hearts, those brothers who have flung themselves into revolutionary action with the almost physiological brutality that centuries of oppression give rise to and feed.” However, Fanon urges us to understand the genesis of violence and the lack of other alternatives for the liberation of the oppressed. His description of the compartmentalization of colonial society, with its “dividing line” and “frontiers shown by barracks and police stations”, reminds us of our militarized world that, far from pacifying, promotes the growth of “radicalism” that it wants to combat. Fanon also applies his acumen to the analysis of the future of a decolonized country wherein a “(in)authentic national middle class” rises to power but does not put “intellectual and technical capital” at the people’s disposal. Based on the example of Latin America, he foresees the risk of a country becoming “centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie.” He dissects the propensity of a bourgeoise – “cynically bourgeois” – destroys national unity with “regionalism”. And concludes: “This merciless fight engaged upon by races and tribes, and this aggressive anxiety to occupy the posts left vacant by the departure of the foreigner, will equally give rise to religious rivalries. In the country districts and the bush, minor confraternities, local religions, and maraboutic cults will show a new vitality and will once more take up their round of excommunications. In the big towns, on the level of the administrative classes, we will observe the coming to grips of the two great revealed religions, Islam and Catholicism.” Fanon warns of the peril of a single party, which uses the past to “lull everybody to sleep” and “obliges people to remember the colonial past and measure the long road they have travelled.” How many African countries come to our minds?

Concerning colonization, Fanon thinks that we should not champion a black culture exclusively. On the one hand, there is a “historical necessity for the people of African culture to ‘racialize’ their claims and to speak more of African culture than of national culture”; on the other hand, this “will tend to lead them up a blind alley.” Fanon’s beliefs are transmitted magnificently already in his first book, prompting today’s communists to reflect: “I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future.” This statement, nevertheless, is not only a comment on colonial history, but as he clarified in 1952, also a reflection on European history. Colonialism was based on questionable “values”: “If philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.”

Les Zinzins, 2016, by Armand Boua, oil pastel on paperLes Zinzins, 2016, by Armand Boua, oil pastel on paper

In 1961, Fanon’s condemnation turned ferocious, vehement, radical: “Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.” Disturbingly, saluted by us was the France that was simultaneously liberated from Nazism, rebuilding itself, and massacring the people of Sétif (May 1945) or Madagascar (March 1947). The France that, at the end of the war, turned its back on its Senegalese or Moroccan comrades at the front line. Let us heed this voice that for more 40 years propounded its incisive truth, which could have still been ours: “We must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. Europe now lives at such a mad, reckless pace that she has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running headlong into the abyss; we would do well to avoid it with all possible speed.”

Fanon knows what Europe he is referring to, he that paid homage to the Jews of Algeria, the French in different parts that embraced independence. Here is a universal gesture: “I, the man of color, want only this: That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another.”


Ed 20, March 2009 Le monde diplomatique 

  • 1. Peau noire masques blancs, Edições Seuil (Paris), preface by Francis Jeanson, who also wrote a postface for the 1965 edition. Still available today in the “Points essais” collection.
  • 2. He was its spokesperson since June 1957 and chief physician of the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital since 1953.
  • 3. Read essayist Lothar Baier (Agone 33, Marseille, April 2005).
  • 4. Paul Nizan, Antoine Bloyé (1933), Grasset, Les Cahiers rouge, Paris, 2005.
  • 5. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée noire” [Black orpheus], preface in: Léopold Sedar Senghor, Antologie de la poésie nègre et malgache, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 1948.
  • 6. Alice Cherki, Frantz Fanon, portrait [Frantz Fanon, a portrait], Seuil, 2000, p.46.
  • 7. Published by François Maspero with a preface by Sartre; prohibited since its launching. Fanon, knowing that he was condemned by leukaemia, dictated every page. He received a copy of the book once it was printed, three days before he passed away in a hospital in the United States. Following his wishes, he was buried in a small liberated Algerian village close to the border with Tunisia.
  • 8. Jean-Paul Sartre et la guerre d’Algérie [Jean-Paul Sartre and the Algerian War], Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2004.
  • 9. Inspired by a declaration by Jacques Chirac on the “noise and smell” provoked by immigrants.
  • 10. Published by Maspero. Substantial parts of the last chapter were published in Les temps modernes. The work was accused of undermining national security. Today, it is made available by La Découverte, in the collection “(Re)découverte”. The introduction, written in July 1959, did not appear in the first edition.
Translation:  Kaian Lam

by Anne Mathieu
Mukanda | 1 January 2019 | Franz Fanon, oppresed, racist, society