Monday, 7 April 2014

A reflection on Frantz Fanon's 'Black Skin, White Masks'

by Ntombizikhona Valela

Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks is a book that analyses relations between white people and black people and their way of being within these categories. He is writing of his experiences and those of people of the Antilles in relation to France. He looks at people's behaviour within a society where the distinctions between black and white are clear. There is the sense that in this society one ought to learn the rules and stay in one's lane.

The most enjoyable thing about this book is Fanon's style of writing. I imagined it as a group of people sitting at the table and discussing a particular topic. At this table everyone has voice and can either agree or disagree with what is said. The bottom line is that there is robust debate on this issue. There is always room for someone to sit at the table and participate in the discussion. Or, someone can start a topic and people then build the discussion with their contributions. I feel that Black Skin, White Masks is Fanon sitting at the table where issues of race are being debated and he is joining the discussion that to this day being discussed. I suppose since this was groundbreaking stuff during his time, we can say that he was one of the conversation starters. This is something that I appreciate about the book because in today's world (and I will limit this to South African political commentators) I find that people want to dominate discourse and they talk with this idea that people are listening and consuming what is said. The only time someone else is free to participate in the discussion is if they agree with arguments made. There is no room for potential contestation. While Fanon is such a great thinker, his writing in this book does not intimidate you to silence and to taking the role of the spectator, but encourages the you as the reader to think about what is presented and to engage with the text as though in conversation with its author. I found myself occasionally putting the book down and talking to the themes that were raised as if Fanon were with me.
 Fanon starts off with talking about language and how this is used to keep the power dynamics between black people and white people in place. I found the placing of this chapter fitting because I think one of the first symbols of a person’s identity is language and it is the first things that human beings encounter from birth. In the South African context, I think it is the first thing that also signifies a cultural identity as well. In the context of language I find that the black person is on a quest to belong and I think everyone desires to be part of a collective- no one wants to be shunned. For the black "elite" there is this necessity to navigate two worlds where one is in touch with their culture and its norms, with language being the main signifier of this state of being in touch, while at the same time being viewed by the "civilized" world as being refined. It is like you can go draw water at the river and carry the enamel bucket filled with water with ease just like the village girls who have never set foot in the city, while at the same be able to fit in comfortably in a cosmopolitan place like Johannesburg without sticking out like the rural sore thumb. So there is this task that the blacks that Fanon is talking about to prove themselves worthy of belonging to the two worlds in which they navigate when I relate it to the context of certain black South Africans today. The tragic reality is that this person never quite succeeds in fitting in because on one hand they have lost touch with their roots by perfecting the European's language and ultimately their culture (the example Fanon mentions of the Antillean being met by his family at the harbor comes to mind); and on the other hand, how dare they think they can ever be equal to white people. When relating it to my experience I was reminded of a situation where I was a student volunteer in the location where most of the people are Xhosa speaking. This was a relief for me because I felt that I was able to express myself in my own language rather than constantly speak English because of the multicultural make-up of the university. To my disappointment the community partners felt (though I had spoken in Xhosa from the moment I met them) that they should speak with me in English. I found this quite offensive because I felt as though they were trying to prove that they too can speak this language, that they were (I do not know) 'educated'. And then upon reflection I thought perhaps there was a crossing of wires between us because they may have thought that my speaking Xhosa was me trying to come down to their level and (out of the goodness of my heart) accommodate them and so I may have come across as condescending. I suppose we will never have the chance to explain our choices to each other.
I am reading this book for the first time in a period where black people's bodies are at the center of discussion particularly in relation to the movie 12 years' a slave and this discussion that has been raised about the representation of black people in films. I kept asking myself while reading Black Skin, White Masks "Why can't people just be?" But the obvious answer is that for colonialism to last and for hierarchies to remain, this myths have to be firmly in place. Returning to 12 Years a Slave I found that a discussion on blogs over the roles black people play was a hotly debated topic. Although it is important that stories of tragedies such as the middle passage and the slave trade as whole be told so that we never forget, there seems to be this underlying thing that black actors can never, if they want recognition, be anything more than slaves (Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years; Djimon Hounsou in Amistad); maids (Octavia spencer in The Help) and entertainers (Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls and Jaimie Foxx in Ray) get recognition. There is also the idea that is created that our lived experiences do not transcend these. I often wonder why I have never encountered Fanon before. I suspect that it is because it is impossible for black people to be philosophers in this world. The media and film ensure that we continue to live in a colonial society and for us to act out these roles of servant and master.
The tragic thing about this book is that black people bear the responsibility of proving themselves. We have to constantly explain how we have suffered while white people constantly make an excuse that they "had no idea". While there is a lot of tragedy contained in the book, I enjoy the optimism with which Fanon writes. There is this sense that now that we have become aware of the unhealthy state of our society we can think of ways to change the status quo that will lead to a real unity between black people and white people. It will certainly not look like the facade of the rainbow nation that South Africans claim to live in.

Fanon, F., 1952, Black Skin White Masks, 1986 ed, United Kingdom: Pluto Press.