by Missang Oyongha, This Day
Fifty years ago, the great Frantz Omar Fanon, doctor, thinker, psychiatrist, revolutionary, decorated war hero and humanist, died in the US at the age of 36. As suggested by this resume, there was a fascinating trajectory to his life, one which took him from his birthplace of Martinique, on the periphery of the French empire, to the centre itself, first as a soldier in France during World War II, then as a medical student after the war.
The arc of events led from Paris to Algeria and a post in the French colonial service and it was in this bloody theatre that Dr Fanon, privileged by stander, became comrade Fanon, angered participant in the Algerian resistance to one hundred years of servitude.
It was an unsurprising gesture for a man who, sublimely self-aware and inquiring, had declared in Black Skin, White Masks: “In the world through which I travel I am endlessly creating myself.” Algeria was the scene of his most memorable incarnation; it could also be argued that it both inspired and consumed him.
In his preface to The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre insists that “Fanon is the first since Engels to bring the processes of history into the clear light of day.” Such praise does not seem so startling if one considers with equanimity Fanon’s magisterial theses and the forensic care with which he dissects the blood-soaked omelet of imperialism.
He is never less than eloquent and lucid, whether he is describing the native-settler dialectic, the role of language in creating consciousness, guerrilla tactics or what the African state will look like on the morning after apparent independence.
By instinct and by training he is alive to the psychological and material conditions which define life in any society upon which he fixes his informed gaze, whether Martinique or Algeria. Fanon’s early goal, announced in Black Skin, White Masks, was “to help the black man to free himself of the arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment.”
He was in his way an entirely secular liberation theologian and reading his work it is easy to understand why he was such a patron saint to figures like Malcolm X and Che Guevara. Of course, Fanon’s compassion was for the whole of oppressed humanity and in his work he enlarges the family of the reviled to include Jews, Arabs, and blacks.
His writing, especially that tour de force of breadth and insight, The Wretched of the Earth, is often read narrowly as a critique of colonialism and an exhortation to revolutionary violence. Yet, Fanon was undeceived about the capacity of the political class in the newly independent African, Asian and Caribbean countries to slip quite comfortably into the inherited attitudes of dominance and exploitation.
He fully anticipated the Kronstadt moment, as some Marxists like to call it, the moment when the brutality and sham of the new regime reveals that little has changed save the names and faces. In this he resembles the Soyinka who presented in A Dance of the Forests a vision of the romanticised African past as corrupt and murderous, and in no way a model for the hopeful present. Fanon was already taking issue with leaders like Leopold Senghor, in the 1950s, for paying lip service to the idea of African solidarity while acquiescing in French policy on Algeria.
The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, the year of Fanon’s death, is as impassioned a testament as could be found, a potent brew of ideas and language in the service of a cause. He saw as inevitable the necessity of overturning by force privileges obtained by force. To extol him is not to glorify violence.
Awork like The Wretched of the Earth is enriched by his seeming pessimism about political liberation as an end in itself (“To tell the truth, the proof of success lies in a whole social structure being changed from the bottom up.”) as well as by his incomparable ability to conjure in his focus the present and the future.
No one who watched the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when the army refused to fire on anti-Mubarak protesters, can ignore the rightness of Fanon’s assertion that “the soldier should know that he is in the service of his country and not in the service of his commanding officer, however great that officer’s prestige may be.”
The fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali, and the insurrection against Gaddafi bear out Fanon’s insistence that “no leader, however valuable, can substitute himself for the popular will.” The success of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, with those heady scenes at Tahrir Square, would have cheered Fanon no end, though he would not have been surprised to learn that the Americans were whispering all along in the ears of the Cairo generals.
No one who has followed the history of the modern state of Israel, and the fate of the Palestinians, can deny the prescience of Fanon’s argument, in Black Skin, White Masks, that “the Jews who have settled in Israel will produce in less than a hundred years a collective unconscious different from the ones that they had before 1945 in the countries which they were forced to leave.”
In 2009, Steven Salaita excoriated the African-American intellectual Cornel West for not being radical and clear-sighted enough with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writing, “I wish West would cancel his Tikkun subscription, and dust off his copy of The Wretched of the Earth.”
No one who reads the closing chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, on “Colonial War and Mental Disorder,” with its accounts of the effects of violence on perpetrators and victims, the sheer dehumanising acts, can believe in the necessity or inconsequence of what the Bush administration preferred to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
When we remember Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “extraordinary rendition,” the dirty wars of South America, and the testimonies at the TRC hearings in South Africa, then the episodes that Fanon recounts do not seem so distant or implausible.
What gives Fanon his distinct tenor is the fact that he does not cling superficially to the consolations of ideology or theory or negritude, despite the vocabulary of socialism and psychoanalysis which salts his work, despite his admiration for his former teacher Aime Cesaire.
He made it clear in Black Skin, White Masks that he was unwilling “to exalt the past at the expense of my present and of my future.” And for all the influence of Marx and Freud on his thought, Fanon was conscious of the inadequacy of their interpretations when applied without context and nuance to the African individual or society, especially against the background of the colonial experience.
It is not merely the race which is thus at the heart of Fanon’s vision, nor is it the nation-state, or the leader, or the political party: it is the people, embodiments of radically transformative power.
Watching Sembene Ousmane’s Camp Thiaroye recently, I recalled Fanon, especially in the charged scene where the Senegalese soldiers confront their exploiting French officer, and remind him of their brave war service and the example of Captain Charles Ntchorere. Ntchorere was a black officer from Gabon in the French army during WW II.
Captured by the Nazis, he refused to line up with black non-commissioned officers as commanded and was executed with a shot to the head when he crossed over calmly to where his white fellow officers stood. It was a study in pride under pressure as well as a lesson on the difficulty of escaping the ghetto of one’s skin.
In reading Fanon, as with all translated writing, I often have the unrelieved sense of being cut off from the flavour and momentum of the original language, of being at the mercy of the translator. But this is a small price to pay for the privilege of observing what the American novelist Norman Rush called, in Mating, “a mental searchlight turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss.”
Fanon matters today because of this illuminating quality, and because the themes which animated his mind – race, imperial power, revolutionary violence, and the fate of the Third World – are still resonant ones. He would have found plenty to disappoint but not necessarily surprise him.
What would he have made of the cold-blooded violence which tore his beloved Algeria in the 1990s? Half a century ago he had seen that “a whole generation of Algerians, steeped in wanton, generalised homicide, with all the psycho-affective consequences that this entails, will be the human legacy of France in Algeria.”
He would have been cheered by the fall of Apartheid, but the spectacle of black-on-black xenophobia, and the creation of an ANC aristocracy amid widespread poverty, would have dulled that euphoria.
In reading Fanon, one is conscious too that he had the human gift for error. For instance, he had too much faith in Fidel Castro’s ability to create in Cuba a socialist paradise. Were Fanon alive today, I wonder if he would really still believe that Castro took power and gave it to the people. Seeing such inevitable short-comings is like learning that Marx, for all his fulminating against capital, invested in the stock market and took money from the factory-owning Engels.
In spite of this, Fanon deserves to be remembered, and read, half a century after his death, half a century after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth. Everything he wrote which survives is marked by the man’s prophetic vision, intellectual energy, humanism and the sheer élan entailed in transmuting experience and observation and reading into a coherent and enduring whole.
• Oyongha, a writer and critic, lives in Lagos.